Winter Meetings interview with A.J. Hinch

Winter Meetings interview with A.J. Hinch

Q. With the trades you've made, how good do you feel about your club?
A.J. HINCH: We feel pretty good about the additions. We also feel pretty good about the guys we're bringing back, and I think it's important to understand that the goal of the off-season was to supplement the good core group that we have returning and I think we've done that.

Position player side has got a really different look and feel to it, both from the quality that we brought in but also the experience and the left-handedness, you know, with McCann, with Aoki, with Reddick, with Beltran, these are good bats to add to the likes of Springer and Correa, Gattis and the like.

It's been exciting because it felt like leading up to the Meetings, we were the most active team with the most success at getting to the finish line. We've got to be one of the most deep teams position-player-wise in our league.

Q. Your lineup right now, you have a little of everything, speed, the left-handed bats now, switch-hitters. What kind of a luxury is that?
A.J. HINCH: I think we have guys that may hit at the bottom of the order that have never done it before, and that's a great luxury to have as a manager. I have got the chance to mix and match our lefties and righties, couple of switch hitters in there where it's going to be difficult for the opponent to match up.

We've got to go out and do it on the field, but we've the makings of a pretty good run-scoring group. As the batting order evolves, as the playing time is sorted out, I'm likely to have an angry guy next to me on the bench which is a good problem to have, maybe I'll have two. I hope all three of them are mad and want to play. It's a luxury item to have as deep of a group provided we stay healthy.

Q. Keuchel and McCullers in a lot of ways are going to be a huge key?
A.J. HINCH: I think some of the best additions on the pitching side will be the fact that Keuchel and McCullers get healthy. We need to see that. And there is always a little bit of pause when we haven't seen them do it. McCullers was a little bit closer than Keuchel was at the end of the year. McCullers was throwing off the mound and facing some hitters.

So I guess there is a little bit of anxiousness given that they're coming off injuries. But, you know, for us, getting those two guys back, not only healthy but also in good form will make everyone, including ourselves, view the rotation a little bit differently.

By adding Morton, getting an improved Musgrove and McHugh fires, we may sprinkle Devenski in the competition. Things like that are why we feel like if we don't make a move here at the Meetings or the rest of the winter, we have a deep enough group. We're always open.

Q. You mentioned Devenski, is he in the mix?
A.J. HINCH: I think we will stretch him out. He's got a history as a starter in the minors. He started a couple game for us last year early because we wanted him in the rotation, later because of an emergency double header scenario. So I think he's capable of doing just about anything that we ask. Early in the season we broke him in as more of a long reliever. He didn't get a lot of leverage innings.

And he worked his way to the back of the bullpen. By the end of the year I was using him what felt like every day in September. It's valuable to have a guy that you could say could be one of your better starters or you could put him in the bullpen and pitch some swing-man innings that turning into being more and more popular in these 6th and 7th and 8th innings that are going to high end, high quality pitchers.

I think time will tell, but going into camp we will stretch him out to at least the 4 and 4 inning mark and then make a decision.

Q. DH spot?
A.J. HINCH: It will be a fight for the DH spot. That's a problem in the American League that we have. I'd like to spread it out a little bit. We'll first start with how many days a week Beltran can play in the outfield. We're going to introduce left field to him. He's more comfortable in right field but I think he will quickly adapt at the other corner.

When he is not DHing, we have got options. Gattis has DHed a ton when he didn't catch. I've used the DH with. Springer and Altuve.

So I will want to keep our guys rested, keep a good lineup in there. I will always match guys up accordingly, but there may not be a dominant DH other than I would see Beltran doing it a lot.

Q. What's your level of comfort with Gurriel at first base?
A.J. HINCH: After the spring I'll tell you more, but I'm comfortable with him because he's a natural-born infielder. We threw him in the middle of the pennant race at first base in Texas and he was a little raw because of the responsibilities that come with the position. But he can play infield. He has good footwork, he can handle the glove.

The fact that he hasn't done it a lot will just mean that we've got to put a little extra work in. Him being on the corner and him getting a full spring training of work at first base will do wonders for him.

Between he and Marwin, obviously White and Reed will factor in at some extent depending on how many pitchers we carry. We will have a good first baseman.

Q. Do you expect him to play (No microphone.)
A.J. HINCH: He will play some third and he will also -- we may sprinkle him in the outfield in left field.

