June 13, 2017
A.J. Hinch wanted to wear a major-league uniform ever since he was a kid, and nearly every big decision he made in his young life pointed him toward that goal. And yet, when the White Sox drafted him in the second round in 1992, he refused their contract offer and instead went to Stanford. It actually took two more MLB drafts for Hinch to sign, finally doing so with the Athletics in 1996. After graduating with a psychology degree, winning a bronze medal for Team USA in the Olympics, and a doing a short stint in the minors, Hinch reached the majors in 1998, just as Billy Beane’s Moneyball plan began to play out.
Hinch realized his boyhood dream with the A’s, Royals, Tigers, and Phillies for parts of seven seasons, ending his career in the minors in 2005. And when that season ended, he went to work for the Diamondbacks—in their front office—as manager of minor-league operations. When the D-backs named him manager of the major-league team in 2009 at age 34, it surprised most—including Hinch himself. But he was out of a job 14 months later and back in another front office with the Padres. He wouldn’t be out of uniform for long, however, joining the Astros as their manager in 2015, when they made the playoffs for the first time in 10 seasons. As of this writing, Houston has the best record in the majors and a huge lead in the AL West.
During the Astros recent swing through Kansas City, Hinch sat down for an interview with David Brown to give a glimpse of his journey.
Baseball Prospectus: There’s a story about you offering a white sheet of paper to a TV cameraman so he could achieve white balance, or proper color temperature.
A.J. Hinch: Haha, the white balance!
BP: Did you learn about white balance from a digital photography class?
Hinch: Yeah, in college. I learned a little bit about it there, and my oldest daughter is way into photography. I’ve sort of re-learned it through her eyes on proper lighting. It was really a joke; I had a stat pack in front of me and I saw him struggling and I knew he was looking for a white board, so I held it up and said, “Here, you can look at this.” Everybody got a good laugh out of it.
Hinch: I’m trying to be a man of the people. It’s funny; this time around managing, I’m committed to being myself, and sometimes that includes these little quirky observations or interactions with people who maybe are not expecting the manager of a baseball team to be like that. But I’m a person first.
BP: And does that come with having done it?
Hinch: A little bit. Being a little more comfortable in my own skin. A couple of winning seasons will loosen you up a little bit and make you feel connected with people. It comes with age, experience, comfort, all of the above.
BP: You learned about white balance in college. Did you learn about white privilege in college too?
Hinch: Luckily for me, Stanford was the most culturally diverse that I could have picked. Going to the West Coast, and all that comes with that, coming from the central U.S.A., there was a cultural difference, and it’s served me well in this game, as our game has grown internationally, to the culture that I have in my own clubhouse. I’m sure that Stanford, and all the newness of the new cultures, helped me a little bit.
BP: I have a feeling you watched James Comey testify. What did you think?
Hinch: I try to stay out of the political arena in this job, platform-wise. The more I watch politics these days, the more I’m glad I’m in sports and not politics. It’s so polarizing, it’s so difficult to follow the endless drama that is surrounding the political arena the last 6-12 months. I live in Texas, which is predominantly a Republican state; I moved from California, which is predominantly a Democratic state. So I feel I’ve had the gauntlet of beliefs around me for the last decade-plus. I think we’re all wrong. No matter which side of the fence you end up being on, the fact that there’s a fence is probably the bigger problem in America.
BP: One thing Comey said that might have related to baseball: He said meeting the media could be like feeding frenzied seagulls. Is it like that for you?
Hinch: I meet the media twice a day, and I never saw it like feeding seagulls. I see it more as human interaction and human interest stories. But to each their own.
BP: Twitter bio says: “Coffee” and “Wine.” Do you grind your own coffee?
Hinch: Yeah, we do. I’m big on different coffees from around the world, but whole bean, to me, is better than buying it already ground. That’s the freshest way you can get the grounds. We have a grinder at our house. It’s a morning ritual at the Hinch house.
BP: Do you ferment your wine, grow your own grapes, vint?
BP: Both times you were hired as a manager, you’ve gone from front-office jobs to the dugout. You seem to be doing fine as a manager, but your career path makes it seem like you can’t make up your mind, what you want to do.
Hinch: Haha, I know. I knew I wanted to be a player, so that was the first baseline, and I got to do that a long time. As careers end on the field, the curiosity of being “on the other side” led me to the front-office job. And I stayed close to player development, and pro scouting, and player personnel, so that I learned a lot about how the engine operates. When I was given my first managerial job, I didn’t know that I wanted to manage. It was something that was brought to my attention unbeknownst to me.
