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Jay Walker

BA Rookie of the Year Eric Hinske models J.P. Ricciardi’s on-base approach

By Jeff Blair
October 23, 2002

hinske
Eric Hinske
Photo: Michael Walby
TORONTO–When J.P. Ricciardi took over as general manager of the Blue Jays, much was made of how he was expected to overhaul the organization from top to bottom and roust it out of a decade-long slumber.

And that’s exactly what Billy Beane’s former right-hand man with the Athletics did. But Ricciardi’s broom wisely avoided baseball lifer Bobby Mattick, and it was Mattick who looked out at Eric Hinske working out one day in spring training and pronounced him a keeper.

"You could tell he had a helluva makeup," says Mattick, the vice president of baseball who has served in several capacities with the Blue Jays since 1976 and spent the previous 30 years as an administrator or scout with 10 other organizations. "He’s going to be a good player for us for a long time."

While that remains to be seen, Hinske, 25, was good enough in his rookie season (.279-24-84 with 38 doubles in 566 at-bats) to garner the Baseball America Rookie of the Year award.

In previous years, every Blue Jays rookie was judged against offensive standards set by the likes of Alfredo Griffin, Fred McGriff, Shawn Green and even Doug Ault. That’s no longer the case. This season it was Hinske who unified the Blue Jays rookie record book, establishing club rookie marks in home runs, RBIs, runs (99), doubles, extra base hits (64), total bases (272) and walks (77). While more highly touted prospects such as Hank Blalock and Sean Burroughs failed to live up to expectations, Hinske, Ricciardi’s first significant acquisition, became a cornerstone of a suddenly promising team that closed with a 19-8 September sprint. His 24 homers were the most by an American League rookie since Nomar Garciaparra’s 30 in 1997.

He is the prohibitive favorite to be named AL rookie of the year.

"You don’t say, ‘Oh my God, I love this guy,’ " says Ricciardi, who acquired Hinske and righthander Justin Miller from the Athletics for closer Billy Koch. "You have to see him day in and day out to appreciate him. Sometimes you’ll find that scouts hide behind numbers, but to me it’s whether a guy can play the game–whether he has instincts–that’s the important thing. Not some number that tells you how fast he runs."

Ricciardi brought the A’s mantra of on-base percentage with him when he went north of the border, and described the third baseman as "an on-base freak." But Hinske’s offense was not often a source of worry, not even in the mixed scouting reports Ricciardi inherited from the regime of his predecessor, Gord Ash.

Previous BA Rookie of the Year Winners
1989 Gregg Olson, rhp, Orioles
1990 Sandy Alomar,c, Indians
1991 Jeff Bagwell, 1b, Astros
1992 Pat Listach, ss, Brewers
1993 Mike Piazza, c, Dodgers
1994 Raul Mondesi, of, Dodgers
1995 Hideo Nomo, rhp, Dodgers
1996 Derek Jeter, ss, Yankees
1997 Nomar Garciaparra, ss, Red Sox
1998 Kerry Wood, rhp, Cubs
1999 Carlos Beltran, of, Royals
2000 Rafael Furcal, ss/2b, Braves
2001 Albert Pujols, of-3b, Cardinals

The same cannot be said about Hinske’s defense. But by the end of the season, it was that part of his game to which Hinske pointed with pride. He committed 20 errors, but just four in his last 70 games.

The toughest aspect of his first full season was its length–"You just get worn down over 162 games," says Hinske, who had never before played into September–but even while he labored through a gruesome 3-for-31 July slump, his defense was exemplary and, at times, remarkable. In the meantime, he and hitting coach Mike Barnett worked in the video room, where they came to the conclusion Hinske was leaning too far over the plate and dropping his hands.

Mattick worked with Hinske during spring training, preaching his time-tested mantra of having Hinske imagine he was throwing his hand toward the base he was throwing the ball, as a means of teaching the youngster to control his throws. But Hinske’s defense steadied when Brian Butterfield was hired as third-base coach during the overhaul created by firing manager Buck Martinez and hiring Carlos Tosca.

Butterfield saw parallels with Matt Williams, another nimble-footed big man with whom Butterfield was familiar because of his time as a coach on Buck Showalter’s Diamondbacks staff.

"Matt said it took him a long time to find the right arm slot, to the point where it all becomes automatic," Butterfield says. "I believe that’s a little of what Eric’s going through. But he’ll figure it out."

He certainly did. And it was from that point on that Hinske was fully able to appreciate his rookie experience. "You watch players like Manny Ramirez and A-Rod (Alex Rodriguez), and they hit the ball hard consistently," Hinske says. "I mean, they don’t take bad swings, never mind have bad at-bats. You see these guys on television and you’re impressed. But in person? They’re just so much better than anybody else. It’s kind of cool to see that firsthand."

Hinske grew up in a family of three children in Menasha, Wis., in the middle of Green Bay Packers territory. His father is a high school mathematics teacher and his mother a project coordinator for a publishing company. He was a three-sport star and toyed with the idea of playing football at Arkansas, but he knew the money and longevity would be better in baseball. "They wanted me to be a fullback–basically, a guy who blocks so somebody else could carry the ball," says Hinske, a muscular, square-jawed athlete with surprising quickness on the basepaths. "I figured baseball was a better employment opportunity."

Hinske is very much a product of his era, passing his spare time playing X-Box and sprinkling the word "cool" into sentences during interviews–as he did when his first career big league homer landed in Monument Park at Yankee Stadium. "Near Yogi (Berra)," Hinske said later, smiling. "And that’s cool."

But he is also a fierce competitor whose tantrums in the runway between the Blue Jays clubhouse and dugout quickly became legendary.

Ricciardi was not surprised by Hinske’s success. "Guys like Hinske and Vernon Wells have stopped at every level," Ricciardi says. "They’ve played A-ball and Double-A and Triple-A. They have had a lot of at-bats and honed their craft. If Hinske were in another organization, someone would have had to get him in camp and give him a chance. It’s not like we’re taking an A-ball guy and saying he could be our everyday third baseman. Eric has done what he’s needed to do to play complete seasons in the minors, and he’s carried it over here."

Hinske agrees with Ricciardi’s assessment. "There’s a difference, obviously, between the minors and the majors," he says. "But by putting in the time I did down there, I was able to learn some things about keeping myself healthy, about pacing myself and knowing when it was time to really bear down. It gave me a foundation."

Blue Jays ace Roy Halladay isn’t worried about a sophomore jinx settling in for Hinske or other young Jays such as Josh Phelps. "They’ve already seen pitchers they’ve faced before, and they’ve adapted to whatever changes those pitchers made," he says. "They’ve had their second and third time around. As a team, that has to give you confidence. I think we came in this year thinking we had a four- to five-year plan. The way things have gone, we’d like to be there a little sooner."

Jeff Blair is the national baseball writer for the Globe and Mail in Toronto.

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