It's not as important with the addition of Aoki and Beltran, the return of Marisnick, Hernandez, Tony Kemp. We don't have an outfield depth problem which would have been one reason to put him in the outfield, but I'm all about versatility if we can introduce positions to him, but primarily he will play first and third.

Q. You beefed up your lineup and your bench has gotten better. How do you view the bench and the strengths?
A.J. HINCH: There is always going to be good players on the bench if we build a team correctly. And I feel like right now, if we started the season today all healthy and all ready to go, I would have three guys on the bench that literally should be starting players in the big leagues. I don't know who those guys are, could take your pick as to who is on the bench and what they should be doing.

I think they will adapt and as you've seen over my couple of years here, I don't use a set lineup every single day. There will be guys that have roles, guys that I keep rested. The most difficult part will be leading into the season you want everybody to play a lot and get to May and June before you start taking at-bats away.

Again, these are really big problems for people, more so for the players. They all want to play, and I don't blame them. But to have a deep team to run the gauntlet of the whole season, we need as much as players as we can.

Q. What do you see role-wise for Michael?
A.J. HINCH: We'll stretch Michael out to length, as well. He hasn't started as long as Devenski has, but he's also a guy that can work up to 50, 60, 70 pitches. We always like our relievers to go multiple innings. And then he may have a starting future as well. So I think he may be behind Devenski when it comes to the depth of the rotation that we feel like we would go to first, but if the development that he took from the previous year to this season continues into next season, then Michael missed a lot of at-bats with his fastball and his slider, develop and change-up, he has size and durability, never say never but I would expect him to get some length in the bullpen and then let his talent and production produce whatever we do with him.

Q. Do you think Marwin will get enough at-bats to satisfy him and I guess he will go back to the super utility thing?
A.J. HINCH: He's a really good player and he's been pressed into more everyday roles the last couple of years, and it's mostly because of under-performance by some guys or injury. He will fill the same role, hopefully not with the injuries. He's got an uncanny ability to play all around the field.

I can put him literally -- I think I played him in center last year, left, all the infield spots. He's probably the one guy on our team that we could do the play every position every inning if we want to. That comfort for me coming off the bench means he'll play a lot, giving guys rest. And when you have Marwin on the bench, I can give Altuve a day off and not feel like it's a complete loss offensively. Nobody is really going to beat Jose Altuve, but Marwin has some strengths that he brings to the table every day. Same with Correa. Marwin can play in the outfield if I want to give Aoki a day off and would rather play Marwin as opposed to, say, Jake. Again, all these combos, I get another three months to think about and then I'll reveal it.

Q. How much did Jason Castro show you offensively and how does he impact a game until various ways just on defense?
A.J. HINCH: Jason was a good player for us. He was a long tenured Astro, went through the rebuild and also got to enjoy, you know, the playoffs two years ago and the' 84 win team last season.

He's selfless with his defense. He really does a good job of separating his offense and defense. Not to say he doesn't offer a lot on offense, but he knows his number one priority is the impact with the pitchers. His game planning, he's a little bit of a stoic, confident, even-keeled-type competitor until he gets out, then he gets a little frustrated in the dugout. I love the make-up that Jason has because of the reliability that comes with him.

The Twins got a good one on their hands, and he will be missed because of the influence that he had for as long as he was here.

Q. That fiery aspect --
A.J. HINCH: He's a Stanford boy. I'm going to love him.

Q. Could he get in the pitcher's face sometimes or younger guys --
A.J. HINCH: He will get his point across. He's not shy. Us Stanford guys have a funny way of getting our point across. Some of us are a little more aggressive than others but he'll absolutely be a great leader for a young pitching staff.

Q. The pitch framing, the year before you got there, he made a real turn, went from one of the worst to the best. How did he do that?
A.J. HINCH: Just a lot of work and a lot of understanding of angles and what it takes to be a good receiver. Like most smart players, he found a deficiency where he was being criticized a little bit or he wasn't being ranked.

One of the beauties of how much in detail we cover our sport now is the players know. They know when you guys think they stink, they know when you think they're good and they work on it and they pay attention to it. Same with coaches, obviously we try to tell them in the same breath. I like that he took ownership of his career and he knew it was going to be important, there's a lot of teams around the league that value what his strengths are, and he did it and he worked on it. And it was something that he took serious in order to be a constant contributor. You can bring your glove to the ballpark every day. You don't have to wait around to get a couple hits.

