Q&A: Eric Hinske on becoming a coach, analytics, not living up to ROY

Toronto Blue Jays third baseman Eric Hinske (11) smiles as he is congratulated by first base coach John Gibbons after driving in the winning run during eigth inning AL action against the Detroit Tigers in Toronto on Sunday Sept. 29, 2002. (Frank Gunn/CP)

CHICAGO – Eric Hinske won the World Series as a player with the Boston Red Sox and New York Yankees and last year as the assistant hitting coach for the Chicago Cubs as they ended their 108-year championship drought.

The difference between the experiences?

“Much more stressful as a coach because you can’t do it yourself, you can just give the knowledge, be part of their routine and just watch,” says the former Toronto Blue Jays corner infielder. “Everybody asks me if it was fun last year. Yeah, it was fun, but it was a lot of work and these guys had the weight of the world on their shoulders. It was an honour to be a part of it with them, honestly. Going down 3-1 wasn’t ideal but the way it worked out was the way it was supposed to happen.”

Hinske is now four seasons into a promising second career that started in 2014 as the Cubs’ first base coach, before he moved into an assistant hitting coach role the next season. The 40-year-old joined the coaching ranks right after a 12-year big-league career that began in 2002 with the Blue Jays, when he won the American League rookie of the year award.

The next season a broken hamate bone in his right hand sapped his production and he never regained the form from his rookie season, when he looked to be a franchise cornerstone. Still, he hung around and had a very solid career, contributing to winning teams, adapting to new situations and roles as they came to him.

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“The bottom line is I just never lived up to my first year. I’m OK with that,” Hinske says. “I don’t know what else to say. I know a lot of people don’t like me in Toronto. I can tell you I went out there and tried, every day, I went out there and played my butt off. I always look to ’04 as the year I didn’t play as well as I should have. Coming off that injury, I was ready to perform, I was in shape, and I just didn’t have a great year. I played 155 games and I only hit 15 homers. It’s all right. It’s cool.”

Here’s his discussion with Sportsnet:

SN: How did you make the transition from playing to coaching?

Hinske: I took what I’ve learned throughout my whole career, being an everyday player, to a bench guy, to a platoon player and being my own manager at times, I knew when I was seven or eight years deep that I wanted to coach, for sure, because I was good with younger players, I would teach them how to be in the big leagues, this is what we do, this is the routine, all of that, and I think it translated pretty well.

Being in my fourth year of coaching, now, I think the guys trust me. At first you’ve got to win their trust, and then they’ll do what you say to them. It’s a good relationship with us, for sure. It was a good year (in 2016), a long year, everything kept going the right way, it was really cool. It was fun.

SN: Do you specifically remember when you first felt the desire to eventually coach?

Hinske: In 2007. That was my first year of bench play, I got 186 at-bats, so I had to learn how to not care about myself so much and just trust that I can work hard to get ready to help that team win today, it wasn’t about me playing every day. That’s where I learned not be, for lack of a better word, selfish. So then Tampa in ’08 was when Evan Longoria was a rookie, and then he latched on to me pretty quick and I realized he was doing what I told him and he was going to trust what I say.

When you first get up, you don’t know what to do all the time, what time to show up, what the routine is. Later on I went to Atlanta and they had Freddie Freeman and Jason Heyward and I did well with them, too. I was like, “I don’t ever want to get out of baseball, this is all I know, so I’m going to do it as long as they let me.”

SN: Who was the guy who helped you as a rookie with the Blue Jays?

Hinske: My guy for sure was Carlos Delgado. He’s a big left-handed hitter, he taught me approach stuff, what to look for, we’re facing this guy tonight, look for this, let’s drive in runs, he took me to dinner all the time. Great dude. Miss him.

SN: What did you find hardest when you first started coaching?

Hinske: I’ll tell the truth – staying for all nine innings of a spring training game. That was the hardest thing to do. As a player you never have to stay for nine innings, especially as a veteran guy. When I was first base coach and standing out in the sun in Arizona watching No. 84 pitch, I was like, “Man these are long days.” But then you get used to it and it’s awesome.

It’s a good way to give the knowledge you learned over a long career and help the next wave of guys. The game goes on, no matter who’s here.

SN: Do you have a specific philosophy as a hitting coach?

Hinske: In general I have the mechanical stuff I go to. I had a whole lot of different swings because they all weren’t working. I’ve helped with approach stuff, with mechanical stuff, with moving around in the box, how to beat a shift, all kinds of stuff.

SN: How has baseball’s information revolution evolved from when you started out in 2002 to now, and how have you adapted to that?

Hinske: Analytics is the new wave of the game. I remember when they used to say, “Man, you crushed that ball.” Now they say, “Nice exit velocity.” Yeah. That’s weird.

There’s just so much information that they have and they know what they’re talking about. You’ve got to buy into it. As a player, all you know is to go in there and stand in the box with 50,000 people watching. But all this information comes down, there are all these analytics guys and they know what they’re talking about. And if you don’t buy into it you’re gone. You’ve got to keep up with the Joneses, you know? I dig it, I think it’s all cool, you just have to pick through it. Too much information is bad sometimes. Sometimes I just want to know the pitch, the velocity and what’s his out-pitch.

SN: How do you parcel out information to players?

Hinske: They’re all different. Some want a lot, like Ben Zobrist. He wants it all. Anthony Rizzo doesn’t even want a percentage (of pitches a pitcher throws). You have to get in there, you have to make time for every player, you have to know that they’re getting ready for a game and it’s all about them.

It’s a players’ game, and you’re not the product any more as a coach. You’re just there to help and impart knowledge and be there with them every step of the way.

SN: What are your aspirations in coaching? Could you see yourself as a manager one day?

Hinske: I think I’d be good at it, I do. I can’t say I don’t want to do that, but I’m in no rush to do that. I love it here, I don’t want to go anywhere else. I just come to work every day and stay in my lane. I’m the assistant hitting coach for the Cubs. That’s all I say right there. Try not to get into any trouble. But we’ll see what the future holds.

I just turned 40, so I hope I can keep doing it for a long time.