Astros' AJ Hinch discusses life as an MLB manager, love for Bay Area

Astros' AJ Hinch discusses life as an MLB manager, love for Bay Area

Editor’s note: “As Told To Amy G,” presented by Toyota, will feature exclusive conversations with Giants staff, players and alums, as well as interesting figures around Major League Baseball, throughout the 2019 season. Today, Amy catches up with Houston Astros manager AJ Hinch.

Little-known fact: My father attended Stanford on a baseball scholarship. 

He was a right-handed pitcher with a solid fastball and a good curveball. Once a Cardinal, always a Cardinal, and my dad tends to be my source on any baseball, football or basketball stud at Stanford who might be going pro. 

He follows his alma mater religiously, and I remember my dad talking about AJ Hinch as a player with the A’s, but I was newly out of college, living in LA, and being a sports reporter wasn’t even a blip on my radar. However, when Hinch became the youngest manager in the majors in 2009, I was on my path with the Giants, and his story was not only intriguing as a young, up-and-coming manager, but my dad liked him. So, I liked him too. 

Turns out Hinch was one to watch, and his time working in the NL West with the Diamondbacks and the Padres before heading to Houston gave me many years to get to know him. It was really fun for me to interview him. I knew he loved the Bay Area, but wasn’t from here. He was actually born in Iowa and spent his formative years in Oklahoma. But it was his time at Stanford and with Oakland when the catcher felt he’d really found a place he could settle.

It's a home for me because I feel like I grew up here. And not as my childhood but sort of my, I guess, boy-to-man and college at Stanford. And then right out of college, I ended up in the big leagues in Oakland.

Every time I come to the Bay Area, it feels like home and it feels like, kinda my spot. I go to my favorite places, I make sure I go see the ocean, I see the bridges. I go down to Stanford, check-mark my list. And then the two places we get to play, Oakland and San Francisco, are some of my favorites.

Hinch graduated from Stanford with a degree in psychology. That probably comes in handy when he needs to get inside a player’s head. It also doesn’t hurt that he was a major league catcher. Catchers are basically psychologists, right? It’s a common path for former catchers to become managers, but for Hinch, managing wasn’t really on his mind until an influential baseball figure put it there.

I was young and I was just off the field and I went into the front office right away. Back then, you went one way or the other. You went into scouting and development or you go into the front office and I did a little bit of both. I went into player development as the farm director. A couple years into that, I had lunch with Josh Burns, the general manager of the Diamondbacks at the time. He asked me if I ever considered managing ... he meant the big leagues. 

We had Bob Melvin, who is one of the most respected managers in the game. That was like a reality check for me, you never know what change can come or what opportunities can come and what it did was it kickstarted an obsession with me that I love managing. I love being with the players and working with the front office and that's turned into a career.

At just 34 years old, Hinch replaced Melvin as the Diamondbacks manager on May 8, 2009. Hinch had never managed a game at any level and his youth and inexperience were exposed. He was fired the next season. But words of wisdom from a Bay Area legend helped get him back on track.

Well, I paid my dues because I got fired. Once you get fired from this game, it's like a badge of honor. I think, one, it made me a better manager because it made me realize the volatility of the job. No. 2, it made me realize how important it is to be yourself and be authentic. 

Tony La Russa was one of the first managers to reach out to me when I was hired as a 34-year-old because he could relate to it having been a young manager himself. And he said, 'I want to tell you something. You're only guaranteed your compensation. You never want to make a decision in the game for the sake of making an excuse in the postgame press conference.’ Both very key points of advice that I’ve passed on to younger managers now that I’m not the youngest manager. 

I get to pass on this wisdom. I didn't realize what that advice meant until my second go-around with the Astros. I'm much more comfortable in my shoes, I’m much more comfortable at my desk and my job and the clubhouse.

Yeah, I’d say the second go-around worked out well for Hinch. He’s the epitome of “if at first you don’t succeed….” And there’s nothing better than a comeback kid. In 2017, Hinch and his Houston Astros won the whole thing and they did it at a time while their city was suffering. Not only did it solidify Hinch as a major figure in the managing circle, but it brought hope back to a city that was having trouble believing it could recover.

