General managers looking for next AJ Hinch
Astros skipper proving to be king of savvy, new-age managers
WEST PALM BEACH, Fla. -- AJ Hinch, who is still just 43 years old, already understands the vagaries of a manager's life in the big leagues. Hinch didn't need to see Joe Girardi lose his job managing the Yankees even after having gone seven games in the American League Championship Series, coming that close to the World Series, against Hinch's Astros last October. He didn't need to see John Farrell lose his job with the Red Sox four years after managing them to a World Series title, and then be replaced by Alex Cora, who had been Hinch's bench coach in 2017.
"Nobody has to tell me how quickly things can change," Hinch was saying the other morning on the field at the FITTEAM Ballpark of the Palm Beaches.
Hinch is how quickly things can change.
He got his first managing job with the D-backs, despite having no managerial experience at any level of baseball, at the age of 35. He was dismissed at 36 after compiling an 89-123 record. At the time, he had no idea if he would ever get another job. Though he did, eventually, with the Astros. And now, eight years after being dismissed in Arizona, he isn't just the manager of the world champs, he is the kind of young, modern managers for whom everybody else is looking. He's the guy they all want.
There are a lot of reasons for this, starting with the fact that Hinch is awfully good at what he does. We talk so much about all the big hits the Astros got in the postseason of 2017, from just about everybody. We talk about the way Charlie Morton and Lance McCullers pitched in two Game 7s, first against the Yankees, then against the Dodgers. We're still talking about all the big hits the Astros got in big moments, up and down their batting order, even against the great Clayton Kershaw when everything changed in Game 5.
But it's also worth mentioning that when Hinch got to Game 7 against the Dodgers, when he had to be wondering how he would perform in the biggest game of his own baseball life the way his players were, the manager of the Astros managed pretty much a perfect game.
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"It wasn't just me," Hinch said, on his way to his office to pick up a fungo bat, then on his way to back fields after that. "We had a plan that night. We felt as if we had great information on matchups and everything else. And then we were lucky enough to get an early lead. After that, it was my job to make sure everything lined up with the way the rest of the game was playing out. Obviously, no matter what kind of numbers you have, you can't plan for every possible scenario, because what's happening is playing out in real life."
Hinch smiled. The regular season is starting in a little over a week. He had been saying that he had pretty much decided on 24 out of 25 roster spots. He came out of last season with the best team, and enters this season with the best team. It's good being Hinch right now, the guy they all want, people guy, numbers guy, whole package.
There is a famous Hollywood story about a famous old character actor Jack Elam, talking about the four stages of a character actor's career. The first is, "Who's Jack Elam?" Then comes "Get me Jack Elam." The third stage is "Get me a Jack Elam type." The last, of course, the punch line to the joke, is "Who's Jack Elam?" In baseball right now, even though not all general managers would admit it, they are all looking for their very own Hinch.
We got back to talking about Game 7 then, and how even though the Astros got that early lead, it would have been easier to stay with McCullers, who had pitched four shutout innings, the last four, against the Yankees in ALCS Game 7. McCullers had already pitched out of a bases-loaded jam against the Dodgers. But Hinch got him out of there in the bottom of the third. After that, everything worked out the way he wanted it to. In the few big moments of the game, he got matchups that he trusted: Brad Peacock against Yasiel Puig. Later, Francisco Liriano, one of the largely forgotten members of Hinch's pitching staff, was able to get Cody Bellinger out.
"It's always the same thing," Hinch said. "It's a combination of what you're seeing and what you know. It's information followed by application. You have to believe your information, but you also have to trust your own convictions. And again, you have to do all that in the most emotional game most of the players will have ever played, and the most emotional game you've ever managed in your life."
He had come through his coaches' conference room, and was back into the hot sun of the Florida morning. Morton was talking to a reporter about Game 7, when he came out of the bullpen, after having had started ALCS Game 7, to pitch four innings of crackling, one-run relief.
"It was a high-energy situation, for sure," Morton said. "But it was a situation everybody wants to be in."
He didn't pitch perfect innings against the Dodgers, but close enough, at the end of a night when his manager managed as close to a perfect game as anybody ever could, when he was clearly up to the circumstances of the occasion, and the Astros won the first World Series in franchise history.
"Even in the modern game," said Hinch, prototypical modern manager, "there is something that never changes and will never change: Your job is to put your players in the best possible position to win the game."
Hinch nodded at Morton, just as he did in World Series Game 7. He carried his fungo bat into a scrum of Astros players at this practice field on this side of the complex they shared with the Nationals. In that moment, Hinch was talking to me, but just as easily could have been talking to himself, five months after Game 7.
"Now, let's go do it again," he said.