Tuesday, September 30, 2014

A.J. Hinch Hired as Everybody Gets a Second Chance...

The Astros announced yesterday that they have hired ex-catcher and ex-Diamondbacks manager A.J. Hinch to lead the Astros next year.  Cockroach did a great job of getting a post up quickly, and (Not Hank) jousted with some comment-makers once the article went up.  It is probably fair to say that this hire raised some eyebrows amongst Astros fans and all five of the Astros County readers.

The majority of the comments - and I am not being critical of the comments at all, as there is at least a grain of truth to them - seem to have pointed to the fact that Hinch (i) inherited a good Arizona team and managed a substandard 89-123 record in parts of two seasons, (ii) does not seem to have a flash reputation from a tactical perspective, and (iii) made Rangers fans laugh at the Astros.  

I will address the last point first.  If Rangers fans are not laughing, they better be crying.  Their season has been an unmitigated disaster from an on-field perspective, but the exit of their manager under mysterious circumstances was simply the seasoning on an already delicious Texan BBQ (delicious for Astros fans, that is).  Rangers fans in 2014 should take their victories where they can.  If they want to laugh at the Astros' decision, then we should smile quietly to ourselves and look away, graciously allowing them a brief moment of light relief from the onslaught of suffering they have endured over the last 7 months.

The first point (about the Arizona team that he inherited) summed up my first reaction when I saw news of the hire on ESPN.  I recall that the 2010 Diamondbacks team (the second part-year of A.J. Hinch's rein) finished last in the NL Central, and were widely described as a disaster.  The D-backs then vaulted to first in the NL West in 2011, but were eliminated from the playoffs in the series made famous by Ryan Braun's ridiculous performance and subsequent positive steroid urine test that was overturned on appeal.  The 2012 and 2013 season both saw the Diamondbacks finish at an even .500, and the 2014 season was another unmitigated disaster with Arizona wresting the first pick of the 2015 draft off the Rangers, Rockies and Astros.

But it's not like A.J. Hinch inherited the '96 Yankees and turned them into the 2014 Red Sox.  The Diamondbacks have been, to understate the case somewhat, volatile in recent years.  It is difficult to determine their true talent level from the 2009 season onwards because of the volatility of their performance in subsequent seasons.  This warrants a post in it's own right, and I plan to investigate further later in the offseason. 

Back to the second of the three points above.  I cannot comment on A.J. Hinch's decision-making, other than to say that in-game tactical decisions, especially around the bullpen, do not occur in a vacuum.  At any one time, the manager has to juggle niggling injuries, rest, the need for a reliever to pitch an inning, platoons and so forth in the decision making.  There are some decisions regarding the bullpen, however, that are just simply unforgivable, but I really don't have a feel as to whether A.J. Hinch made many of those howlers.

With regards to the bullpen and in-game tactics, Chad Qualls had interesting things to say about Hinch's in-game management (including the bullpen) seemingly indicating that Hinch may have been thrown in the deep end in a tough NL environment, mid-season, with lots of injuries and performance issues to juggle.  His lack of management experience may have been exposed at the top level (as the article suggests) but both Qualls and Jerry Dipoto (also quoted in that article) speak highly of Hinch's intelligence and ability to learn and bounce back.  Dipoto also pointed out that Hinch was employed inside the Arizona organisation for four years prior to taking the big-league reins, and that he "thought [taking over as manager] was the right thing to do for the [Diamondbacks] organization", perhaps indicating that he was a reluctant participant or knowingly under-qualified.

And this is where I think I can see a fit for the Astros.  Hinch is an ex-catcher with big-league experience, which is good.  He has managed before, and is therefore not starting at the bottom of the learning curve (as Bo did).  He is described as a good - if not great - communicator who is described as "very articulate".  He has recent experience in both player development (with the Diamondbacks) and scouting (with the Padres).  He is a Stanford graduate, and seemingly bright enough to understand this whole "numbers" thing, so he can potentially blend the science of decision-making and the art of scouting and player evaluation into one complete package.  Being an ex-catcher also helps, especially one who didn't play long enough to get thousands of foul balls off his forehead, which would turn his frontal lobes into mashed potato.

