WASHINGTON -- If you want an example of why AJ Hinch is baseball’s best manager and why it isn’t even close, Sunday night's Game 5 of the 2019 World Series is a good place to start.
First, the bottom line: Hinch and the Astros are on the threshold of winning their second World Series in three seasons after a 7-1 win over the Nationals on Sunday at Nationals Park.
Having swept three weekend road games, Houston leads the Fall Classic three games to two and will return home for a potential clincher on Tuesday with Justin Verlander on the mound.
In ways large and small, Game 5 put on display why Hinch is the gold standard for Major League managers. For instance, there’s 22-year-old rookie designated hitter Yordan Alvarez.
Hinch told reporters last week that he hoped to play Alvarez at least once this weekend and that he had him penciled in for Sunday.
Because there’s no DH in the National League park, Hinch would be asking Alvarez to play the outfield, something he did for only 66 innings during the regular season.
To take Alvarez’s bat out of the lineup is no small matter. He homered 27 times in 87 games and is likely to be the runaway winner of the American League Rookie of the Year Award.
Alvarez’s arrival on June 9 transformed the Astros from a very good offense team (.814 OPS, 5.1 runs per game) to a great one (.870 OPS, 6.1 runs per game).
But Hinch was not comfortable putting Alvarez in an uncomfortable position on baseball’s biggest stage. So for three days prior to Game 5, Alvarez took dozens of fly balls in left field. He was put through all the paces, with balls hit in front of him, behind him and to both sides.
Hinch knew nothing could replicate playing left field in a World Series game in front of nearly 44,000 screaming fans, but he was going to prepare Alvarez as much as possible.
Hinch was comfortable enough to push the Alvarez button on Sunday, and the rookie responded by collecting three hits and playing a clean six innings in left. His two-run home run in the second inning got Houston off and running. Alvarez also singled and scored on a Carlos Correa homer in the fourth.
This is Hinch at his best. He’s instantly likable and has built unshakable relationships with his players. In a data-driven organization, Hinch has figured out how to utilize the mountains of information his front office delivers.
Harris has emerged as a postseason star for the Astros, and Hinch has begun using him in the highest-leverage situations regardless of the inning. Houston won Game 4 by the lopsided score of 8-1, but it was a 4-1 game and Washington had the tying run at the plate when Hinch summoned Harris.
Harris got what turned out to be the two biggest outs of the game, and the next day, Hinch spoke of how happy he was that Harris, a 2015 waiver-claim pickup, was getting some star treatment.
“As much as I loved his outs, he got to do postgame interviews,” Hinch said. “I love that for him, and he’s good at it. The evolution has been his confidence has grown, his conviction has grown, his calmness in the big moments has grown. But nothing else has really changed.”
The Astros picked up Harris a few weeks after Hinch was hired following the 2014 season, so they’ve been through a bit of everything. Harris was an AL All-Star in ‘16, but then came two tough seasons.
“One of the hardest conversations I’ve had as a manager was when we took him off the playoff roster to go to Boston [in 2018],” Hinch said. “He’s been my -- he calls it the panic button. I call it my security blanket. We have this joke that I’m always going to put him in the middle of the mess. But it’s because of all of those things that I’ve mentioned that make me a believer.”
Hinch has similar bonds with a long list of others. When Springer, who homered in Game 5, was questioned about not running hard out of the box after the Game 1 loss, he telephoned Hinch that night to get his take on the play and then met with him one-on-one the next day.
Sometimes Springer will randomly text Hinch: “What are you doing?” Hinch will respond: “I’m watching baseball.”
Hinch means it, too. From February until October, he’s obsessed with this thing he’s so good at. Hinch prides himself on, as he puts it, “having the slowest heartbeat in the building.”
So why did television cameras catch Hinch reacting so emotionally to an umpire’s decision in Game 3?
“The more experience I get, the more I’m showing you what my insides have been saying for years,” he said. “In that type of game, you live through these players and all they’re going through.
“We’ve worked so hard to get here, you want everything to go your way, and then ultimately you can only manipulate the game only so much. You think you’ve done things perfectly or get the right matchup or make the right pitch call or get the right execution and it still doesn’t go your way …”
And this: “We want it badly. We want to be rewarded for all the work we’ve done. I’m getting more reactive in my older age.”
Hinch’s initial reaction speaks volumes. His first thought was of his players.
“I’m more interested in controlling their reaction than I am controlling their preparation,” he said. “I want to make sure the mindset remains the same.”
And then Hinch had his own checklist.
“I gotta go look at the running game,” he said. “I want to look at how [new starter Joe Ross] matches up against our guys in the lineup. There was no celebratory fist bump. It’s business as usual. It’s just a different pitcher.”
We may look back at this World Series and see that the turning point was Game 3 when Hinch mixed and matched five relievers as the Astros squeezed out a 4-1 victory. That one, Hinch said, left him physically exhausted and emotionally drained.
“I was so exhausted I couldn’t go to sleep until 3:30,” he said. “I’m more happy for our players to be able to come in and [celebrate] than [for] any sort of moves that I make or don’t make. The nature of managing is more complex than anyone will ever understand. You put it on the national stage at the World Series and the entire season on the line, it’s the best stress you can have.”