HOUSTON -- A.J. Hinch did more than lead the Astros to the postseason for the first time in 10 years. He changed the team's culture.
It began in Spring Training, when Hinch set a consistent and steady tone for a club that had averaged 104 losses the previous four seasons. He created a loose and stress-free environment in the clubhouse, but he expected only the players' best on the field. The Astros responded by spending most of the 2015 season in first place in the American League West and winning the second AL Wild Card spot on the final day of the season.
Hinch is one of three finalists for AL Manager of the Year, as voted on by the Baseball Writers' Association of America, which will be announced today at 5 p.m. CT on MLB Network and MLB.com. The other finalists are Texas Rangers manager Jeff Banister and Minnesota Twins skipper Paul Molitor.
"I think A.J. and his staff did a tremendous job allowing the players to be themselves and be the best players they can be this year, and the result is what we saw on the field," general manager Jeff Luhnow said.
The Astros made the playoffs despite significant injuries to starting outfielder George Springer and starting pitcher Scott Feldman, as well as September's bullpen struggles. Hinch successfully blended in rookies Carlos Correa and Lance McCullers Jr. into key roles and juggled a clubhouse with a mix of holdovers from the rough years and newcomers.
"I was very appreciative of our team, the personality we developed in Spring Training, the standard we were able to set, and to see it come to action ... the biggest thing you can ask out of your team is belief, and in Spring Training and into the season, into a successful April, May, June and July, that belief grew," Hinch said. "For a team that was experiencing a lot of firsts with a lot of new players and staff and manager and new additions to the team, that belief grew and that confidence grew, and it's very satisfying for me to have that clubhouse develop to where the expectations are every night to win. We worked hard to build that."
Hinch, hired at the end of the 2014 season to replace Bo Porter, had an open-door policy in Spring Training and stressed communication. The Astros, coming off a 92-loss season, weren't expected to contend in the division. That quickly changed. They wound up leading the division for 139 days.
"We definitely changed the culture around here and what people expect from us," catcher Jason Castro said. "We showed people we're a team to be reckoned with now, and it's not going to change moving forward."
The Astros roared out to an 18-7 start to shock the baseball world, and Hinch kept the ship upright the rest of the season. When the Astros crawled to the All-Star break with six consecutive losses, he didn't let them get too low. When they were swept by the Rangers in mid-September and fell out of the division lead, Hinch rallied the troops.
Hinch addressing the players in a champagne-soaked clubhouse after securing the Wild Card berth and telling them he loved them was an indelible image from 2015. The feeling was mutual.