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.