MLB.com Columnist

Richard Justice

Astros wise to hand Hinch extension

Manager has proven to be perfect fit with Houston

Astros wise to hand Hinch extension

A.J. Hinch's hiring as manager of the Astros 18 months ago was perfect on so many levels that it would be difficult to count them all. The contract extension he received from the club, which Hinch confirmed on Tuesday, is a natural extension of a nearly perfect marriage.

On the first day of his first Spring Training, Hinch told his players that everything mattered. Big stuff mattered. Small stuff mattered. This journey wasn't going to be about fundamentals or analytics or believing in one another. It would be about all those things.

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Hinch would manage that way, too. He would challenge every close call and handle his bullpen like it was Game 7 of the World Series. Hinch would have a magical touch with young players, instilling confidence in them without sacrificing the larger mission of the team.

Once when one of his young starting pitchers was struggling late in a game, Hinch walked to the mound and had the briefest conversation possible.

"You OK?" he asked. "You can get this guy?"

"Yep," the pitcher said.

Perhaps against his instincts, Hinch patted the pitcher on the shoulder, returned to the dugout and watched him do what he said he would do.

Hinch's entire philosophy occasionally would be driven home in a single moment. When he returned to the dugout after furiously arguing a small point with an umpire late in the season, one of his players approached him.

"I guess you're not kidding when you say everything is important," the player said.

Hinch managed with a mixture of humor and insight, with an occasional burst of temper. His players knew he had their backs whether it was with umpires or the media.

The Astros of 2015 were one of the sweetest stories in sports, a franchise reawakening to make the postseason for the first time in a decade.

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They were the personnel brilliance of general manager Jeff Luhnow and the resplendent talents of Carlos Correa, Dallas Keuchel and George Springer, along with a long list of others, from Evan Gattis to Colby Rasmus to Collin McHugh.

But the guy who made it work, the guy who kept the whole thing feeling fresh, was the manager. Luhnow has made so many smart moves in nearly five years on the job that it would be impossible to count them all.

But his hiring of Hinch ranks near the top, and it is a reflection of his insight and vision as well as having the guts to do something that wasn't necessarily popular. Within hours after word leaked that he'd hired Hinch in September 2014, there were baseball people warning Luhnow he'd made a terrible mistake.

Hinch will be the first to say his 212 games as manager of the D-backs from 2009-10 was a miserable experience. He'd been promoted from the player development staff, and some of his players did not trust him or think he knew what he was doing.

Hinch will say that he was younger then and didn't have the feel for people that he does now. But the real reason he went 89-123 is that the team wasn't very good. Winning would have cured everything, and Hinch wasn't the reason the D-backs didn't win.

In the four seasons that followed, Hinch worked in the Padres' front office and considered both a career in a front-office role and one in the dugout. At some point, he decided that managing was what he wanted to do. Hinch just needed to find someone to believe in him.

Luhnow interviewed Hinch in his first search for a manager after the 2012 season and had been impressed. By the time Luhnow went looking for another manager, Hinch probably felt like a slam dunk.

Hinch is an impressive physical presence, a former big league catcher who has a nice touch with people and a Stanford education. He was someone who would buy into the analytics Luhnow believes in while incorporating the rhythms and moods of the clubhouse and dugout.

Hinch sold winning, not rebuilding, from day one. He told his players that it didn't matter that they had lost a bunch of games in recent years. All that mattered was that he believed in them, and that this group, together, could do something special.

By the All-Star break, it was clear something extraordinary was happening with the Astros, who had averaged 104 losses the previous four seasons. And every player credited the manager for setting the right tone and putting the team in position to succeed.

It was extraordinary in that the players did not simply respect Hinch. They liked him and believed in him and trusted in him. This spring, Hinch has been resolute in telling the world that what Houston did last season was simply a step in the right direction. There's much more to accomplish. And the Astros have sent a signal that they want him to be part of it.

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.