Q. You're losing Trey Hillman, what did he contribute to the team, what are you losing and what is Korea gaining?
A.J. HINCH: Losing a really good man, good baseball mind, someone who was there for the players. I think one of the best attributes a coach can have is being selfless and not being there for yourself but for the players. He did a tremendous job over the course of his time with the Astros, but it's why we hired him to begin with, the integrity and the professionalism that he brings, the attention to detail. Nothing gets by this guy and I think that's what we're certainly losing that capacity that he brought and those years of experience, I think he's the first guy to manage in three different countries.

Q. Going to be.
A.J. HINCH: Going to be. He hasn't managed yet, so we can't give him that distinction. But his quality to detail is arguably as good as anyone I've been around in the game. We've reshaped our staff and hired Alex Cora. But he's almost like two coaches, and the amount of work that he could put in will be missed and his consistency and belief in players was something that I think our players really felt.

Q. What did you make of the bullpen usage in the playoffs with guys like Miller and Chapman? Did you feel like there was some shift going on?
A.J. HINCH: I think for -- we'll see. I realize if you have Miller or Chapman, you have some really good weapons and it's important to use your best guys in the best spots. The luxury of the playoffs, the short series, the days off, where you were able to magnify, Tito did a great job, Dave Roberts did a great job, Joe did a great job. We ended up seeing what baseball would be like in a very short series, in a very short time frame.

The goal now is how can we apply that to games that count in April just as much as they do in September. You will see some guys open their eyes a little bit to particular games.

You will see stretches where days off are coming and you can maybe empty your bullpen a little bit nontraditionally and use your guys. But there is a cost at doing that. You've got to balance that out with what other guys in order to plug in the different scenarios. I see a little bit of a shift in the acceptance. I'm not sure how teams are going to apply it over a six-month season.

I'm sure I'll get that question the first time I do and the first time I don't use a Giles in a scenario like that, as I look at those two that cover me every day.

Q. Piggybacking off that A.J., not just playoffs but including the regular season, what do you think of the saves stat? It seems arbitrary, seems like the thing there preventing -- people manage to a save --
A.J. HINCH: I probably shouldn't say this out loud. This is my inside voice talking. Things that are important to your players have to be important to the manager to some extent. I say that knowing that you've got to create a culture and environment that your players buy in on.

The way we compensate saves, it's very hard for anybody not to be attracted to that. The saves stat is what it is. You know what I like about the saves stat? If we get it, we won. And I spread it out over three or four guys last year, some do it out of performance and some do it out of choice. You have to balance that just enough.

If we played in a nonemotional, noncompensated neutral environment, I think we would flush that stat saves down the toilet. But we don't. There is always going to be a constant pull and tug between players, compensation, manager, analytics, what's the smart thing to do. But by far the smartest thing to do is win the game, that makes people like me happy.

Q. There is no discernible difference between a 4-run lead or 3-run lead.
A.J. HINCH: Not when Ortiz is coming up. I don't like when Cano hits either. I was going to go to Cano. I could go to a lot of people.

Q. It went under the radar, but something else Cleveland did in the postseason is against a few teams is extreme curveball usage based on data, of course. And it was extreme. It wasn't just more curveballs, it was extreme.
A.J. HINCH: Yes.

Q. To what extent can you see doing that, pushing the envelope that far?
A.J. HINCH: We did. If you look at our stats, we use the breaking ball quite a bit mostly because we get knocked for the velocity that we don't have in the rotation. No disrespect to Lance McCullers, if you're watching.

The number one goal is to use your weapons correctly the best way you can that matches up against the opponent. So there is a classic tug and pull between pitcher's strength and hitter weakness. If that matches up and you have the guys to do it, I absolutely think you should use your pitches correctly. If that screams for more breaking ball usage, be better. If you're going to ask somebody who doesn't have a good breaking ball to just use breaking balls you're going to run into trouble.

We have a lot of guys, McCullers will always keep us in the league leader title of throwing curveballs. McHugh same difference. Will Harris, same difference. So we believe in that pitch, mostly because our pitch quality is good as well.

I think one of the advantages that we try to bring against our opponent is we just want to use our pitches correctly and use them against the right hitters at the right time in the right part of the strike zone or just out of the strike zone to induce soft contact. With that premise, what the actual number turns out at the end of the game can be what it is. What I'm saying is I don't want to go into a game needing 51% curveballs simply because that's a trend. I would want it to be matched up with the right hitters.

