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January 3, 2010

Prospectus Q&A

A.J. Hinch

by David Laurila

A.J. Hinch isn't your typical big-league manager, but he just might be the perfect fit for an information-driven Diamondbacks organization. Named to the position last May, the 35-year-old Stanford product is well schooled in not only statistical analysis, but also the ins and outs of the D'backs' system, having served as the club's farm director prior to assuming his current role. Hinch talked about his first season on the bench, and the vision he shares with GM Josh Byrnes and the rest of the front office, during MLB's Winter Meetings last month.

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David Laurila: You became the Diamondbacks' manager in atypical fashion, moving over from the front office in midseason. Can you talk about how that process worked?

A.J. Hinch: Well, it was obviously a unique situation that came about, and I actually never anticipated something like this being available. I was happy in my front-office job, and I was contributing to whatever I possibly could on the minor league level, and major league level, and Josh [Byrnes] approached me with this idea and it moved very quickly. I'm obviously thrilled with the opportunity and I'm humbled by the fact that Josh would think this highly of me to have me go this route, because it's somewhat unconventional. But again, it wasn't something I wanted to turn down, because there are 30 of these jobs and they're very important leadership positions, and I felt like I could do the job.

DL: How would you assess the job you're doing so far?

AJH: Time will tell. I think that this season…the first, initial six to eight weeks was trying to stabilize everything. Everything that could go wrong did go wrong with us, from losing a starter like Brandon Webb to one of our key hitters in Conor Jackson, to a managerial change, a pitching coach change, to losing 90-plus games. That's quite a lot for a team to absorb and now, starting fresh again, and having my staff in place and being able to start from spring training, will be a breath of fresh air for everybody.

DL: Did you make many mistakes this year?

AJH: I think that we all internalize everything that we do. I mean, a manager doesn't leave the game at the field. We take it home with us, we absorb it, we replay the game a ton, any decisions…some decisions that are made, and some decisions that aren't made. Things like when to start runners, whether or not to pitch out, whether or not to put in a relief pitcher. All of the various decisions that we have to make get replayed over and over and over, and we need to get that done before the next day. So, I obviously feel that I can get better; I can be a better manager. I can be more efficient. I can handle situations differently. But I'm proud of the challenge that I took and of being able to absorb that much responsibility on very short notice.

DL: How many of your in-game decisions are information-based?

AJH: I use it quite a bit. We are an information-driven organization. We look at a lot of different things that help me make decisions-in-game decisions, whether it's batting order, whether it is match-ups that I want to exploit, or if it is match-ups that I want to avoid. All sorts of different data that is relevant to the players. It's an important ingredient for us to have as much information as we can, so that we can make decisions that we're comfortable with.

DL: You were born in 1974. As you perceive it, how different is managing now than it was then?

AJH: Well, I think that the amount of exposure that teams have now…when you enter managing nowadays, you don't have the luxury of not having much coverage. From the blogs to the media outlets to the amount of reporters and information that is out there, it's on a much grander scale than it would have been when I was growing up. And it's a challenge, because the players are exposed to so much more now than they ever were, so you find yourself, as a manager, having to manage situations that don't involve baseball just as much as you do the in-game stuff.

DL: Decisions that backfire are routinely analyzed and discussed by a variety of media outlets and on message boards. Do you feel the responsibility to explain why you did what you did?

AJH: Sometimes. Sometimes you do, and sometimes you don't. Believe me, you have to explain it to yourself just as much as you have to explain it to others, and you explain it to your team. When mistakes are made that directly impact the results of games, again, you have to explain it to yourself before you have to explain it to everybody else. And those things happen. There are situations that come up in a game where a specific pitcher is a perfect match-up for this style of hitter, and you bring him in, and that guy hits a home run. There is only so much that you can account for, because you have to play the game on the field, but you do have to have the information to make the decisions to put the people in a position to be successful. To me, that's your main goal as a manager.

DL: Is it Josh Byrnes' job to question you about specific moves, or is that usually not necessary because the two of you have already discussed most scenarios prior to the game or series?

AJH: A little bit of both. We play the game out beforehand quite a bit. There are a lot of times that situations will come up that we already talked about, either with my coaching staff or with Josh. Things like, "How would we react?" The what-ifs. You try not to be surprised too much in the game. It's here's the plan of, "Who do we want to face Adrian Gonzalez with the game on the line, in the NL West." I have to know that long before the emotions get involved in the seventh or eighth inning and that situation presents itself. It's my job to be prepared for what that decision should be.

DL: Does your decision-making process in those scenarios go beyond the numbers?

AJH: A little bit, because there is some history. When you get a guy like Adrian Gonzalez or Pablo Sandoval, guys that are in our division-or Matt Kemp-that can really hurt you with one swing of the bat, it helps if they've faced those guys in the past and you can use those types of match-ups. There are styles of hitters that I try to line up with our bullpen. If I have a power righty who doesn't keep the ball down very well, and I have a high-ball hitter, that's an obvious situation that I would try to avoid. But sometimes you go with the hot hand. Those are all decisions that need to be made.

DL: There are a lot of trade rumors floating around right now, including one that includes your team, along with the Tigers and Yankees. I know that you can't address it directly, but what is your role in those discussions?