The time in which we won, in '17, it was such an important year in the history of Houston. One, we've never had one before. Never a parade for baseball in Houston. And the ring and the pride that comes with that. 

On top of that, during Hurricane Harvey, we were the only sport trying to lift the spirits of a devastated city going through one of the biggest hurricanes of all-time. That's hard to put into words. When you can go through a parade, which you have and there's the joy in people's faces -- I just took pictures of the crowd, their facial expressions, from 10-year-olds to 80-year-olds. 

To this day, I will have people stop me at a gas station and thank me for themselves or their parents or their grandparents.

(Photo by AP Images)

Hinch’s plate is full. Not only has he brought the Astros back into the fold as big-time contenders, he also has two daughters in high school. Being a dad in this business isn’t easy, but AJ and his wife Erin created their own traditions and made their girls a real part of their father’s career. 

I've had to go through first dates, the prom, the college decision. She's a driver now. I kind of wish I was that 34-year-old manager again. They used to wear a little tank top that said 'I love the manager.' 

They were so little and now they're great young ladies. My wife Erin and I have included them in everything we do. And that meant missing a lot of school in 2017 and 2018 when we made the playoffs, all the way to the ALCS to the World Series. We just want them to be a part of it, we're building life experiences with them. 

We've been a baseball family; they've been baseball kids raised around the ballpark. Different jobs, whether front office or field … I have to remind them sometimes I used to play because they don't remember that. We've got such a great bond with them through baseball because we've been able to include them in everything.

I couldn’t let Hinch leave without his thoughts on another catcher turned manager: Bruce Bochy. With his retirement looming, I wanted to know what Bochy’s presence in the game has meant to Hinch.

He's a legend. Some of it is due to his success. When you win as much as Boch has won, you immediately garner this attention, this regal feel about you. But, how he's done it and the places he's done it, the consistency he's done it with, he's been nothing short of remarkable. 

He's set an incredibly high bar. You can talk about young managers -- I’m one of them -- we're breaking in a lot differently, guys are getting opportunities maybe even sooner than would have been expected or we earned. When you talk about managers that you want to sort of be like or you want to have success like, Boch is right at the top of that list. 

He's famous, yet he's humble. He's always lent an ear or some advice or ... we've been able to play the Giants a couple times, seeing him at a country bar in San Diego in the offseason. A short conversation with Boch turns into a long conversation because of the wisdom that he's willing to bestow on you and the other guys.

[RELATED: Bochy's career managerial record creates very unique stat]

TOYOTA FAN QUESTION: Steven Babb: @BabbSports
What is your most memorable moment with the River Cats? What was the journey like going from the minors with the Cats and getting the chance to play in the majors?

Great question and I have some funny memories from that time. My most memorable moment with the River Cats was the first game ever played there. We played on the road for six weeks to start the season, so the opener was on May 15th, which happened to be my 26th birthday. The crowd was energized and at capacity -- we even outdrew the A’s that night. The game felt like a major league game.  It was the best facility in the minor leagues I would ever play in.  

Little did I know then that I would someday manage against my manager (Bob Geren), hire two of my teammates on a future major league staff (Bo Porter, Joe Espada) and watch the emergence of some future Bay Area legends (Barry Zito, Mark Mulder and Eric Byrnes).  What a great summer, even if I had to be in AAA.

Follow Amy G on Twitter @AmyGGiants, on Instagram @amygon Facebook, and, of course, watch her on NBC Sports Bay Area’s Giants coverage all season.

New Giants catchers are doing well on defense in this advanced stat

New Giants catchers are doing well on defense in this advanced stat

How do you make up the gap when you still have a large talent deficit most times you take the field? The Giants are trying to do it by exploiting every edge, from platoons to increased shifts to aggressive use of relievers. 

There have been mixed results, but when it comes to the catchers, there's a clear area where they're excelling in finding an edge. 

Tyler Heineman and Chadwick Tromp have had their growing pains as rookies, but both have done a pretty good job at pitch framing, an area of emphasis for new bullpen coach/catching coach Craig Albernaz. 