His first decision was probably taken out of his hands, but is a good one.  Brett Strom gets to stay on.  That will be a popular move in the Astros County offices.

So, in summary, Hinch gets a second chance to manage (this time starting at the beginning of the off-season rather than in mid-season) while Luhnow gets a second chance to hire the manager who will guide the Astros to the World Series.  Who knows how close Luhnow is to losing his job - 2014 was a mixed year for the Astros in many ways, and Luhnow found himself at the centre of it too many times to be totally comfortable in his position.  Many of the writers most familiar with the Astros have repeatedly alluded to Luhnow not having the same leeway as he did when he started.  Most think that he needs to get it right this time.

Finally, one thing that hasn't changed with the Astros is the rhetoric.  The wince-inducing quotes.  The overly upbeat, glib phrases.  The seven-second soundbites.  From the press conference:
  • “I think A.J. is going to be the manager here when we win the World Series,”
  • “The arrow is pointing in the right direction.”
  • “I think I really believe in my heart that we’re getting it right this time and that this guy is going to be around for a long time and is going to lead us to big things.”
  • “To wear this orange and blue is something I cherish,” Hinch said. “I want to bring a championship to the city of Houston, the fans of Houston.”
  • “I think A.J.’s going to be the manager when we win the World Series,”
  • “What I learned in this process is how badly Jim (Crane) wants to win, how badly Jeff (Luhnow) wants to do it right,”
I am getting a little sick of the self-promoting talk.  Lets see the product on the field.  The proof of the pudding is in the eating, after all.  I want to eat some championship pudding, not talk about eating championship pudding.  Talking about pudding is not fun.

Sadly, we have to wait six months to see any more on-field product.  I hate the off-season.

Monday, September 29, 2014

Report: A.J. Hinch will be next Astros manager

According to Evan Drellich on Twitter, ex-Dbacks manager A.J. Hinch is soon to be named the next manager of the Houston Astros. Brian McTaggart has reported that the Astros will announce their new manager at a 5:30pm press conference today.

Hinch, 40, managed the Diamondbacks from May 8, 2009 through July 1, 2010, finishing with a 89-123 record (.420). He served as VP of Professional Scouting for the Padres from September 21, 2010 until he resigned on August 5 this year. He was a catcher in the Majors for 7 seasons, 1998-2004, playing in 350 games for Oakland, Kansas City, Detroit and Philadelphia, and has a Psychology degree from Stanford.

Sunday, September 28, 2014

From the Office of the County Clerk - G162: Astros @ Mets

Nick Tropeano (1-2, 3.78) vs Bartolo Colon (14-13, 4.08)

A day for Altuve; a day for Abreu. It was not a day that ended as the Astros would have liked, but it's still a far sight better than the soul-crushing despair of the previous three seasons in Houston. After a pre-game controversy when the Astros announced that Jose Altuve would sit out to preserve his batting title, the team eventually reversed course and gave Jose his wish, putting him in the lineup to win the title on the field. Which he did, going 2x4 to finish at .341, with 225 hits. But Bobby Abreu's final career hit - #2470, good for 103rd all-time - kicked off a 2-out rally in the Mets' half of the 5th that put New York in the lead for good. Astros lose the season finale 8-3, finishing 2014 at 70-92 (.432) - 19 games better than 2013's franchise-worst 51-111. They wrap up Tom Lawless' September 11-13; from May 11 through the end of the season, they went 59-66 (.472), and 20-20 (.500) from August 15 on.

On the Mound:

*With Collin McHugh at a career high in innings pitched (173.2 between OKC and HOU), Tom Lawless gave the season's final start to New York native Nick Tropeano. NiTro alternated scoreless frames with those allowing runs, giving up single runs in the 1st and 3rd before a pair of 2-out runs in the 5th. He finishes his first season of MLB action 1-3 in 4 starts, with a 4.57 ERA, following this afternoon's 5 IP / 6 H / 4 R / 4 ER / 3 BB / 1 K line.

*Mike Foltynewicz turned perfect frames in the 6th and 7th, but got tagged hard in the 8th, allowing a pair of doubles and a 2-run Lucas Duda HR (again) while recording just one more out.

