Hinch hiring a bold move by Astros
Baseball's most interesting front office made another gutsy, fascinating hire on Monday by naming A.J. Hinch the new manager. Not the first for Houston, probably not the last. Onward. Here's to years of success and a long, happy marriage.
"From afar, it feels like the right guy at the right time," Josh Byrnes said.
Once upon a time, Byrnes had the same one himself. That's the irony in all of this. Sometimes, a guy is so far ahead of his time that he ends up paying a ridiculously high price.
Five years ago, as general manager of the D-backs, Byrnes attempted to light a fire under his struggling team by dismissing a popular, respected manager in Bob Melvin. Rather than making a traditional hire -- promoting a coach or recycling a guy with managerial experience -- Byrnes had a different idea.
What if he gave the job to someone who was bright and ambitious, someone who knew the game inside and out, someone who would learn everything else on the fly? What would be wrong with that?
Hinch was 34 at the time and had been working as the club's farm director. He'd never coached or managed at any level. These days, that's no big deal as the hiring of Mike Matheny, Brad Ausmus, Walt Weiss, Mike Redmond and Robin Ventura have forced fans, executives and the media to see the job differently.
"Perceptions have changed about what it takes to lead a group of men," Byrnes said. "That being said, A.J. has a lot of respect for the things that aren't going to change in the game -- and shouldn't change. That's fundamentals, hard work, the environment of a winning team."
Back in 2009, Hinch's hiring caused a firestorm. Fans hated it immediately. Columnists didn't get it. Players, loyal to Melvin and uncertain about the new guy, never bought in, either. At some point, ownership agreed.
Hinch and Byrnes lasted just 212 games together, and ultimately both paid for the experiment by losing their jobs. Looking back on it, Byrnes apologizes only for the fact that, partly because of injuries, he was unable to give Hinch a better team.
He still thinks it was a move that could have worked and sees a bunch of baseball's recent hires -- and those in other sports, such as Derek Fisher coaching the Knicks -- as reinforcement that his original idea was sound.
And it was the thinking behind that original idea that went a long way toward convincing Astros general manager Jeff Luhnow that Hinch deserved another chance.
As Luhnow evaluated candidate after candidate, he kept coming back to Hinch, whose background and experience are unlike few others. Hinch is only 40 years old, but he has spent 20 years in the game. He's bright and ambitious, with a psychology degree from Stanford.
But there's more. Hinch was drafted three times and played parts of seven seasons in the big leagues. He has worked as a farm director, instructor and front-office executive.
And he has been a big league manager for 212 games. He was 89-123. Luhnow was unbothered by the record, and at a time when the Astros hope Luhnow's nice work acquiring young talent is on the verge of paying off, Hinch separated himself from the pack.
When those young players go through tough times, Hinch can tell 'em, "Been there, done that." He had a .219 batting average in 350 games.
Another thing Luhnow wanted was someone comfortable with the advanced analytics that have become the backdrop for everything the Astros do. Almost every team uses advanced analytics. The Astros are all in, hiring law-school graduates and rocket scientists and even some traditional baseball people.
Luhnow became convinced that Hinch understands managing a baseball team in 2015 isn't like managing one in 1985. The Astros can furnish him with reams of data regarding lineups, defensive alignments and pitching matchups.
Hinch's job is to deal with players on a more personal level and to understand their insecurities and to get a consistently hard effort on the field. Upstairs, there will be cold, hard numbers driving decisions. Hinch's job will be to get players to believe that all of them are what's best for the Astros.
To some of the people who know Hinch best, they're convinced these last 20 years, including those 212 games in Arizona, have prepared him to flourish in this second chance.
"He's a great human being," Byrnes said. "He loves the game. He loves the competition. When things haven't gone well, he evaluates and tries to get better."
There's one other reason he believes Hinch will succeed. That's the man himself.
"I hate to be corny, but it's his character," Byrnes said. "People who know him well trust his judgement, character, intentions. Those are important things in a job like that."