The more I got into that job, the more I realize how much I loved it. But then you find out, in this job, it all could totally go away. It gets taken away from you. And the natural reaction for me, after I was offered a front-office job, was to go back. I always felt like the game was going to lead me to where I should be, or where I would be most utilized. And different people have had different opinions, based on the job offers that I’ve had. But my heart and soul has always been in uniform on the field, which is why I think I’m here today.
BP: Could you rank the uniforms, going by the aesthetical look, for the teams you played for in the majors?
Hinch: I’m a sucker for tradition, so I love the old English “D” with the Detroit Tigers. I did have a problem with the belt loops, getting the belt through. That was a challenge on a daily basis. But the crystal white, English “D” matching the hat—that, to me, was one of my favorite uniforms.
The white shoes, when I broke into the big leagues, was a big deal. They made me feel fast, and connected me to the Mark McGwire, Rickey Henderson, Jose Canseco era of A’s baseball. Being one of the few teams that was allowed to wear white shoes, that was fun. But I think anytime you put on a major-league uniform, it could be the ugliest one, worst color combo imaginable, and I think we’d all put it on with a happy heart.
BP: Getting back to the belt. What about looping it through the pants before you put them on?
Hinch: Prior to? Well, it’s not something I do with my pants or my jeans, but with the Tigers I did.
BP: You did?
Hinch: You had to, yeah. You had to.
BP: It was that hard otherwise?
Hinch: It was. They didn’t teach me that at Stanford.
BP: When you played for the A’s, could you see the Moneyballing going on around you as it was happening?
Hinch: Not really. Maybe a little bit in that they ... that was the first time I was really introduced to matchups. I could see how Art Howe was managing our team—the left-handed and the right-handed, and the roles they were designing. Most of the time, growing up, you felt like: “You play your team and your players play.” The more I was around the A’s, the more I could see some of the new ideas. We were really young. I was with Ben Grieve and Tim Hudson, and Mark Mulder, and Barry Zito, Ramon Hernandez. We all were just sort of young and dumb in the big leagues, and we really didn’t know why we were there. I think as you reflect back, you learn a little how the pieces fit together in the Moneyball era.
BP: On that note, you had some interesting older teammates in those early years in Oakland. You mentioned some of them. Kevin Mitchell was on the ’98 team. You interact with him at all?
Hinch: I sat on the plane next to him on road trips. We had our own plane; I think we shared it with the Golden State Warriors. As a rookie, you had to be, a) invited to sit on the player bus and, b) anywhere on the plane. Nowadays, we have a little looser rules for the younger players. Mitch was the first one to tell me that I could sit next to him. So I had a front-row seat to the conversations and the reflections and the storytelling that was Kevin Mitchell’s life, from the Giants and the Mets.
He was great. He was huge. He was a big, strong, intimidating guy. Had a great laugh. I remember one time we were in Baltimore and Arthur Rhodes was pitching. He was a mid-to-upper-90s lefty who embarrassed Mitch on three straight fastballs about 95 mph. I walked up behind Mitch and hit a home run. So I got fined in kangaroo court for embarrassing the veteran. He had little pranks like that made you laugh.
BP: Mike Fetters was in that bullpen. He had one of the great come-sets in history.
Hinch: The stare.
BP: How did you not crack up?
Hinch: He had a great compete button. He had this ... it felt like an act, this show that he put on, and it was real. It wasn’t a show, it wasn’t an act. It was a real way that he prepared to compete. And it didn’t matter if we were up five, down five, save opportunity, non-save opportunity—that guy never wanted to give up a hit or a run. The intimidation attempt was real. He was consistent with it, regardless. If he’s not going to laugh at himself, I’m not going to laugh at him.
BP: So you’re drafted by the White Sox in ’92 and don’t sign, and you enroll at Stanford. In response, the White Sox rat you out to Major League Baseball, telling them you used an agent during contract negotiations, which was against the NCAA’s ridiculous eligibility rules. What did you think of what the White Sox did?
Hinch: I was surprised at what they did, because in that era, we all had advisers. And there’s a fine line between advisers and agents. Going through the draft process for the first time, number one, I wanted to sign. I had gotten calls about going in the late first round, I thought I was going to go then—and I didn’t. I had loosely committed to signing had I gone in the first round. When I went in the second round, I remember telling my parents that it wasn’t a black-or-white decision anymore.
I had a Stanford scholarship in one hand, I had a nice offer from the White Sox in the other. So when that collision course happened, the trump card of allegedly having an agent wasn’t played until the very end. The confrontation was what created the disagreement on representation. It happened when the decision was made by me and my family that I was going to go to college. So when the controversy arose, it was a surprise to me.
BP: Did you make the right decision(s) by waiting to sign until you finished college?
