Mention A.J. Hinch and you're sure to draw negative reactions. By some accounts, he didn't do well in his first stint as a manager. David Kaplan talked to a GM who said he was the worst manager in the past 10 years.
But was he?
He took over for Bob Melvin in 2009 as a 34 year old manager just 4 years removed from his last AB as a ballplayer. The team was 12-17 under Bob Melvin (.413 pct.) and 58-75 under Hinch (.436). The next year the team got off to a poor start (31 -48, 392 pct) and he was replaced by perhaps his polar opposite, the gritty ballplayer loving Kirk Gibson, who finished with a similar record and winning percentage (34-49, .410) the rest of the year.
In fact, Hinch's combined winning percentage of .420 in 2009-2010 is better than the other two managers -- Melvin and Gibson who managed the Diamondbacks those same two seasons. Hinch is considered a failure those two years, but those two managers had a combined .411 win percentage with the same talent. Was Hinch really that bad or was that team just not ready to win yet?
Hinch was an outside the box choice back then, having been just 34 years years old with his previous experience coming as the team's manager of Minor League Manager Operations followed by a promotion in 2006 to the team's Director of Player Development.
He's still an outside the box choice now.
It may not have been the most successful managing experience in terms of wins and losses, but it was a good experience working with a youthful team. Hinch did a pretty good job working with up and comers like Justin Upton, Dan Haren, Ian Kennedy, Adam LaRoche, Gerardo Parra -- and Edwin Jackson. Talented young players like Chris Young, Kelly Johnson, Mark Reynolds, Miguel Montero, and Stephen Drew had arguably their best years playing for Hinch and actually regressed playing for Gibson.
Nevertheless, Hinch was fired because of his won-loss record. The other two managers have continued managing with Melvin finding success in Oakland and the controversial Gibson hanging on to his job despite two straight disappointing .500 seasons on a team built to win now. Meanwhile Hinch has returned to the front office and now works for the San Diego Padres as their VP of Professional Scouting
The assumption now is that Hinch isn't suited for the dugout steps and belongs in the front office. Maybe he's not a leader, or maybe he's too smart and too analytical and stats-oriented to lead MLB players.
But that's not the case at all according to those who know him well -- including some who currently work in the Cubs front office.
While he does have knowledge of analytics, he is regarded as a player-first type leader. He is well-liked by his players and has the kind of personality that can comfortably communicate with the front office members, players, and even the media.
Moreover, Hinch was once a player with whom the Cubs, both present and future can relate. He was himself once a well-regarded prospect and spent 7 years as an MLB player. Like many great managers, he was a catcher, a position that gives players a unique vantage point on all aspects of the game. Hinch knows the game extremely well.
It's difficult to say exactly why Hinch failed in his first stint, but he wouldn't be the first manager to do so and then go on to have a successful career afterward. And he was, after all, just 34 when he was hired and did as well as two current MLB managers with the same talent. He'll be 40 by the time the next season starts and perhaps the bright up and comer has picked up some wisdom all along the way that he can share with a new group of up and comers.