Six Major League teams changed managers this offseason, and five of the new hires will be first-time big league managers. A.J. Hinch, manager of the World Series-champion Astros, said he still benefits today from the experience he gained during his first foray into managing with Arizona in 2009.
The D-backs promoted Hinch from farm director to manager as an in-season replacement of Bob Melvin. Eight years later and more experienced, Hinch guided the Astros to the first World Series championship in franchise history.
"It is a lot different, 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. Second time around, obviously I knew what was expected."
And it shows. The former catcher, who was a third-round Draft choice of the A's when he came out of Stanford in 1996, has been the man in the dugout for the resurrection of a franchise. Hired in the fall of 2014, Hinch took over a franchise that was coming off six consecutive losing seasons and had averaged 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 Houston's front office decided Hinch was the guy who could provide the necessary in-game guidance. After claiming an American League Wild Card spot in his first year, and winning 84 games in Hinch's second year, the Astros won 101 regular-season games en route to that seven-game World Series success against the Dodgers this fall.
The tribulations of his two partial seasons with the D-backs served him well. He was able to honestly evaluate what happened with Arizona and address those personal issues with Houston. And a big part of that was realizing how important the human element was for the man in the clubhouse, compared to his time in a front office.
"As a manager, the number one goal is to get the most out of your players," Hinch said. "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."
What a difference a second chance can make. Hinch may have been a part of the D-backs organization when he was moved into the manager's job, but it was from afar in a front-office position, 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 that people were surprised, that people were not as supportive as I would have hoped."
After going 58-75 with Hinch as the manager to end the 2009 season, the D-backs opened 2010 losing 48 of their first 79 games. Hinch was replaced, and he returned to the front office as the vice president of professional scouting for the Padres.
All the time, Hinch was hoping to get a second chance in the dugout, having spent plenty of time evaluating what went wrong in that first opportunity. He interviewed with the Cubs following the 2013 season; they hired Rick Renteria instead.
Hinch even interviewed with Houston after the 2012 season, but it hired Bo Porter. Hinch, however, obviously made an impression. Two years later, after the Astros dismissed Porter, they decided to hire Hinch.
The lessons he learned with Arizona have served him well with 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 and I think it shows."
And it is important to have confidence in decisions, not worry about what others might think.
"Tony [La Russa] was the first one to tell me you should always have a reason for everything you do, and don't ever do something for someone else, to justify somebody else," Hinch said. "I took that to heart."