What do we know about A.J. Hinch, other than the fact the Chicago White Sox are rumored to be very interested in the possibility of making him their next manager?
Well, we know he’s a cheat and a liar, and when caught with so much evidence he has no choice but to quit lying, he’ll weasel and whimper and pass the buck. But despite all that happening in his recent stint as manager of the Houston Astros, we also know that if you scan through the myriad of postings and comments on this and other White Sox fan sites, you’ll find that most pick Hinch to take the helm. Pretty amazing.
Now, it could be that all those fans are dedicated to cheating and lying, that they themselves are cheaters and liars and they’re raising their children to cheat at Little League or soccer or school tests or Parcheesi, because, what the heck, sports build character and that’s the character they want their kids to have. Seems unlikely, but you never know.
More likely is a belief that Hinch is just so doggoned great a manager that it’s worth the stench, and having the integrity of all the Sox players questioned during the length of his tenure. Never mind there are many other fine alternatives without blots on their records. Can’t make an omelet without a few rancid eggs, right?
So maybe we really ought to check that record, to see just how great it is, even if we just skate over things like honesty. After all, he had three 100+ win seasons, with two trips to the World Series, including a big trophy for one. But was it Hinch, really?
Because Hinch is supposed to be great at analytics, let’s analyze.
Let’s go back
Hinch’s first managerial job was with the Arizona Diamondbacks, taking over in early 2009 and being fired in mid-2010. He chalked up a combined 89-123 record — a .420 percentage if you’re scoring at home — the worst non-interim record of any manager in Diamondbacks history. It’s a short history, but still ...
That record did not make him a hot commodity on the managerial front, so he wound up heading up scouting for the Padres through 2014.
Yeah, yeah, but let’s get to Houston
In 2015, Astros GM Jeff Luhnow was looking for a path out of the pains of rebuilding and a manager to lead the way, and hit upon Hinch. Perhaps it was a natural move, because Luhnow himself was a numbers-cruncher with a background in non-sports business (much with a company that seems to make the news a lot under accusations of malfeasance, but that’s another story) and would be inclined toward a fellow cruncher.
Right off, that looked like a good move. In 2014, the Astros had gone 70-92, and in Hinch’s first season they jumped to 86-76. Wow: A 16-game improvement, pretty impressive, right? The offense even jumped up by 100 runs, 629 to 729.
And it would have been very impressive, if hiring Hinch was the only move the team made that year, but it wasn’t. Not even close. They turned over half the lineup.
They brought up Carlos Correa, their former No. 1 draft pick, who proceeded to hit 22 homers, amass 68 RBIs, and have an OPS of .857. They picked up Evan Gattis in a trade with Atlanta, and he was good for 27 dingers and 88 RBIs. Luis Valbuena came from the Cubs and was 25/56. Colby Rasmus was signed as a free agent, good for 25/61.
That’s 99 homers and 271 ribbies from those four alone. Sure, the people they replaced wouldn’t have gone 0/0, but they had nowhere even close the production of the new guys. And on the pitching side, they picked up two key relievers, closer Luke Gregerson and Will Harris (who delivered a 1.90 ERA).
So was it Hinch, or was he just along for the ride? More stats showing it was the latter later, but first, after sliding back two wins in 2016, we move on to:
But what about 2017?
Now, 2017 is the first year we know the Astros were engaged in widespread, systematic cheating that Hinch pretended not to see, so there is that. But aside from banging on trash cans, which just possibly helped them jump from 724 runs scored in 2016 to 896, there were a few key additions that helped Houston soar to a 101-61 record, the first of three straight years with triple-figure wins.
Alex Bregman, who had been brought up in mid-2016, became a regular and contributed 19 homers and 71 RBIs. Brian McCann came from the Mets and went 18/62 in just 97 games. Josh Reddick was signed as a free agent and contributed 13/82 with an .847 OPS.
As for pitchers, Charlie Morton was signed as a free agent and went 14-7. And they got some guy named Verlander at the trade deadline, and he went 5-0 and was somewhat useful in the playoffs.
Are you going to taint 2019, too?
We know the cheating continued well into 2018, but we don’t know when it actually stopped. We just know for how long there was so much evidence that even a total wimp like commissioner Rob Manfred couldn’t ignore it. Or maybe Manfred was just so busy making sure the ball was so juiced it would drown the game in homers he didn’t have time to check.
