Off­sea­son fo­cus on pitch­ing

The Denver Post - - SPORTS - By Pa­trick Saun­ders Pa­trick Saun­ders: psaun­ders@den­ver­post.com or @psaun­der­sdp

The late, great man­ager Sparky An­der­son once said, “You give us the pitch­ing some of these clubs have and no one could touch us, but God has a way of not ar­rang­ing that, be­cause it’s not as much fun.”

Rock­ies fans can cer­tainly re­late, though they might not be laugh­ing. When they flock to Coors Field and watch a team stocked with tal­ented young po­si­tion play­ers, they can’t help but won­der: “If we only had some pitch­ing … ” Jeff Bridich can re­late too. Sun­day, he will ar­rive at the Gay­lord Na­tional Re­sort & Con­ven­tion Cen­ter out­side Wash­ing­ton, D.C., to be­gin his third win­ter meet­ings as Rock­ies gen­eral man­ager. Ac­quir­ing a first base­man will be near the top of his off­sea­son to-do list, but find­ing more re­li­able arms will be front and cen­ter on his hot stove burner.

The ma­jor moves Bridich has made — from trad­ing star short­stop Troy Tu­low­itzki to Toronto for three pitch­ing prospects in 2015, to re­cently hir­ing for­mer big-league pitcher Bud Black as Colorado’s new man­ager, to re­tain­ing Steve Foster and Dar­ren Holmes as pitch­ing coaches — il­lus­trate Bridich’s con­stant quest to im­prove the Rock­ies on the mound.

That said, some of Bridich’s most high-pro­file mis­cues have come try­ing to fill holes on the pitch­ing staff. In Fe­bru­ary 2015, he signed vet­eran righthander Kyle Ken­drick to a one-year, $5.5 mil­lion con­tract. It was a dis­as­ter. Ken­drick went 7-13 with a 6.32 ERA. Last win­ter, Bridich signed righthanded reliev­ers Ja­son Motte (two years, $10 mil­lion) and Chad Qualls (two years, $6 mil­lion). The duo com­bined for just 56 in­nings pitched and a 5.14 ERA. Bridich re­mains un­daunted. “One of the ma­jor goals of the last two years is to find ways to, in a mul­ti­tude of dif­fer­ent ways, bet­ter our­selves from a pitch­ing depth stand­point,” he said. “The goal is to uti­lize all our as­sets look­ing at pitch­ing and look­ing at, ‘Who are the good young pitch­ers? If we’re go­ing to make trades, who are the types of guys we should go take chances on?’ ”

Trans­la­tion: Bridich knows more moves are nec­es­sary to up­grade a bullpen that posted a 5.13 ERA last sea­son, worst in the ma­jors, and end a cy­cle where the Rock­ies have av­er­aged 92 losses over the past six sea­sons.

New pitch­ing phi­los­o­phy

Dig deeper than the won-lost record and it’s clear Bridich is over­haul­ing the fran­chise’s pitch­ing blue­print. Long gone is the four-man pig­gy­back ro­ta­tion. The Rock­ies also have scrapped the idea that only a cer­tain type of pitcher — a sinker­ball spe­cial­ist as a starter, or a flame-thrower out of the bullpen, for ex­am­ple — can tame the beast that is Coors Field.

“We talked about that in my (job) in­ter­view,” Black said. “Is there a cer­tain style that works here? I don’t think so. You know what works here? Good pitch­ing, and mak­ing pitches and get­ting outs.”

The four re­turn­ing stal­warts of the Rock­ies’ ro­ta­tion il­lus­trate Black’s point: Right-han­der Jon Gray is a power pitcher who racks up strike­outs; left-han­der Tyler An­der­son is a con­trol artist with an ex­cel­lent changeup; right-han­der Chad Bet­tis uti­lizes four dif­fer­ent pitches; and right-han­der Tyler Chat­wood’s sinker in­duces a lot of ground­balls.

“I think any style can work at Coors, if the pitcher makes his pitches,” Black said.

Mark Wi­ley con­curs. En­ter­ing his 48th year in pro­fes­sional base­ball, Wi­ley has been Colorado’s direc­tor of pitch­ing op­er­a­tions since 2013. He over­sees pitch­ing from the mi­nors to the ma­jors and helped de­sign a top-to­bot­tom pitch­ing plan for the en­tire or­ga­ni­za­tion.

“When I first re­turned here, there was def­i­nitely a fo­cus on guys who could throw sinkers or guys who would throw two-seam­ers,” said Wi­ley, who was with the Rock­ies pre­vi­ously as an as­sis­tant to player de­vel­op­ment from 2006-07 and as direc­tor of player per­son­nel in 2000. “There was def­i­nitely an ef­fort to ac­quire a guy that threw a two-seamer or had a spe­cial sinker.

