Player development will be pivotal for AJ Hinch. Here’s a few examples that paid off.
On September 28, 2014, the Detroit Tigers clinched the last of their four-straight American League Central titles with a 3-0 shutout win over Minnesota. The next day, the Houston Astros surprised many in baseball by hiring AJ
Hinch, who served as the interim manager of the Arizona Diamondbacks in 2009 before being fired 79 games into his first full season a year later.
The Diamondbacks replaced AJ Hinch with Kirk Gibson, who went onto win NL Manager of the Year in 2011.
Meanwhile, Hinch was developing behind the scenes. After spending time in the dugout, Hinch jumped into a front-office role as the vice president of professional scouting for nearly four years with the San Diego Padres. For someone so young, Hinch had extensive experience in both roles, which likely made him appealing for an up-and-coming Houston Astros team. The now 46-year-old was named Houston’s manager and watched his team become successful almost immediately, culminating in a 2017 World Series title.
This piece focused on players who improved massively under Hinch’s tutelage — call it “The Hinch Affect.” This particular feature won’t be a deep dive into the sign-stealing scandal. You can get that many other places, but for these purposes, we’ll pivot from position players on the 2017 team to see what we can find in terms of high-level player development – especially among pitchers between the 2015-2019 seasons.
1. Charlie Morton — Astros Pitcher, 2017-2018
Baseball fans love Charlie Morton. Anytime a player gets better past their perceived peak, it creates excitement. Many forget that Morton was an underwhelming pitcher at-best during the first eight years of his career, where he amassed a record of 45-70 between a season in Atlanta and the next seven in Pittsburgh. It wasn’t until 2017 when he landed in Houston where he posted a career-best record of 14-7 while setting a personal-high in strikeouts (163) at the tender age of 33. He was named an American League All-Star each of the next two seasons before leaving for Tampa as a free agent. On Friday, the Tampa Bay Rays declined Morton’s $15M option. If the soon-to-be 37-year old fancies a reunion with the manager who helped him break out in 2017, he could sign as a free agent while mentoring a young pitching staff a la Kenny Rogers in 2006.
2. Dallas Keuchel — Astros Pitcher, 2012-2018
Consider Keuchel a case of when Hinch helps take a player from good-to-great. The southpaw posted an ERA over five each of his first two seasons in Houston before going 12-9 with a 2.93 ERA in 29 contests. Despite pitching five complete games that season, Keuchel did not make the All-Star, nor did he receive a single vote for the Cy Young Award. As Hinch arrived in 2015, Keuchel dominated in his age-27 season, going 20-8 with a 2.48 ERA in 33 games and a career-high 232 innings. He punctuated that season with an All-Star nomination, Gold Glove, finishing fifth in the American League MVP voting, and capturing the 2015 A.L. Cy Young Award. He made another All-Star team in 2017 and has carried things over into solid one-year performances with the Braves and White Sox the past two seasons.
3. Will Harris — Astros Pitcher, 2015-2019
Harris, like Morton, would be considered a late bloomer. Drafted in 2006, the big Texan spent seven years in the minors waiting to get his first big-league opportunity in 2012. The righty amassed a 4.26 ERA in 110 games during his first three MLB seasons before heading to Houston. His first season with the Astros saw his ERA drop from 4.34 in 2014 to 1.90 the following year. The most telling statistic of his dominant five-year run in Houston is his WHIP, which was a staggering 0.99 in more than 300 games.
4. Luis Valbuena — Astros Infielder, 2015-2016
Many Tigers fans remember Valbuena from any time they said, “Did we really just give up a home run to Luis Valbuena?” It felt like much more, but the late Valbuena, who was tragically killed in an automobile accident during an attempted robbery in December 2018, clubbed four homers against Detroit during his 11-year MLB career. After averaging just over six home runs a season his first seven years in the Majors, Valbuena blasted 38 homers and drove in 96 in only two years with the Astros in 2015 & ’16. Of the 8.9 WAR Valbuena amassed in his big league career, 4.9 of it came in his two Houston seasons. He’s the only position player on this list given that his success came before the assumed implementation of the sign-stealing scandal in 2017.
5. Tony Sipp — Astros Pitcher, 2014-2018
Tigers fans should also remember Sipp, who averaged 60 games per season as a member of the Cleveland Indians from 2009-2012. The lefty posted an ERA of 3.68 in that time, but it looks a little worse when you account for the advanced metric of ‘Fielding Independent Pitching’ or ‘FIP,’ which sat at 4.70, suggesting his ERA should’ve been higher. His second season in Houston coincided with Hinch’s arrival, and Sipp became a trusted piece in the Astros’ pen, posting a career-low 1.99 ERA with a FIP of 2.93 in 60 games. Sipp was even more effective in the postseason, having never allowed an earned run in 9 career appearances. It’s a clear indication that Hunch used him in advantageous matchups and typically deployed him at the right time.
Which current Tigers do you think Hinch could improve? Leave a comment below and find Dan on Twitter at @ThatDanHasty!