Q. From a team standpoint, as you look ahead to Spring Training, are there any areas that you are planning on focusing on more in the past?
A.J. HINCH: Our base running has not been aggressive. We're an aggressive team by nature and anytime you run into that approach, you're going to run into a few outs, some of which I don't mind. You never want to give away any outs, but it's hard to have an aggressive team without putting pressure on the other team and you're going to run into some outs every now and then. We want to avoid the catastrophic mistakes we have made over the last couple of years with a little more attention to detail in the base running.

I think our infield defense has been tremendous. I think our outfield defense, with our additions, we're always going to pay attention to. We do like to control 90 feet the best way we can. But the number one priority will be base running and being a little more effective.

Q. How do you do that?
A.J. HINCH: We signed Beltran and he's going to coach 'em up. Kidding (Chuckles). He is going to do that a little bit.

We've got to find some comfort in figuring out how to take the next 90 feet or how do we respond when another team takes that away. We see a tremendous amount of pitch-outs, we see a lot of slide steps. Our opponents are paying close attention to Altuve and Springer and Marisnick, guys that steal a lot of bases.

When that happens we've got to find competitive edges to be smart base runners. We are always going to be an aggressive team and always run into outs. You don't want the blatant ones that are obvious to all the people that are in the stands or watching the game, but it's hard to be safe if you don't try. We'll always have that mindset, provided that we have the athleticism that we've been able to enjoy the last couple of years.

Q. Do you think you will be able to sense at Spring Training, maybe not internally but just some heightened expectations? Everyone is going to be thinking you guys are going to do a lot of great things. I know you guys have high expectations.
A.J. HINCH: We had 'em last year and to be honest with you, we didn't respond great. I mean, 7-17 in April was not my favorite month in baseball. But we live for that, that's why you play.

I will trust our players to understand you can't just rely on any sort of hype or set of predictions. We don't have to be the favorite or the underdog, we just have to be a good team. I'll tell that to our players, we've got to play every day against our opponent.

The clubhouse will change because the faces have changed. We brought some big personalities in, Reddick is going to entertain the masses. McCann is a tremendous presence. Beltran has a regal approach to him that there is just a lot of respect that comes with him. I think just another maturation year for Altuve and Correa and Springer. We will have some bold personalities and a lot of fun. I will trust that the players understand where that fine line of believing the hype versus going out and doing it. We have to embrace it.

Q. Did you learn anything about managing success last year, having gone to the playoffs and been really close to advancing, that will inform for you going forward?
A.J. HINCH: For managing, it's more pushing your players to understand the reality of how tough it is to win. Winning is hard. No matter how good you are, no matter how good you look on paper, winning is hard every day. You've got to challenge it and answer. For me I learned -- and it's a tough balance. If we lose three of the first four games of the season, is that the time to flip over a table and then I'll get asked about the panic button, or do you let the season get underway? I think that's where you learn your team and your club, they respond differently to different styles.

I think I learned a little bit of the -- in the playoffs in 2015, it's a completely different game. I actually think we learned a lot by winning in 2015, having a miserable month, rolling off four consecutive winning months. We played three games in two years that we haven't been relevant and that was the last three games of last season. That taste in our mouth and that frustration and that anger at the end of the season last year that I saw out of our team tells me we learned a lot about how much fun it is to win than it is to fall short.

Q. Getting guys like Beltran and McCann, how much do you subscribe to the theory that veterans who are good people can really sort of -- because you have young guys who are good players, but how much of an impact do you think that can have?
A.J. HINCH: I think there are certain things you have to experience in the big leagues in order to understand, and when you have more guys as resources for younger players to bounce things off of or have been there, done that, I think that will be key.

We all saw the Anthony Rizzo-David Ross funny exchange in Game 7 of the World Series. David Ross got to that point because of his experience. It's hard to tell a guy what it's going to be like. You have to have lived it and felt it and breathed it. It's nice to have that. As long as they're giving the right message. Veteran players come from different points of view, but what veteran players do, if you haven't won and you know your time is coming to an end, you would be amazed at what you will do to win. And those veteran players understand what it takes to conquer a season and do winning things or create winning baseball.

So I absolutely believe in it. That's not to say you can't go out and have the youngest team in baseball and dominate. We have seen a couple of teams over the last few years be pretty good as young teams. But it's nice to sprinkle in a little bit of everything in the event that experience is needed.

Q. What impact do you think Beltran will have on Correa specifically?
A.J. HINCH: I think our entire team got better with Beltran. I think he's a connector in the clubhouse. To be behind the scenes -- he was that way in his twenties because he was the best player in the room.

While he's now handing the reigns to other players around the game as the best player in the room, he's experienced everything outside of a world championship that you can experience in a room.

