A.J. Hinch's Second Chance With the Astros Comes at a Great Time

It was an off day in early July 2010, ironically a day after a win, that A.J. Hinch found out he was being relieved of his duties as manager of the Arizona Diamondbacks. The team was 31-48 at the time, going nowhere. The Diamondbacks were only a little more than a year into Hinch's first tenure as a manager at any level but still decided it was time to cut bait.

At the time of his firing, Hinch was 34 years old, the youngest manager in the big leagues. When you're young and you succeed, you're labeled "precocious," but when you're young and you fail, you're labeled "impulsive." A.J. Hinch knows this firsthand.

"In Arizona, I was inexperienced, and I tried to tackle the world," Hinch admitted. "That approach didn't work with that group. It was an older team, and certainly we didn't perform very well. I've learned from that."

Learning is one thing A.J. Hinch does well. You don't get to be a big-league manager at the age of 34 by accident. Hinch is and always was a forward thinker, a Stanford guy. Even during the waning days of his nondescript playing career (a .219 career hitter in parts of seven Major League seasons), Hinch saw the big picture, attending the offseason general manager's meetings so he could network and begin making contacts for life after his playing days.

It's Hinch's ability to build those bridges and nurture those relationships that has paved the way to 2015, in which he takes over as the 18th full-time manager in Houston Astros history. As evidence of those people skills, this was actually the second time that Hinch interviewed for the Astros post, having lost out on the job back in 2013 when the team hired Bo Porter. Hinch feels it all worked out for the best, since he's now coming in at a time when the team is actually stockpiling Major League-ready talent, in contrast to the past four years, which they spent shipping it out.

"I interviewed for this job a couple years ago, and I'm happy and fortunate now to get the opportunity here," Hinch said. "I think it's a great time in the evolution of this organization with the development of the young players and the additions we've made. The city is ready for it, the fan base deserves it."

It's appropriate Hinch should mention the Astros' fan base, since 2015 will serve as a season-long heat check to determine how much of it they've run off after stripping the team down to sell off its parts, like an abandoned vehicle, the past four years. For the first time since 2012, virtually the entire fan base will be able to actually watch the Astros' games on television with the tumultuous existence of Comcast Sports Net now history, and more important, the on-field product is one that fans may actually want to watch.

Jose Altuve is the defending American League batting champion. George Springer showed signs in 2014 of becoming one of the league's next great multi-tool outfielders. Chris Carter was one of the most compelling power hitters in baseball during the second half of the 2014 season. The team's starting rotation is "sneaky" solid. Hinch has options.

"I've drawn up about 20 different lineups and different scenarios in the bullpen," Hinch said. "That's the beauty of the offseason; you can stare up at the wall and start doing that in January. I really do have a lot of options in the lineup and the back end of games. There are some obvious decisions, and some that have to play themselves out."

As we all assess the weapons available to Hinch this season, there is one inescapable truth -- this team will hit a ton of home runs while once again threatening the single-season MLB record for strikeouts, which they themselves set back in 2013 with 1,535. (Ironically, the National League record of 1,529 is held by the 2010 Diamondbacks, also managed by Hinch.)

Last season, the Astros led the league in strikeouts (1,442) and finished third in home runs (163). So how did they subsequently tweak their roster for 2015? By adding even more all-or-nothing types like Colby Rasmus (18 home runs, 124 strikeouts in 346 at-bats in 2014), Evan Gattis (22 HR's, 97 K's in 369 AB's) and Luis Valbuena (16 HR's, 113 K's in 478 AB's).

In short, there were only 19 hitters in baseball last season who struck out at least 29.5 percent of the time. The Astros could field a starting lineup with five of them.

It's all part of General Manager Jeff Luhnow's well-documented, statistically based approach to the game. It's a strategy that, on the one hand, got the team the hypothetical label of "2017 World Champs" in a Sports Illustrated cover story, and on the other, makes them the target of cynics, skeptics and baseball "old schoolers" everywhere. What Luhnow sees as the way of the future, traditionalists see as a mad scientist's experiment, and Minute Maid Park is the petri dish.

In many ways, though, A.J. Hinch, the Stanford-educated psychology major, is the perfect hire to meld Luhnow's new wave of analytical thinking with actual eyeball-tested gut instincts. When he's asked about the role of analytics in his managerial role, Hinch's pragmatism shines through.

"Analytics play a role in our game. Thirty teams use them; some use them more than others," Hinch points out. "We are all after a competitive advantage, so I don't shy away from something that can help us win. We want every morsel of information we can find, but as it's more accepted and understood, people will realize that numbers don't play the game, people do, so we apply them to how we are going to win, but people still play the game."

And Hinch likes the people he's been dealt. "We've got an interesting blend of guys that have been here and guys that are new. I like the vibe that we've created," Hinch said.

After the dark times of 2011 through 2013, in which the Astros averaged 54 wins per season, they finally re-emerged from the 100-loss rubble to post a 70-92 record in 2014. They didn't exactly reclaim a seat at the respectability table, but they were at least on the standby list. Now, ownership, management and the city all want more. There are expectations, actual rumblings of postseason talk.

A.J. Hinch is 40 now and once again the youngest manager in the big leagues. However, he's much wiser than when he was tossed into the deep end of the pool in Arizona in 2009 and told to swim. He knows what he has signed up for in Houston.

"High standards are not a problem," Hinch said. "I have no problem with people involved in our team that want to push those standards really high.

"You'll never hear me complain about that."

Listen to Sean Pendergast on SportsRadio 610 from 2 to 6 p.m. weekdays. Also follow him on Twitter at twitter.com/Sean-Cablinasian or email him at [email protected]

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Sean Pendergast is a contributing freelance writer who covers Houston area sports daily in the News section, with periodic columns and features, as well. He also hosts afternoon drive on SportsRadio 610, as well as the post game show for the Houston Texans.
Contact: Sean Pendergast