*Folty finished with 3 runs on his ledger, as Jorge De Leon came in with one on and allowed the Mets' second 2-run HR of the inning, to Ruben Tejada. Jorge then got the last two outs without any further damage suffered.

At the Plate:

*Jose Altuve came into the game leading all of MLB with 223 hits and a .340 batting average, 3 points ahead of Detroit's Victor Martinez (.337). Jose now stands as Houston's first ever batting champion, with a .341 final average after going 2x4 with a double and an infield single RBI. V-Mart, meanwhile, went 0x3 in Detroit this afternoon to finish at .335.

*Max Stassi finished 2014 on a high note, going 2x4 with a RBI double and a RBI single, plus a caught stealing on Ruben Tejada to end the 2nd.

*Mike Bob Grossman ended the year on a 10-game hitting streak, hitting safely in 17 of his last 18 games, after a 1x4 afternoon.

*Jonathan Singleton had a double and scored on Stassi's double in the 2nd, finishing his day 1x4.

*Jake Marisnick also doubled and scored thanks to Stassi in the 6th, ending up 1x4 with 3 K.

*Gregorio Petit doubled and scored Houston's other run, on Altuve's RBI single in the 5th, finishing 1x4 with a K.

Turning Point:

Mets manager Terry Collins gave retiring 2x All-Star Bobby Abreu the start in right field for his final game, and Bobby had a nice moment in the 5th, singling to left with none on and two out in his second AB. Collins then pulled him from the game for pinch runner Eric Young Jr., allowing Bobby to end his career on a hit and earning an appropriate ovation from the Citi Field crowd. The moment turned out to be more than ceremonial for the Mets, however, as a Daniel Murphy walk and a Lucas Duda 2-run double then put New York ahead 4-2.

Man of the Match:

Jose Altuve. His 225 hits are the new franchise record, tied for the 56th-best season all time, and the most in the Majors since Ichiro's own 225 back in 2009.

Goat of the Game:

None of Houston's pitchers were particularly brilliant today, but overall, expectations for the Astros have been raised. 2014 was a long-awaited step forward. Here's to the positives and to a better 2015 to come.

Saturday, September 27, 2014

From the Office of the County Clerk - G161: Astros @ Mets

Samuel Deduno (0-1, 5.79) vs Rafael Montero (1-3, 4.38)

The bad news is that the Astros lost 2-1 on a 2-out, 2-run walkoff homer by Lucas Duda. The good news is that only one game remains in the season, so there's only one more chance for another frustrating defeat. Samuel Deduno and a trio of Houston relievers held the Mets to 2 hits for 8 innings, and the Astros scratched out a 6th-inning run to lead 1-0 heading to the bottom of the 9th. But Tony Sipp couldn't shut the door, and Houston drops to 70-91, with the season finale set for noon Central tomorrow.

On the Mound:

*After hitting the 200 innings plateau in his previous start, Tom Lawless decreed that Dallas Keuchel would sit out the rest of the season, so Samuel Deduno was given the chance to make his first start for Houston. On a pitch count restriction, he only lasted 4 innings, but he put up numbers that would have made Keuchel proud, finishing with a 4 IP / 1 H / 0 R / 0 ER / 1 BB / 4 K line. The lone hit he allowed was an infield single in the 2nd, which followed a walk and an error (Dominguez) and looked like it would plate an unearned run. But Marwin Gonzalez made a great diving stop and fired home to catch Wilmer Flores at the plate for the third out.

*Jake Buchanan pitched a 1-2-3 5th (1 K), then allowed a double between a pair of groundouts in the 6th.

*Kevin Chapman got a trio of groundouts - ending the 6th and starting the 7th - with no baserunners allowed.

*Jose Veras turned in 1.1 perfect innings, including a flyout of retiring long-ago pre-Stro Bobby Abreu as a pinch hitter in the 8th.

*Then Tony Sipp came in for the 9th. After a leadoff flyout, Eric Young tripled, but the Daniel Murphy flyout that followed was not deep enough to allow Young to come home. It seemed then that Sipp just might escape with the save, but on a 1-0 fastball, Lucas Duda lined the pitch off the right field foul pole for the come-from-behind walkoff win.

