MLB.com Columnist

Richard Justice

Hinch a better communicator with Astros

Given second chance, manager pushing right buttons in Houston

Hinch a better communicator with Astros

CINCINNATI -- He didn't know if there'd be a second chance. In that way, every day in this new gig is a bonus.

"I never knew," A.J. Hinch said. "I always hoped for it."

Hinch interviewed for one managerial opening in 2012 (Astros) and another in '13 (Cubs). He didn't get either position.

At times, Hinch reminded himself he had a nice job in the front office of the San Diego Padres. In the end, though, he wanted to be back in uniform.

"I love competing," Hinch said. "I love the interaction with the players. I love the strategy of the game. I love the winning and losing at the end of the night."

Keuchel named AL starter for All-Star Game

Welcome to one of the sweetest stories in this baseball season.

The Houston Astros have been the game's biggest surprise, spending 88 days atop the American League West after averaging 104 losses the previous four seasons. And the guy in charge is doing a nice imitation of the happiest person on the planet.

Five years after a brief and disastrous stint as manager of the D-backs, Hinch has guided the Astros to a 49-42 first half.

Altuve proud to represent Astros, Venezuela

That solid start won Hinch a spot on AL manager Ned Yost's coaching staff for Tuesday's All-Star Game presented by T-Mobile at Great American Ball Park.

"It's gratifying for me, it being my first year in Houston," Hinch said Monday. "And all the work that we've done to try to build a good culture in Houston. And build some momentum to get a baseball town back to feeling like a baseball town. I get to represent that."

Along the way, Hinch has won effusive praise from his bosses and players alike for his poise, smarts and people skills. At the moment, he would be the runaway winner of the AL Manager of the Year Award.

And that's pretty good for a guy that was 89-123 with the D-backs during the 2009-10 seasons and thought he might never get another shot. Hinch looks back on that time and sees a 34-year-old guy who was handed a bad team and struggled with plenty of things, especially communicating with his players.

Astros general manager Jeff Luhnow didn't hire Hinch the first time they interviewed after the 2012 season. But that interview was the foundation for the second one last winter -- and to Hinch's eventual hiring.

Luhnow believed Hinch was the right man at the time time and that he was getting a guy "who will help us win a World Series." Luhnow has done virtually everything right in 3 1/2 years on the job, and Hinch has been a perfect hire.

Hinch, 41, has passed all the tests so far in everything from collaborating with his data-driven front office to managing a game to communicating with his players.

"He's the best," Astros second baseman Jose Altuve said. "He's a great guy, let's everybody play, laughs with us. He makes us feel good. But if he has something to say, he will let you know."

That was never clearer than a game a few weeks ago in which Hinch went to the mound in the ninth inning to speak with his rookie starting pitcher, Lance McCullers Jr.

"What do you have left?" Hinch said.

McCullers didn't hesitate.

"Plenty," he said.

Hinch turned, returned to the dugout and watched McCullers strike out Orioles first baseman Chris Davis to finish his first complete game. Hinch may have been inclined to take the kid out, but he listened. Listening apparently wasn't his strong point when he ran the D-backs.

Hinch also reasoned that leaving McCullers in would be a confidence booster, and as he said, "We're going to need him in plenty of tough situations. It's important to show you've got confidence in him."

It's that gray area of the job that is perhaps the toughest part of managing.

"I'm more comfortable with the job and the role and sort of letting loose with the players," Hinch said. "My job is to lead the players, but it's also to listen and get the most out of them.

"I've learned how to handle both good and bad times. When you're a young manager -- I took over at 34 -- I wanted to show and tell them all that I knew about the game. That's the top-down mentality, and I don't think that's the most productive way to enter a job as a young manager.

"So, yes, I'm a better listener. Trust me, I don't negotiate when I take guys out. They don't have a ton to say about some of the things that I do. But I do communicate better with them, and I've allowed myself to have that be OK."

And there's that whole winning and losing thing. It's what seems to drive every manager or coach in every sport.

"Whether it's a win or a loss, you feel you did a good job or a bad job," Hinch said. "That success/failure every night is something that drives me. I do enjoy being a leader of a team and spearheading the process of trying to win a World Series."

If this All-Star assignment is validation for the job Hinch has done, he thinks back to the very first day of Spring Training with the Astros. Somehow, it just felt right.

"I felt like I was right back where I wanted to be," Hinch said. "I felt very comfortable."

He still is.

Richard Justice is a columnist for MLB.com. Read his blog, Justice4U. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.