Per Baseball Savant's framing metrics, Heineman ranks 15th and Tromp is 17th (out of 55 qualified catchers) in strike rate, which looks at how often a catcher converts non-swing pitches into strikes when they're in the "shadow zone," which Savant counts as one ball width inside the zone and one ball width outside. In layman's terms, it's how often catchers are stealing strikes on the edges of the zone with their framing. 

The league average is 49.1 percent. Heineman is at 52.4 percent and Tromp is at 52.1.

"One of (Albernaz's) main points of emphasis is how we can swing counts in our favor for our pitchers, and some of the most important work that they can do is keeping balls that are strikes in the zone," manager Gabe Kapler said. "I think they've done a nice job of that so far and they've responded to Albie's emphasis, and as a staff I think we all believe that the number one job of a catcher is to kind of make a pitcher look great. From that standpoint, the catchers have done a nice job."

[RELATED: Giants activate Cahill, Rodriguez]

The two newcomers have gone about it in similar ways but with different styles. Heineman has been particularly adept at framing pitches on the left edge of the zone, ranking first overall in that area so far, while Tromp is 10th. Tromp ranks eighth on framing low strikes (Heineman has been good there, too, ranking 12th) while using a unique method. Like several other catchers around the game -- including Houston's Gold Glover Martin Maldonado -- Tromp often gets down on his right knee to receive low pitches. It's a setup that might cost him a wild pitch here or there, but should help him steal strikes. 

"The one-knee setup is something that we feel actually makes him slightly more athletic and enables him to push in both directions and be stable and balanced," Kapler said. "It's definitely a work in progress and a focused area of development for Tromp, but it also enables him to get up underneath the low strike, and I think part of the reason that his receiving numbers have been good so far is that the unconventional setup works well for him."

Giants add pitchers Trevor Cahill, Derek Rodriguez in roster shuffle

Giants add pitchers Trevor Cahill, Derek Rodriguez in roster shuffle

On the final day of a long road trip, the Giants added two bulk innings arms and sent two rookies to the alternate site in Sacramento. 

Trevor Cahill and Dereck Rodriguez were called up, with Cahill set to start Wednesday afternoon against the Astros. To clear roster spots, right-hander Rico Garcia and left-hander Conner Menez were optioned. The Giants still have to clear a 40-man roster spot before the game since Cahill was not on it.

Cahill missed the start of camp after injuring a finger with a screwdriver while working on his bicycle. He had been throwing well at the alternate site and is expected to be available for 40-50 pitches tonight. Rodriguez has been on the taxi squad and impressed in two recent bullpen sessions. Kapler said he was sitting 92-94 mph. 

"It's a little bit more difficult to earn a promotion in today's environment, but he had a really good bullpen in Los Angeles and had another good bullpen two days ago," Kapler said. "It's nice to have some length on the roster tonight with the fact that Cahill is not especially stretched out."

While Garcia has been roughed up on this trip, Menez has a 2.38 ERA in seven relief appearances. His demotion was a bit of a surprise. 

[BALK TALK: Listen to the latest episode]

"The message to Conner was there's really not much you can be doing differently," Kapler said. "You're doing a great job. This is more about us getting someone who can give us some length today, and it's not going to hurt him to get a little bit of a blow and come back even stronger."

--- Kapler announced that Johnny Cueto, Kevin Gausman and Logan Webb will start against the A's this weekend. They're likely to face Frankie Montas, Jesus Luzardo and Sean Manaea. 

If you're keeping track at home, the current rotation is Cueto, Gausman, Webb, Tyler Anderson and Cahill. Drew Smyly (finger) is throwing but doesn't sound close to returning. An MRI revealed posterior rotator cuff inflammation and a shoulder impingement for Jeff Samardzija. Seems like he won't be available for a while. 

[RELATED: Where Giants rank in farm system in Baseball America mid-year update]

--- Donovan Solano, the hottest hitter not named Charlie Blackmon, was out of the lineup again with abdominal soreness. 

The Giants are off Thursday and Kapler thought Solano could be ready to start Friday.