The Colorado Rockies are less than a week into their first Spring Training with Bud Black at the helm, but it’s already clear that their new skipper is going to be a pitcher’s manager. That shouldn’t come as earth-shattering news; after all, Black pitched in the majors for 15 years. But it’s a welcome change for a team whose pitching has been its undoing for most of its history.
Black spoke postgame on Wednesday following a 3-1 loss to the Kansas City Royals at Surprise Stadium, and it was what he had to say about starter Tyler Anderson‘s performance that should have Rockies fans excited. Anderson struck out three batters in two innings pitched, allowing no runs and no hits. It was a marked improvement over his Spring Training debut on Feb. 25 when he allowed three earned runs in 1.1 innings pitched.
“The tempo to his delivery was much better,” Black said on the field after the loss. “You know, five days ago he was rushing his pitches – all of them. Today, tempo was great. He was in rhythm, stayed back over the rubber, delivered his pitches.”
It’s been few and far between that Rockies managers have been able to speak with such pointedness on a pitcher’s mechanics. Black is the first manager in the team’s history to bring a primarily pitching background to the job. Of their other previous managers, only Jim Leyland, a catcher in his minor league playing days, ever brought a “battery” mindset to the Colorado dugout.
The Rockies have always been a high-scoring team, even in lean years. The 2012 team that finished a franchise-worst 64-98 still ranked sixth in Major League Baseball in runs scored and second in batting average. Over the past five years they’ve not ranked outside the top five in batting average or outside the top 10 in runs scored, but pitching has been another story.
Behind managers Walt Weiss and Jim Tracy over that same stretch, Colorado ranked in the bottom four or worse in both ERA and opponents’ batting average all five years. They were dead last in five of those 10 rankings. But there were signs enough of a turnaround in 2016 that general manager Jeff Bridich and owner Dick Monfort made the move to a pitching-centric manager.
Following Colorado’s 3-1 win over the Padres on Wednesday, Black was focused on the effort of the veterans who saw action.
“Tyler [Chatwood] had a couple walks, but I thought his stuff was good and I like the fact that he mixed some pitches and, you know, threw the curveball today, which was a priority for him to get it into play. But I thought all our guys down the line – I thought the three veteran guys in the middle of the game threw the ball well, made some pitches,” Black said.
Jason Motte and Chad Qualls, both who missed significant time in 2016 with injuries, pitched scoreless, hitless frames. Newcomer Mike Dunn also went an inning and did not allow a hit. Dunn, who has a career 3.54 ERA and 105 holds, is one of Colorado’s offseason acquisitions expected to help usher in a new era of improved pitching under Black.
Breakout seasons from young pitchers like Anderson and Jon Gray, coupled with solid years from Chad Bettis and Chatwood in 2016 give hope that Colorado’s rotation can climb out of the statistical cellar in 2017. Bettis, Chatwood and Gray all posted double-digit wins while Anderson had a 3.54 ERA in 19 starts. On the back end, Adam Ottavino was dominant out of the bullpen, including a 21-game scoreless streak from July to August following his return from Tommy John surgery. Carlos Estevez and Jake McGee were up-and-down, combining for 26 saves between them, but all three relievers will enter 2017 with new roles.
Bridich has invested heavily, both in the draft and in free agency, in improving the pitching staff. His biggest move to date came this offseason when he inked former Royals closer Greg Holland to take over the closer duties. Holland is also returning from Tommy John surgery, and is yet to throw a pitch in Spring Training.
Black is keeping a close eye on his staff through the early part of Spring Training, focusing on eliminating the things that cost them wins last year. Walks, in particular, were a big cause of Colorado’s undoing. Rockies pitchers issued 547 free passes in 2016, tied for fifth-most in baseball.
Black managed the San Diego Padres for eight-plus seasons beginning in 2007 and earning NL Manager of the Year in 2010. That year his club ranked second in MLB in team ERA. Closer Heath Bell was the only All-Star on Black’s staff that season.
Ahead of Tuesday’s game against the Dodgers, Black told reporters he’s pleased with his new club’s focus through the first week of Spring Training.
“I like the fact that the guys [that] have been out there the first four games have been pretty consistent throwing strikes. you know, our walk totals are down. Overall, I think the ball/strike ratio has been pretty good. I like the fact that there’s a diligent effort to be working on the things they need to, delivery-wise in the morning, side sessions, practice. The work with all the pitching coaches have been outstanding,” he said.”
So far, Black is pleased with the progress.
“That’s what I’ve liked. You know, just the attention to the things that each individual pitcher needs to work on to get better, and the focus there and the coaching that’s taking place and the receptiveness of the pitchers have been great.”
There’s plenty of attention and focus on pitching with Black now at the helm, a change Rockies fans should be more than receptive to.