Ringolsby: The Best Teacher

Image credit: A.J. Hinch as Diamondbacks manager

Major League Baseball underwent a major managerial overhaul this offseason. Six teams changed managers, and five of the new skippers have never managed a big league game.

Astros manager A.J. Hinch has been there. It was a learning experience.

He is coming off managing Houston to the first World Series championship in the franchise’s 55-year history in what was his third year at the helm of the Astros.

It is a far cry from his 2009 managerial debut with the D-backs, when he went from farm director to manager as an in-season replacement for the popular Bob Melvin, which only added to the daily pressures Hinch faced.

In the long run, Hinch will quickly admit he benefits today from his experiences back then.

“It is a lot different (with the Astros) because I understood the nuances of the job a lot more,” Hinch said. “When you’re on the outside looking in, you underestimate what a manager has to do to be successful. And I think I was naive to the volume and the magnitude of what that job really entailed with the players, with ownership, with the front office, with the fans, with the media.”

And it shows. The 43-year-old, former big league catcher has been the man in the dugout for the Astros’ resurrection. Hired in the fall of 2014, Hinch took over a franchise that was coming off six consecutive losing seasons, averaging 104 losses in the four years prior to his arrival.

There was, however, a strong nucleus of young talent that needed to learn how to win, and the Astros decided Hinch was the right teacher. After claiming an American League wild card in 2015, the Astros won 101 times in 2017 en route to a World Series victory.

The tribulations of his two partial seasons with the D-backs served him well. He was able to honestly evaluate what happened in Arizona and address those issues in Houston. A big part of that was realizing how important the human element was for the manager.

“As a manager, the No. 1 goal is to get the most out of your players, and I think having a clear understanding that this game is about players—and their careers—and what you can do to advance them is important. Players will respond to that.”

The players have responded, and so, too, have Houston fans and even Astros ownership. In late August, they approved a deal with the Tigers to acquire Justin Verlander and pick up $40 million of the $56 million on his contract through 2019.

What a difference a second opportunity makes.

When Hinch moved from the Arizona front office to the dugout, some still viewed him as a member of the front office, and it wasn’t easy.

“I think the intentions were always really good, but there was a lack of acceptance of the route that I took to the job,” he said. “I hope over the course of my career (people) can see that I was equipped for the job, but early on, there was a strong reaction . . . People were not as supportive as I would have hoped.”

The D-backs went 58-75 under Hinch to end 2009, then opened 2010 by losing 48 of their first 79 games. Arizona fired him on July 1, and he landed with the Padres as vice president of pro scouting later that year.

All the time, Hinch was hoping for a second chance in the dugout. He interviewed with the Cubs following the 2013 season, but they hired Rich Renteria instead. He even interviewed with the Astros after the 2012 season, but they hired Bo Porter.

He obviously made an impression, because two years later Houston hired Hinch as the successor to Porter.

The lessons he learned the hard way in Arizona have served him well in Houston.

“If I don’t relate to the players better and set a culture that I really believe in, it’s my fault,” he said. “I wanted to be myself. I think I tried to fill a role in Arizona. That’s not comfortable. But I am comfortable in my own skin (in Houston), and I think it shows.”

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