How AJ Hinch learned an epic lesson: 'Pour the foundation before you build the house'

Evan Petzold
Detroit Free Press

LAKELAND, Fla. — On June 17, 2009, a red-hot AJ Hinch gave everyone hell.

Thirty-nine days separated Hinch's managerial debut and that outburst in the clubhouse at Kauffman Stadium in Kansas City. Fellow coaches had begged him to avoid a team meeting. His Arizona Diamondbacks were facing Zack Greinke, one of the best pitchers in the majors, that evening.

The youngest manager in baseball — with no prior coaching experience — didn't listen.

"I fired off a lot of different reasons why I thought we were losing," Hinch recalled for the Free Press this spring. "Like what we were doing wrong and all the things I wanted to dump on the players. To me, it was a showcase of leadership to handle things directly."

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Detroit Tigers manager A.J. Hinch adjusts his mask as he stands on the dugout steps during the team's spring training baseball game against the Pittsburgh Pirates in Bradenton, Fla., Tuesday, March 2, 2021.

Twelve years later, Hinch is far removed from that tirade. He is now the manager of the Detroit Tigers, armed with coaching lessons learned.

The 46-year-old walks into the spring training clubhouse in Lakeland and doesn't need to earn the respect of his youth-filled roster. He doesn't need to convince anyone — especially not himself — of his capabilities as a manager. Four postseasons, two World Series appearances and one flashy championship ring are all the credentials he needs.

But in 2009, Hinch threw himself into a misconception about what a manager is supposed to do in troubling times, creating tension among those who were supposed to trust him. The Diamondbacks, already 15 games back in the National League West, had lost six of their past eight games.

So, Hinch snapped at his team.

"What I didn't realize is you go out and yell at your team about how bad you are, and that day you're facing one of the best pitchers in baseball," Hinch said. "It's a nuance of how you handle the motivation of your team."

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Tigers manager AJ Hinch hits ground balls during the workout at Joker Marchant Stadium in Lakeland, Florida, on Saturday, Feb. 20, 2021.

Hinch was hired by the Tigers on October 30 to change the culture, to bring a World Series parade to Detroit for the first time since 1984. But to truly understand how, and why, Hinch was hired to do this job, it's crucial to understand where he came from and how he became — as Tigers outfielder Robbie Grossman explained — "the best communicator I've been around in this game."

Not his childhood in Nashua, Iowa, and then Midwest City, Oklahoma, where he was the 1992 National Gatorade Player of the Year in baseball. Not his Stanford days, where he picked up the psychology degree that still aids him in discovering what makes each player tick. Not his woeful major-league career, where he flamed out as a backup catcher after 350 games across parts of seven seasons. Not Houston, where he rose to the top of the managerial ranks in short order.

But Arizona.

Let's start there.

"Yeah, it wasn't a fun year," former Diamondbacks catcher Miguel Montero told the Free Press. "Everything went downhill. It was tough when you have a guy who never managed before dealing with a team, but he can't win a ballgame. Unfortunately, we sucked."

'The clubhouse was a mess'

Not long before Hinch's 2009 rant, then-Diamondbacks general manager Josh Byrnes invited Hinch to lunch and started talking about the art of managing a baseball team. Hinch, four years into his role as the director of player development — his first job since his playing career ended — assumed his boss was upset with one of the managers in the minor leagues.

That's when Byrnes made his message clear. He asked Hinch to manage in the major leagues. He was set to fire Bob Melvin, beloved by many players, during the season to hand Hinch the first coaching job of his life.

"I never even really thought about it," Hinch said. "We had never talked about it, and it was kind of thrust upon me. Once I got comfortable about the idea of getting back in uniform, and getting back in place, it was a challenge."

Josh Byrnes and new Arizona Diamondbacks manager A.J. Hinch talk to the media at Chase Field.

Eight days into Hinch's tenure, pitching coach Bryan Price quit. He called the new hire "a poor decision" and explained "there was no way I could stay" with Hinch in charge. "He doesn't have any credibility between the lines as a manager," Price said.

On top of that, some players didn't respect him, for two reasons.

One, they loved Melvin.

Two, Hinch came from the front office.

"He had all the veteran guys on his side," Montero said about Melvin, who was hired two years later by the Oakland Athletics and has been there since. "The reason why is because he was a good communicator, good manager. They figured the way he got fired was a bad call, that it wasn't his fault that we were losing. Guys weren't happy. The clubhouse was a mess."

Meanwhile, Hinch was only 34 when he took over a veteran club. A few of the players in Arizona were his former teammates; a few more were nearly the same age.

Baseball has a hierarchy. The front office, Hinch's previous home, possesses almost all the control. The players on the field, despite their big paychecks, can feel voiceless when tough decisions are made by those not in uniform.