Hinch: If I had it to play out all over again, I’d do the exact same thing. Out of high school, I didn’t really appreciate what a Stanford education, and what my four years at Stanford would entail. I didn’t know the Olympics would be possible. I didn’t know that I was going to make the big leagues a year after getting drafted. Reflecting back, I did exactly the right thing.
The second time I was drafted (by the Twins) before my senior year, it was in the third round, which still was a murky place. Once I went back for my senior year, I cost myself money—six figures—from that day until I signed with the A’s the next year. But how do you put a price tag on the Olympics, on a college degree, and entering minor-league baseball with an excellent fallback option if something went wrong? I had gone through a shoulder injury in college, I had seen other athletes go through injury issues in college. My fall-back option was going to be, utilize my Stanford degree and have an Olympic medal to go with it.
BP: What kind of psychology did you study?
Hinch: I had two emphases: I had child psychology and sports psychology.
BP: Would you have gone into sports anyway, or been a school psychologist?
Hinch: I dunno. I always would have loved people, and interacting with people. I would have wanted to do something to help. I probably would have gone to graduate school and try to get my master’s in something. Fortunately for me, I’ve been able to get my “life master’s.”
Hinch: No, but when I go by “A.J.,” I do get asked how to spell it. That’s more of a unique question. I’ve never thought about spelling my name “A. Jay Hinch.” I’ve never been called “Jay,” I’ve been called “Drew” before. Growing up, my mom would call me Andrew when I got in trouble. Nowadays, if somebody called “Drew” or “Andy” or “Andrew” or “Jay,” I wouldn’t even turn around.
BP: Any good encounters with A.J. Pierzynski?
Hinch: There aren’t a lot of A.J.’s around. When you’re an A.J., you’re not used to saying the word “A.J.” When I would go up to the plate when I was in Kansas City and he was in Minnesota, we’d always have fun little banter. But we’re totally different people and players, and had totally different careers. He played long enough to not have to work. I played long enough to have to work.
BP: What are the intellectual hot spots of the AL West cities?
Hinch: What I love to do is find off-the-wall, discreet coffee shops to go post up and work in the mornings as part of my routine on road—San Francisco and Seattle being two of my favorites. Where we stay in Dallas, and where we stay in Anaheim, it’s not as conducive to my morning routine. You can find some eclectic spots to sit and post and people watch, and draw up lineups, and research things. You can do that in San Francisco, and the original Starbucks is in Seattle. I can find some great mom-and-pop shops around the AL West that I can frequent any time we go there.
BP: So is this where you nerd out?
Hinch: Haha. The nerd part is actually the information that I’m reading. I think we all want to be intellectually stimulated in our own way, and I find mine through sports and baseball.
BP: Who’s the smartest player you’ve ever been around?
Hinch: We automatically think intelligence, but there are some baseball players who might not have the intellect, but are smart within the game. Carlos Beltran is one of the most well-rounded, smart baseball players I’ve ever been around. What he sees, what he notices, how he plays the game. That’s not because he’s on my team. We were teammates on the Royals. He’s incredibly smart on both spectrums.
BP: We know what playing a hunch is. What’s playing a Hinch?
Hinch: Heh. I think it’s changing lineups. I’ve gained the reputation of always switching the lineup. People think I switch one spot just to say that I’m playing a different lineup. I’m not afraid to do that. If anybody asks, “What is ‘playing a Hinch?’” it’s probably playing a different lineup every night.
BP: Why don’t the things that might be bad about changing lineups bother you?
Hinch: Because I think I can convince players to show up and play, and let me play the pieces in the order they best match up against the pitcher. This sport begs for you to look at tradition, to have routine. Our schedule is built that way; we’re built on series, we’re built on the everyday. We take batting practice every day. This methodical approach to life begs us to love that about baseball. When it comes to drawing up a lineup, I think we psychologically convinced ourselves that one lineup makes you play better. And it doesn’t. What makes you play better is being matched up against the opponent with your strengths and their weaknesses.
BP: What was your greatest moment as a major-league player individually?
Hinch: I thought it was a big deal when I homered off Roger Clemens, when I was with the A’s. It was a 3-1 fastball. At the Coliseum. I felt like I had arrived, circling the bases. I recognized the guy who was out there on the mound.
Rickey Henderson remembered my name once, a year after I played with him. That was a big deal to me. That’s more tongue-in-cheek.
BP: He’s not supposed to remember anybody’s name.
Hinch: Two initials, it can’t be that hard.
But the first time I walked on a major-league field, I got to hit against Pedro Martinez and catch Tom Candiotti. Which, I’ve argued with people all over, that might be the single-hardest debut of anybody that I’ve ever been around. But, you know, I made it. All the work, all the practices, the teams I played on, my mom and dad driving me to games, going through an injury in college, the draft three times. I was a major leaguer for the first time and I’ll never forget that day.