The Free Press, Mankato, MN

May 13, 2009

A.J. Hinch

The Arizona Diamondbacks raised a considerable number of eyebrows around baseball late last week by replacing Bob Melvin as manager with A.J. Hinch.

The immediate objection is that Hinch has never managed on any level, or even been a coach. He spent pieces of seven years in the majors as a catcher, generally as a backup, then moved into front office work. He was the farm director for Arizona when they made him manager — the Twins version of the job is held, as it has been for decades, by Jim Rantz.

I suspect that the jeers — the Arizona Republic, in its game story on Hinch's first victory, said Hinch is viewed as the Sarah Palin of managers — has less to do with his lack of managerial experience and more to do with his front office background.

There is, for most teams, a certain amount of friction between the front office and the manager. Yes, they're supposed to work together, but the front office often has different priorities than the manager. It might be important to the GM that this rookie play everyday, and the manager might believe that he's got a better chance of winning tonight's game if he plays the veteran. The manager might be eager to pull the plug on a free-agent signing, and the front office might want to give the move more time. This friction is normal; when it gets too intense, somebody has to leave.

The D'backs have made a major commitment to their young players. Chris Young. Justin Upton. Stephen Drew. Mark Reynolds. Max Scherzer. Tony Pena. Conor Jackson. ... This commitment is rooted in necessity; the franchise is still reeling, financially, from the spentthrift ways of the original ownership, which drove the operation to the brink of bankruptcy in winning the 2001 World Series. Young players are cheaper.

But the youngsters were stagnating. Melvin won the divisional title in 2007 with them; he had them in first place much of the first half of 2008; and since then, little good has happened.

By putting Hinch in the dugout, GM Josh Byrnes is in effect saying: These are your guys. You know them. You developed them enough to get to the majors. Now we need to develop them enough to win in the majors, and that's going to be your job too.

But the view elsewhere, it seems, is that Hinch has the job because Byrnes wants a lapdog. Behind this is another sort of friction, that between the old school "baseball men" and the new wave of well-educated, stat-oriented front office types — tagged with the "Moneyball" label after Michael Lewis' popular book.

Byrnes is definitely from the Moneyball school. So is Hinch — he has a degree from Stanford and he spent most of his playing days in the Oakland organization, and the A's are the original Moneyball operation.

Billy Beane, the Oakland GM, has gone through a number of managers, in large part because he keeps hiring old-school guys who don't completely buy into Beane's system and who chafe at the amount of input (or interference) they get from Beane. And I assume that Beane hires these guys because he knows that a manager is only as good as his ability to command the respect of the athletes, and bringing in somebody who has never worn a uniform, who's never working in a professional baseball clubhouse, isn't going to work.

But Hinch has. He straddles both worlds. And in that sense, he's a logical selection for the Arizona job.

e-mail Edward Thoma