“But as time evolved, we re­al­ized that there is a value to guys who throw sinkers, but there is also a big value to guys who have power fast­balls, who can pitch up in the strike zone. And value to guys who have a real good changeup. It re­ally isn’t that much dif­fer­ent than any other place.”

Bet­tis is thrilled with the change in phi­los­o­phy.

“It’s great, es­pe­cially com­ing from the guys up­stairs, un­der­stand­ing that we aren’t ro­bots and that ev­ery guy is dif­fer­ent,” he said. “I mean, what I have isn’t what Gray has, and what Gray has isn’t what An­der­son has.”

Bridich and Wi­ley, along with Doug Lin­ton and Dar­ryl Scott, the team’s mi­nor-league pitch­ing co­or­di­na­tors, have in­stalled a strict set of cri­te­ria that young pitch­ers must fol­low in or­der to move up. The ed­u­ca­tion be­gins with rookie ball in Grand Junc­tion.

Right-han­der Jeff Hoff­man, the cen­ter­piece of the Tu­low­itzki trade, is a prime ex­am­ple of how the sys­tem works.

Fans would see Hoff­man’s prow­ess at Triple-A Al­bu­querque — a sev­enin­ning, five-hit, 11-strike­out per­for­mance against Reno last June, for ex­am­ple — and won­der why he wasn’t in the big-league ro­ta­tion. But the Rock­ies wanted Hoff­man to im­prove such things as his pitch com­mand and con­trol­ling the run­ning game.

“It’s not only about game aware­ness at the big-league level, it’s about mas­ter­ing pitches,” Wi­ley said. “For ex­am­ple, guys that don’t have what we clas­sify as a qual­ity, big-league changeup yet, they have to work on it. We make them use it and de­velop it.”

Re­sults of the Rock­ies’ sys­temwide plan have been de­cid­edly mixed, tainted by the bullpen’s mul­ti­ple melt­downs last sea­son that re­sulted in 28 blown saves, third-most in the Na­tional League. Yet there is prom­ise too. Op­po­nents hit just .257 against the Rock­ies last sea­son, the fifth-best mark in fran­chise his­tory. Also, Rock­ies pitch­ers posted 1,223 strike­outs, sec­ond-most in club his­tory.

Count­ing on the ro­ta­tion

Gray, An­der­son, Chat­wood and Bet­tis, the four starters who will form the core of the 2017 ro­ta­tion, have a chance to be­come one of the best ro­ta­tions in Rock­ies his­tory. The four­some went a com­bined 41-33 (.554 win­ning per­cent­age) with a 4.28 ERA, the best mark since the 2009 ro­ta­tion that led the Rock­ies to their last play­off ap­pear­ance went 67-48 (.582) with a 4.05 ERA.

“I think I speak for all four of us, when I say we can be re­ally good,” Bet­tis said. “It’s a lot of fun, and what’s great is that we are still young and we are push­ing each other.”

What Wi­ley likes about the Rock­ies’ cur­rent crop of pitch­ers is their at­ti­tude.

“Jon Gray is tough. Tyler An­der­son is tough. Chad Bet­tis is tough. ‘Chatty’ is re­ally tough,” Wi­ley said. “One of the first things we talked about when I came back here was, ‘If you weren’t tough, you are not go­ing to be around.’ Be­cause there is al­ways go­ing to be ad­ver­sity (at Coors Field). …

“We want guys who can han­dle it and don’t back away from it. We want guys who can win a game 6-4. We want a guy who can give up four runs in an in­ning and then bat­tle through to the sev­enth in­ning.”

Tough­ness, how­ever, must be paired with tal­ent, and Colorado’s bullpen lacked proven tal­ent last sea­son. While Bridich said he ex­pects re­bound sea­sons from left-han­der Jake McGee, as well as from Motte and Qualls, the Rock­ies will likely make moves to prop up their bullpen.

Bridich has ac­knowl­edged hav­ing free-agent talks with vet­eran closer Mark Me­lan­con and left-handed re­liever Mike Dunn, but he’s also said there are in-house can­di­dates for latein­ning roles. Those in­clude righthander Adam Ot­tavino, who took over as closer at the end of last sea­son af­ter re­cov­er­ing from Tommy John surgery; McGee, who’s try­ing to come back from a knee in­jury suf­fered in June and show he can still bring the heat; and rookie right-han­der Car­los Estevez, who was pre­ma­turely forced into the closer role at mid­sea­son be­cause of in­juries.

“We are get­ting a lot of young guys through the sys­tem who are go­ing to be able to help us in the bullpen,” Wi­ley said. “We didn’t have a lot of those guys be­fore.”

Right-han­der Jon Gray is the power pitcher among the core four starters who should re­turn to the Rock­ies’ ro­ta­tion in 2017. Gray posted a 10-10 record with a 4.68 ERA and 185 strike­outs in 2016. Seth McCon­nell, The Den­ver Post

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