AJH: I'm in the middle of everything. Having gone from the front office, where I worked closely with Josh, and now as the manager, I'm equally as involved now as I was before. Josh takes a lot of information from a lot of different people: {assistant GM] Peter Woodfork, [director, player personnel] Jerry DiPoto, [scouting coordinator] Helen Zelman, [manager, baseball operations] Shiraz Rehman-our core group as a front office. We all add our two cents to the situation on how the club is shaping up, and Josh's job is to put it together. So, I feel very much a part of what we're trying to do and what we're trying to build.

DL: How important is defense to your organization?

AJH: Defense is critical to our club. We were not a very good defensive club last year. We made far too many errors in the outfield, and we made far too many errors in the infield. Defensive improvement for us is something that is very important to be able to take the next step and get back into contention. How we play defense in our ballpark, where you don't want to give away extra bases-an offensive ballpark-can really exploit defensive weaknesses with how fast the grass plays and how big the park can play in the gaps. Without a sound defense in our ballpark, it's very difficult to win.

DL: There are teams that can be characterized as pitching-defense, while others can be labeled power-oriented or OBP-oriented. What are the Diamondbacks right now?

AJH: I think that we want to be able to field a lineup that can put up quality plate appearances top to bottom. We do have a lot of guys that swing and miss, and we do have a lot of guys who hit the ball in the air, but we also have a lot of guys who hit home runs. And some of those deficiencies come with that strength. For our club…I do want our defense to be good enough that we can be a put-in-play team; we want the opponent to put the ball in play. We want our pitchers to be able to attack the strike zone. The things that really hurt us in our ballpark are walks and errors, and if we can decrease number of those that we can have, we'll take a significant step forward.

DL: How much are you still involved in player development -- have you mostly separated yourself from it?

AJH: Yeah, a little bit. Mike Berger is our new farm director, and he's going to do a tremendous job, but one of the things that we… one of the things that Josh emphasizes in making this move is that we are a unified group. Obviously, we want a similar program being run at the major league level all the way down through A-ball and the introductory levels. So, I'm involved as much as I need to be. I'm always going to be tied to player development, because in our market, our core group is always going to be homegrown. And it should be. So, the player-development mindset of giving young players a chance to play, giving young players some time to season themselves to become good major league players, is something that we're always focused on.

DL: Do you view your players under a different lens as a manager than you did as the farm director?

AJH: I do. I think that you see the players in the same light; you see the same strengths and weaknesses, and you have to maintain your patience with young players breaking in at the major league level. It's not a level where it's easy to have immediate success. But I've gotten to know them more on a personal level, in this job, as I'm with them sometimes 12 hours a day, while as a farm director I wasn't. So, I learn them on a personal level; I learn what makes each of them tick, and how to put them in a position to be successful. In turn, I think they probably see me in a different light.

DL: When I interviewed Shiraz Rehman last spring, one of the things he talked about was the idea of quantifying leadership. What are your thoughts on that?

AJH: It's important. A significant portion of my job description is leadership. My job is to put people in a position to be successful, whether that's coaches, whether that's players, whether it's in-game, in-season…taking a young player that's coming up from the minor leagues and realizing what that probably feels like. This leadership position begs for that. It's hard to quantify it, but it's something that should be recognized, and I hope that's what Josh saw in me, and I feel it's what Josh saw in me and why I have the job.

DL: As a farm director, your primary focus was to build a strong nucleus for the future, while as a manager it is to win today. Is it hard to reconcile that difference going from one position to the other, knowing that managers who don't win frequently lose their jobs?

AJH: No, I think that any decisions that we make are designed to help us win. For me, as a manager, any decision that I make in a game is to try to win that game. I understand the pressure that is on us in our positions. We're graded often times by wins and losses, and that's the nature of the job. I will tell you that one of the most important things that I will always remind myself of is that it's more important for me to do my job than to worry about my job. The results will be what the results are, and I know that I'll be judged by that. And I'm OK with that.

DL: If we have a similar conversation 10 years from now, and I ask if you were ready to be a big league manager in 2009, what do you think your answer might be?

AJH: My answer will probably be that I've learned a lot over the course of those 10 years. I may see things in a different light, but I will tell you this: I'm one to take challenges head on, and in 10 years, if we're having this conversation, I'll say to you that I'm proud of the way that I took the opportunity and proud of the way that I accepted the challenge. And if I'm standing here 10 years from now in the same job, I'll be proud to have withstood those pressures and those challenges.

DL: Who are you as a manager right now?

AJH: I want to be an aggressive manager. I want us to be a team that emphasizes getting on base and putting up quality plate appearances, and being a tough out. I believe in young players; I believe in putting guys in a position to be successful. And I'll develop that loyalty to players, but I'll also challenge them to always be on top of their game if they want their playing time. I understand that I'm not one that wants to give up a lot of outs, but I want to be aggressive and take bases when it's appropriate. So, I want to be a blend of a lot of different things to maximize our 27 outs that we're given every night, and put us in a position to score as many runs as possible.

DL: Any final thoughts?

AJH: One of the things I've learned over the course of being in the front office, and now as the manager, is that all of the on-field experience, the data research, the statistical analysis-they're all parts of this pie. They're all pieces of the pie that can help lead an organization to being a winning organization. What I want to be is someone who never turns away a piece of that pie if it's going to help us get better and help us win more games. Hopefully, that's something that can turn out to be a competitive advantage for us, that we accumulate as much information as we can and implement it to help us win.

2 comments have been left for this article.

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