"The more I learned about it, the more I understood the players and coaches having a head-scratcher moment when Bob was let go," Hinch said. "How I was viewed at the time was as a front office guy. It was always crazy to me because I'd spent much more time in uniform than I ever did in front office attire."

Learning to communicate

Upon getting hired by the Tigers, Hinch prioritized contacting his players.

He texted future Hall of Famer Miguel Cabrera; his teammates, young and old, are drawn to his greatness. He called left-hander Matthew Boyd; he is the voice of reason within the clubhouse.

Spring training began with individual meetings. He spoke to each player, sharing what he expected from them and outlining an individualized plan. Hinch keeps an open-door policy. If you want to talk, walk straight into his office.

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Tigers manager AJ Hinch speaks to his team during the workout at Joker Marchant Stadium in Lakeland, Florida, on Saturday, Feb. 20, 2021.

It wasn't always this way, though.

Not in Arizona.

"I tried to look the part, act the part," Hinch said. "Players just want their managers to be themselves and be open and direct. I didn't quite understand the individualization of the players' careers, the communication with each guy. Some like a lot of attention, some don't need a lot of attention. Some are texters, some are communicators in person. Some you can get on pretty heavily, others you have to be more delicate.

"The nuances of handling players and their careers, running the clubhouse so to speak, you don't know that until you experience it."

Calling out his players in Kansas City, moments before facing Greinke, led to a convincing win, but the choice to break down their flaws weakened the long-term camaraderie. For each of the things the Diamondbacks were doing wrong, Hinch later realized he never set the expectation of doing those things his way.

"You got to pour the foundation before you build the house," Hinch said. "I didn't know that as a young manager."

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Diamondbacks manager A.J. Hinch watches his team at Chase Field in 2010.

Hinch, along with Byrnes, was fired on July 1, 2010, after starting the next season with a 31-48 record. He finished with an 89-123 mark; his .420 winning percentage is the lowest for a manager in the franchise's history.

"You could hire Bruce Bochy at that time, we were still going to suck," Montero said. "We weren't that good. We were playing shitty. The reality is they blamed AJ for us not playing good. But we should be the one to blame because we sucked."

AJ Hinch... GM?

Upon retiring as a player in 2005, Hinch had chosen to chase a general manager job. That was why he accepted a job in the Diamondbacks' front office, rather than a minor-league coaching gig elsewhere.

But Hinch's first stint as a manager created a different path.

"My thought was it would go one direction or another," Tigers vice president of player personnel Scott Bream, one of Hinch's close friends, told the Free Press. "Either he would go on and be a general manager or get back on the field to be a manager. He's very unique. He could have gone both directions. There aren't a lot of those out there."

Two months after getting fired from the Diamondbacks, Hinch joined the San Diego Padres as their vice president of professional scouting. He stuck around until August 2014. Bream worked there with him from 2011-12 as a special assistant to the general manager, with an emphasis on scouting.

Hinch and Bream spoke daily. They were loyal to each other.

But Bream isn't the only person who thinks Hinch had, and still has, the chops to be a general manager. After departing San Diego for the Astros' manager job, Hinch worked closely with Mike Elias, now the Baltimore Orioles' GM.

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Mike Elias, the Baltimore Orioles' new executive vice president and general manager, speaks at a baseball news conference, Monday, Nov. 19, 2018, in Baltimore. (AP Photo/Patrick Semansky)

Elias served as the director of amateur scouting in Houston from 2011-15, before becoming the organization's assistant general manager in 2016. And Elias — understanding what it takes to be a GM — believes Hinch could become one, if he ever again desires the role.

"I certainly wouldn't be surprised by it," Elias told the Free Press. "By his experiences and his intellect, he's equipped to do whatever he wants or seeks to do in baseball. His resume has prepared him, in the way he thinks about and knows the game, to sit in any of those chairs."

Hinch is flattered but remains completely focused on the Tigers.

With the Padres, he didn't rule out either career path.

"I wanted the game to push me in one direction or another," Hinch said. "And if an opportunity presented itself, then great."

So, when the Astros came calling in September 2014, Hinch jumped at the chance to wear the uniform again. Ex-Houston general manager Jeff Luhnow viewed Hinch as the solution to bringing the franchise its first World Series championship.

Hinch was determined to rewrite his managerial career.

"AJ Hinch wasn't being AJ Hinch (in Arizona)," Bream said. "The experience of Arizona, the experience in San Diego in a different leadership role, I just saw a guy that took that role in Houston, and it was, 'You know what, I'm going to be AJ Hinch, and let the chips fall where they may.' Obviously, there was a lot of success."

