D-backs integral in Hinch finding way to dugout
Astros manager was on front-office track until unexpected offer in Arizona
HOUSTON -- The calculated, cerebral facets of running an organization -- building a roster, mingling in a front office -- appeal to Astros manager A.J. Hinch, a Stanford graduate with a psychology degree. In fact, after seven years as a big league backstop, he sought to become a general manager.
Until a 2009 lunch date with then-D-backs GM Josh Byrnes that led to Hinch becoming the team's manager, he was on that trajectory.
Hinch faces the D-backs as an opposing manager for the first time on Friday in the opener of a three-game set. He still has many connections with Arizona.
Chip Hale, Hinch's third-base coach during the 2009 season, now manages the team. Hinch calls him a close friend. The Astros' skipper also fondly recalls bullpen coach Mel Stottlemyre Jr., whom he hired to replace pitching coach Bryan Price in 2010 -- giving him his first Major League job.
Hired as the D-backs' manager of Minor League operations in 2005, Hinch traveled and evaluated players, cultivating relationships as he went. Promoted to director of player development in 2006, he popped up in numerous baseball circles as a sure-to-be future general manager.
Without Hinch having any inkling, Byrnes asked Hinch to manage the D-backs over lunch that day in 2009.
"I didn't know if he meant managing in Double-A," Hinch recalled Wednesday. "No, it was the big leagues. I was shocked."
Humbled at Byrnes' faith in a 34-year-old who had never managed or coached at any level, Hinch accepted the offer and managed his first game on May 9, 2009 -- a 2-1 loss to the Nationals.
Hinch inherited a divided clubhouse that was upset about the dismissal of player-favorite Bob Melvin, and the club finished the final 133 games 58-75. A 31-48 start in 2010 sealed Hinch's fate. He and Byrnes were dismissed on July 1.
"[Hinch] had his back up against the wall in Arizona with that club," said Astros reliever Chad Qualls, who was on that 2009 D-backs team. "I think a lot of people really liked Bob Melvin over there, and [Hinch] kind of bore the brunt of that the rest of that year -- being the guy that came in for Bob Melvin. Nothing against A.J., it was just the way those younger guys felt that year."
Qualls' locker in the Astros' clubhouse is next to Pat Neshek's. Neshek, in his first year with Houston, chose the Astros partly because of what he'd heard about Hinch from former Cardinals teammate Randy Choate. Choate was on the D-backs from 2004-07.
"Obviously, money and years is going to be up there [when choosing a team], but being around good people is right up there, too," Neshek said. "It sounded like people liked playing for [Hinch]."
Neshek signed alongside Luke Gregerson. A former Padre, Gregerson recalled plane rides with Hinch, who was hired as San Diego's vice president of professional scouting after his Arizona managerial stint.
"A big part of the signing was knowing [Hinch would] be the manager," Gregerson said. "He has confidence in the guys around him. He understands you have to keep pushing guys hard, keep running out there. He understands it's a game of failure, and we have to adjust day to day from our failures."
In his first season managing the Astros, Hinch is in the conversation for the American League Manager of the Year Award.
"[In Houston, Hinch] can do a lot more things and do them the way he wants to do it," Qualls said. "There's a better mesh here. Everybody kind of flows a lot better with each other ... all the guys respected him right out of the gate."
"There hasn't been this drastic revelation of figuring out something," Hinch said. "It's been evolving in a career that I've held quite a few jobs. I've tried to gather a little bit out of each job I've had and use it to try to help us have a culture of winning around here."