At the Plate:

*Not much to say about offense with a 1-0 game going into the 9th, but the Astros did manage 7 hits for the second straight night. Jason Castro doubled home the lone Houston run in the 6th, finishing 1x4 with a K.

*Dexter Fowler went 2x4 and scored the run after reaching on an infield single.

*Robbie Grossman was 1x4 with a K, extending his hitting streak to 9 games. He's also now hit safely in 16 of his last 17 games (23x71, .324).

*Besides his nifty play on defense to save a run in the 2nd, Marwin Gonzalez doubled and went 2x3 with a BB at the plate.

*And Samuel Deduno earned his first ever big league hit - and the first of the season for any Astros pitcher - with a double in his only AB in the 3rd.

Turning Point:

The aforementioned bottom of the 9th with Tony Sipp. Tough gut punch of a loss after what was otherwise a brilliantly pitched game by the collected Houston staff.

Man of the Match:

Marwin Gonzalez, and the first four Houston pitchers (Deduno, Buchanan, Chapman, and Veras).

Goat of the Game:

Tony Sipp. Two great innings last night, but one big mistake this time around.

Friday, September 26, 2014

From the Office of the County Clerk - G160: Astros @ Mets

Brad Peacock (4-9, 4.82) vs Jon Niese (9-11, 3.50)

70 wins! And 4th place! Ahead of the Rangers! For the first time since 2010, the Astros are certain to not finish last in their division, as they kicked off their final series of 2014 with a 3-1 win over the Mets. Houston needed one win in their just-completed series in Arlington to guarantee sole possession of not-last place in the AL West, which obviously didn't happen, but the ending is happy after all. Astros are 70-90 with two to go.

On the Mound:

*Pitch count (96) and a pair of singles ended Brad Peacock's night one out shy of 5 innings, but his results were good enough for the time that he lasted. A solo HR by Curtis Granderson in the 4th was the only run that he allowed, and neither of the runners he left behind would score, so he finished his final start of the year with a 4.2 IP / 4 H / 1 R / 1 ER / 2 BB / 7 K line. He finishes the year 4-9 with a 4.72 ERA.

*Kevin Chapman vultured the win after getting Daniel Murphy to fly out to end the 5th, then Houston scored 3 times in the next half inning to set the 3-1 final. Chapman faced three more batters in the 6th, recording one more out between a single and a walk.

*Jorge De Leon recorded the last two outs of the 6th uneventfully.

*Tony Sipp recorded three outs in the 7th and three outs in the 8th uneventfully (2 K).

*And Chad Qualls recorded three outs in the 9th - and his 19th save - uneventfully. So nice job by the bullpen tonight.

At the Plate:

*The Astros only managed three singles on offense while Jon Niese was in the game. The first came from Dexter Fowler in the 2nd, who also stole second (after a successful challenge) and later walked and HBP'd to finish 1x2.

*The second single came from Jake Marisnick in the 5th, who also did nothing else and finished 1x4 with 3 K.

*The third single came from Gregorio Petit leading off the 6th, who promptly got caught stealing and finished 1x2.

*As soon as Niese left, the Houston offense immediately came alive. Mike Bob Grossman doubled and scored the first Astro run, finishing 1x4 with 2 K.

*Jose Altuve singled to drive in Grossman, on his 223rd hit of the year. He would then score the go-ahead run and ended his night 1x4.

*Chris Carter's double plated Altuve, then Carter scored run #3, going 1x4 with a K.

*And Matt Dominguez singled home Carter for an RBI, then immediately TOOTBLAN'd himself around first, ending his night also 1x4.

Turning Point:

After Petit's single started the 6th, Jon Niese was forced from the game with an elevated heart rate - bad news for him and the Mets, but the Astros immediately exploited the Mets bullpen. Carlos Torres entered the game and the next five Houston batters reached base - double Grossman, single Altuve, double Carter, HBP Fowler, and single Dominguez. Torres entered with none on, one out, and a 1-0 lead, but he left down 3-1 with a blown save and a loss.

Man of the Match:

The Astros' bullpen collectively - Chapman, De Leon, Sipp, and Qualls - for 4.1 scoreless IP.

Goat of the Game:

WE'RE NOT LAST. No goat.