Finally, Hinch wins

Unlike his Diamondbacks tenure, Hinch began with an entire offseason to develop relationships and formulate a plan. Emerging from a rebuild, the Astros had weapons: Jose Altuve, Carlos Correa, George Springer, Marwin Gonzalez, Lance McCullers Jr. and Dallas Keuchel.

That was where Hinch adopted his open-door policy. He set expectations and gave brutally honest assessments of each player in spring training. He infused a winning mindset — his mindset — into the guys.

"I think that really resonated with pretty much everybody at that point," Keuchel told the Free Press. 

He displayed trust in his players.

"He let me dictate the game," Keuchel said. "He came to me, asking me, 'Hey, how do you feel? Do you got another one? How many (pitches) do you got left?' That was the first time anybody communicated that to me, that this is your game, and I'm not going to have my own agenda. Personally, that stood out."

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Feb 19, 2016; Kissimmee, FL, USA; Houston Astros manager A.J. Hinch (14) and Houston Astros pitcher Dallas Keuchel (60) have some fun during the workout at Osceola County Stadium. Mandatory Credit: Jonathan Dyer-USA TODAY Sports

In 2015, Hinch took the Astros to the postseason, falling a win short of the ALCS. Still, it was the team's first playoff appearance since 2005.

Hinch felt validated. 

Being himself worked.

"You could see, from '15 to '16, a breath of fresh air in his own mind," Keuchel said. "He was confident in his ability to put these guys in a position to win. I couldn't admire him more for that first year, bouncing back from just a bad experience (in Arizona)."

“AJ’s one of the smartest baseball people I’ve ever been around," said former Tigers outfielder Cameron Maybin, who played for Hinch in 2017. "He really understands the game. You want to make AJ look good. He’s that type of guy."

"He's a great manager, and he's super smart," Gonzalez added. "We were getting close to winning, and he proved it through the years. He was creating the way, little by little. And then, he finally got it."

On Nov. 1, 2017, the Astros beat the Los Angeles Dodgers in the World Series. A baseball team paraded through Houston for the first time in history.

"That immediately changes everything," Hinch said.

Falling from greatness

For the next 803 days, Hinch was regarded among the best managers in baseball. He took the Astros back to the ALCS in 2018. The following season, he returned to the World Series but lost in Game 7. There were no more doubts — Hinch was a winner, and his confidence was sky high.

Until Jan. 13 2020, when his career crashed.

Former Houston Astros manager and current Detroit Tigers manager AJ Hinch is looking forward to spring training with his new team.

That was the day Hinch was handed a season-long suspension from MLB and subsequently fired by the Astros for his role in the 2017 cheating scandal (uncovered in 2019). His players had used cameras to steal signs and banged on trash cans to signal upcoming pitches, gaining an unfair advantage en route to winning the World Series. While Hinch wasn't an active participant in the plan, he did not do enough to stop his team's actions.

"He got the raw end of the deal," Keuchel said. "The manager is always the first one to get punished for anything. I feel really bad for him because he wasn't the one that wanted to do exactly what was going on. But you live and you learn."

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Hinch served his suspension through the 2020 season and, 30 minutes after the World Series concluded, Tigers GM Al Avila called him. Three days later, he became the newest manager of the Tigers, a team seeking its own exit from a rebuild.

And Hinch, unafraid to discuss the cheating, won't hide from his past.

"When it came out about what happened in '17, I had been through multiple Game 7s, we won three divisions," Hinch said. "Like, you're a different manager, and you're a different person, and you're a different leader. It's always easy to look back and say I'd handle it different, and I would.

"I'm embarrassed, regretful and sorry that I didn't handle it well, but moving forward, it's the biggest learning lesson that I'll ever have as a leader."

Seeking validation again

When Hinch arrived in Lakeland for spring training, he addressed the entire team about the sign-stealing plot in Houston, offering yet another apology. He believes the players have moved on and embraced him as their manager.

Yet the conversation was raw.

"It's very personal," Hinch said. "It was emotional. Ultimately, it was vulnerable for me to stand in front of a group of guys and tell them exactly why I'm lucky to be back in the manager's chair."

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With the lessons learned in Arizona, San Diego and Houston behind him, but always on his mind, Hinch is focused on returning to his winning ways.

He seeks validation again, in the same way the Tigers' organization does. And winning is simply the best way to rescript even the hardest-hitting narratives.

"Experience, while not always necessary, paves the way for future decisions and future ways of handling things," Hinch said. "Those experiences in Arizona made me better in Houston. The experiences in Houston will make me better in Detroit."

Evan Petzold is a sports reporter at the Detroit Free Press. Contact him at epetzold@freepress.com or follow him on Twitter @EvanPetzold.