USA TODAY US Edition
Hinske takes Rizzo to next level
Eric Hinske is back in the playoffs, but of course you’d expect that, given his track record. His role comes as a bit of a surprise, though.
Hinske is serving as the Chicago Cubs’ assistant hitting coach after spending 2014 as their first-base coach.
His presence doesn’t quite guarantee the Cubs will finally make it back to the World Series for the first time since 1945, but, hey, it has worked for other teams.
Toward the end of Hinske’s nomadic 12year career, he played on consecutive playoff teams from 2007 to 2010, reaching the World Series with the Boston Red Sox (2007), Tampa Bay Rays (2008) and New York Yankees (2009). The Red Sox and Yankees won championships.
“That helped me get jobs for a lot of years now, so I’m not complaining about it,” Hinske said good-naturedly. “I’d rather be lucky than good any day.”
Indications are he’s pretty good at his job. All-Star first baseman Anthony Rizzo has said Hinske’s advice is partly responsible for his improvement against left-handed pitchers. Rizzo — like Hinske, a lefty swinger — batted .189 with a .625 on-base-plus-slugging percentage (OPS) when fac- ing lefties in 2013 but has become a menace against them the last two years, posting a .294 average and a .881 OPS this season.
After a splashy 2002 season that earned him American League rookie of the year honors with the Toronto Blue Jays, Hinske eventually became a platoon player as he handled right-handed pitchers (.785 OPS) much better than lefties (.667). But Hinske had the knowledge of how to approach them, suggesting to Rizzo that he crowd the plate, taking away the inside pitch.
Though Hinske, 38, is quick to point out how talented Rizzo is, his suggestion clearly helped.
“That’s the coolest thing about coaching, when do you have something for a guy and it translates right away,” Hinske said. “When they go in and they see some success, you could tell them to stand on their head and they’d do it.”
Hinske didn’t have to perform any such contortions to land this gig, despite having never coached in the minors. After his final season as a player in 2013, ex-Red Sox general manager Theo Epstein, who had taken over as Cubs president of baseball operations, invited Hinske to interview.
Daniel Murphy’s six postseason home runs — and five in five games after a solo shot in the third inning Tuesday of Game 3 — certainly caught Epstein’s eye.
“This is like Beltranesque,” Epstein said, referring to Carlos Beltran’s outrageous 2004 postseason with the Houston Astros.
“But normally it’s a guy who’s already kind of a star-level player. Murphy’s a really nice player. But up to this point of his career, he hasn’t been that level of player.”
To that point, the Hall of Fame-caliber group of major leaguers with homers in four consecutive postseason games includes Beltran, Lou Gehrig, Reggie Jackson, Jim Thome and Juan Gonzalez.
For pretty good but not great hitters suddenly catching fire and hitting homers in four consecutive postseason games, the only real precedent is Jeffrey Leonard, whose four homers were not enough to lift the San Francisco Giants past the St. Louis Cardinals in the 1987 National League Championship Series.