Correa can learn a lot from a lot of people. But the respect that Beltran commands in the room, they both have a lot of similarities, Correa probably grew up watching Carlos Beltran. He probably has been to his academy in San Juan. He might be half scared of Beltran for all I know, we'll see. They went to dinner last night. I'm sure it was a great time. We want Beltran to be a mentor and somewhat of an ambassador up to the point where we start competing, then I want him to be a productive bat.

Q. Carlos is a mature kid. It's not like he's a kid who needs somebody to steer him right.
A.J. HINCH: To defend the guys that are coming back, we didn't have a total leadership problem. I think we had different styles of leaders and maybe not as credentialed as leaders on our team. Colby and Carlos Gomez and Luis and Jason Castro provided stability and that was the makeup of the 2015 playoff team. So I don't want to disrespect Altuve, he's a terrific leader in his own way. George Springer brings a lot of energy. It's just that these guys bring decades of stability to a clubhouse. They could walk into any clubhouse in the big leagues, let alone the Astros, and command the respect that comes with a long-tenured career.

Q. How do you plan on using Aoki?
A.J. HINCH: He's a little bit of an under-the-radar acquisition for us. We started with him and we've sort of gotten bigger and bigger as the acquisitions have come. Aoki, I planned on playing in the outfield quite a bit. He's good against right-handed pitching. He's olds his own against lefties. On base he's a tough guy to strike out.

Originally, when we got him, there was a great attraction to his at-bat quality that he could add to our feast or famine notoriety. We had a lot of guys that swung and missed, and a lot of guys that hit home rounds. And Aoki is one of the toughest outs in the big league and that type of balance to our order was attractive. Now that we have added a few pieces, whether he hits in the top of the order or the bottom, how much he plays against left-handed pitching will be determined. But we expect a good at-bat and we expect a competent defender in the outfield. And he, again, is a guy who knows how to -- he's 35, 36 years old, been on playoff teams, played in the World Series. He's done some things that many people in the room haven't, so I expect him to contribute accordingly.

Q. So expect Springer to lead off?
A.J. HINCH: It's a little early, but I like George in the lead-off spot. His on-base and his energy and threat for the home run. Other than the first at-bat of the game, he's usually hitting in the thick of things. And now with the bottom of the order potentially being stronger than before, he might got some RBI opportunities.

I think the toughest spot is going to be in the two-hole and we'll see how that shakes out. And maybe George factors in there as well. But I don't want to be necessarily a team that has top-loaded all righties and bottom-loaded all lefties.

Q. Would you be open to a situation (No microphone.)
A.J. HINCH: Mostly left. We know he can play other outfield spots, but mostly left. And platooning is a tough word because I don't want to commit to that yet. Aoki is a good at-bat against anybody and most of it is going to come down to how well does Jake play, how much outfield can Beltran play, how do we want to factor it.

He's going to get a lot of playing time, a lot of at-bats and he should score a lot of runs especially if he's getting on base. I think those are his greatest strengths, base stealing, base running, the at-bat quality. The better people play the more I want to play 'em. Obviously if he starts playing as well as we could expect, he could even get some left-handed at-bats.

Q. What do you think Keuchel learned from last season?
A.J. HINCH: Well, number one, he's gotta get healthy. He carried the burden of not feeling great for a little while last summer. Finally he couldn't do anymore. I think he probably learned he doesn't have to recreate 2015, he just needs to be Dallas Keuchel, throw strikes, induce soft contact. He won another Gold Glove. He has got a tremendous defense behind him.

I think the walks early in the year were uncharacteristic of him. They stopped swinging at pitches that were marginal and made him work toward the middle of the plate a little bit more. I think being the aggressor and allowing his stuff to first induce contact if he gets ahead then he has a swing-and-miss slider and change-up, but more than anything I think he probably learned he didn't have to be perfect and yet he's gotta be efficient in the strike zone, whether he's in 2015 CY Young form, 2016, where he was up and down or anywhere in between.

Q. Aoki is on the Japanese WBC team?
A.J. HINCH: Yeah, we're going to be hit hard with the WBC and that's a compliment to our players and the WBC teams. Correa, Altuve, Aoki has got a chance to play, I've heard Springer's name, Bregman's name thrown around. Alex is the GM of the Puerto Rican team. So if they're asked, we're supportive of the WBC, we're going to allow our guys to play provided that they're ready to go and healthy and the player wants to do it, we will support it.