But, yeah, we should still point out that the Astros, having traded for Gerrit Cole in 2018 (good for 35-10 over ’18 and ’19, also picked up Zack Greinke from Arizona midseason, good for an 8-1 record. Your grandmother could win a pennant managing Verlander, Cole and Greinke, and she probably would have won the World Series, too.
The Astros did make a huge leap upward in homers and runs in 2019 — but then, so did all of MLB, thanks to the aforementioned Manfred and his inordinate fondness for balls labeled Titleist. It also didn’t hurt that they brought up Yordan Alvarez (27/78) and signed Michael Brantley (22/90) as a free agent.
And, yes, yes, with Hinch gone, the Astros fell to 29-31 in 2020, They also had lost Cole to free agency and Verlander to injury. That would ruin any team’s record.
Pretty much everyone agrees that baseball managers don’t have the impact on games that basketball or football coaches do, but there are bound to be some games where they matter, right?
Of course there are: The close games.
Which is another area which ought to put a hitch in your Hinch.
During Hinch’s tenure, the Astros were 481-329, for a solid .594 percentage. But where they really dominated was in blowouts, defined by Baseball-Reference as a spread of five or more runs. In those games, in which it’s highly unlikely the manager made any difference, Houston was an amazing 152-70 (a .685 percentage, the equivalent of averaging 111 wins a year).
On the other end of the spectrum, where the manager could really make a difference, the Astros were only 116-110 in one-run games (a .509 percentage, or the equivalent of 82.5 wins a year). Not exactly awe-inspiring. Heck, in the 103-win season of 2018, Houston was only 24-24 in those games.
Managerial genius? Doesn’t look like it.
Still like Hinch? Let’s go to WAR
Specifically bWAR, since I’ve already used Baseball-Reference data.
WAR is not always the most descriptive statistic in the world, but it is helpful, especially when looking over a whole bunch of games, such as, oh, five seasons. It allows you to total up all the evaluations of individual performances on a team, then compare them to what actually happened. Then you can see whether the whole was greater or less than the sum of the parts, a common leadership evaluation.
In computing WAR, you start with a base of 47.7 wins if a team were all replacement players, then add up the individual scores. In Hinch’s five years in Houston, he never had a season where actual wins were greater than what WAR indicated they should be. 2016 and 2017 were basically washes, a point or less either way, but wins fell 8.3 short in 2015, 3.7 short in 2018, seven short in 2019.
Such a WAR computation is by no means a be-all and end-all, since lucky bounces may have more to do with a given game than managerial prowess, but while Hinch ends up with minus 19, Dave Roberts of the Dodgers, also blessed with a highly-skilled team and matching expectations, was 14.3 to the good over the same period.
Also, if you choose the alternative managerial evaluation method, simply comparing actual record to pythagorean record (which is simply projected record based on run differential), Hinch looks really, really bad. Only two seasons are in the positive column (+2 wins in 2017, +1 in 2016) but overall is -15. So by sheer run production and prevention, Hinch’s teams lost 15 more games than they should have, which averages to roughly three per season.
But what about those intangible-y things
We can cast out thinking about leadership, not just because of the WAR data, but because Hinch’s lawyer-speak confession in the aftermath of the cheating scandal went to a great deal of trouble to demonstrate he really had no control over his team and it couldn’t really have been his fault all that bad stuff went on ... and on ... and on. Still, there are reasonable questions about such things as improved pregame preparations that might have helped individual players garner the WAR that was so impressive.
Thing is, such things are no secret. They’re not trademark- or copyright-able. Players not only talk amongst teams, but they get traded amongst teams. If there is any super prep that Houston did under Hinch, Dallas Keuchel will long since have passed it along to the Sox (might even be that failing to listen is a reason Keuchel lit a fire under the team when it was slumping). There’s no reason to hire Hinch to find out.
But he’s served his time, right?
Hank Aaron said those involved in the scandal should be banned from baseball for life. But, then, Hank Aaron is an extremely honorable man, so what does he know? Yet, if Hinch isn’t even any good, is he worth the grief? Worth the damage to the White Sox and their players?
The argument even suffers without considering ability. In a criminal equivalent, should a drug dealer who has served his time and claimed to be remorseful be allowed to have gainful employment? Sure.
Only maybe not in a pharmacy.