Black’s first season with Rocks has become a pitching tutorial
Bud Black whisked away to Wyoming last week for all-star break R&R in search of a fly-fishing spot with some solitude. But he will never escape being a pitcher. The first-year Rockies manager sees the game first and always from the mound.
Over a little more than three months, the Rockies under Black are pitching better than they have in seven years, with an ERA for starters that would rank third in club history, behind only 2010 and 2009, the last time the Rockies played in the postseason, and even better than 2007, the year they reached the World Series.
In 25 years of Rockies baseball, the common motto for victory has nearly always been the need to outscore the opponent. The priority at Coors Field was always offense first, then offense second, then cross some fingers and hope and pray for some pitching.
In quick order, those priorities have changed. The Rockies proved over three months how to pitch and win at altitude. They also proved how to pitch poorly and lose, with a two-week stretch that sank them from first place to third in the National League West.
“We have to pitch well,” Black told The Denver Post. “That’s the most important thing.”
The Los Angeles Dodgers have a big lead in the best division in
baseball. At the all-star break, they were on pace for 109 wins behind the best starting and relief pitching in the league. If the Rockies are to capture a playoff berth, doing so will almost surely be on the shoulders of the youngest rotation in baseball.
And it will fall to their manager, a 15-year pitcher now in his 10th season managing in the NL West. Black’s responsibility has largely evolved into teaching and guiding a rookie-heavy rotation that has four first-year pitchers with an average age of 23 — Kyle Freeland, German Marquez, Antonio Senzatela and Jeff Hoffman.
Collectively they have a 4.21 ERA, which would rank them sixth overall in the NL, and a well-above-average park-adjusted Era-plus, according to Baseball Reference.
“I haven’t had this many young pitchers, especially young starters, at any time in my career,” Black said. “There’s definitely an element of patience you have to have. Because it is hard. It’s baptism under fire. They are learning in the big leagues at 23 years old. But you have to be exposed sometime.
“And they’re not going backward in any way,” he added. “They’re doing good work and we’re staying on top of them, both on the teaching side and the mental side.”
His pitching experience has given Black a leeway that didn’t exist in years past. He is steering the Rockies’ rookie arms without coddling them, directing them through new experiences while letting them loose. Colorado general manager Jeff Bridich said the bar is higher.
“I look at that with a keen eye on his experience with pitchers,” Bridich said of Black. “His competitiveness and expectation to come every day to play well, and win, has been big.”
Black’s counsel with his pitching staff came in full view last Sunday, when Freeland carried a no-hitter against the Chicago White Sox into the ninth inning at Coors Field. No other pitcher in Rockies history, let alone a rookie, had reached the ninth in Denver without allowing a hit.
Before the eighth inning, Black pulled back veteran catcher Ryan Hanigan for a conference at the top step of the Rockies’ dugout. Hanigan, now in his 11th season behind the plate, can think along with his manager in a no-nonsense approach to throwing strikes and simplifying the process of pitching.
Freeland’s pitch count was running high, well beyond the unspoken limits of recent seasons. Black let Freeland go. But he told Hanigan to beware. It was no time to mess around trying to bait a batter into chasing.
“I knew. And he knew. And he knew I knew,” Hanigan said. “You have to love Bud giving him a chance to do it.”
Jon Gray, a Colorado old-timer in this rotation at age 25, returned June 30 from a broken foot to strike out 10 and walk just one in a victory at Arizona. His place atop the staff is secure. From there, it will fall to Black to determine an evolving rotation of seven others — the rookies joined by 27-yearolds Tyler Chatwood and Tyler Anderson (out for a month after knee surgery) and Chad Bettis, who pitched his first rehab game Thursday night for Double-a Hartford, coming back from cancer.
The Rockies entered the all-star break well on their way toward the postseason, 7½ games ahead of the Chicago Cubs for one of two wild-card playoff berths, and just 2½ games behind the Diamondbacks. The Rockies’ second half, like the first, probably will hinge on the mound.
And if Black — the first former pitcher to occupy the manager’s office in the Rockies’ clubhouse at Coors Field — is responsible for building up what may be the most talented young staff in club history, his tutorial will need to carry into October.
“We’re untested, when it comes to where we think we’ll be in a couple months,” Black said. “But that’s cool. I like that. It has to happen sometime. Might as well happen right now.”
“I haven’t had this many young pitchers, especially young starters, at any time in my career. There’s definitely an element of patience you have to have. Because it is hard. It’s baptism under fire. They are learning in the big leagues at 23 years old. But you have to be exposed sometime.” Rockies manager Bud Black, on his young pitching staff
Rockies manager Bud Black says of his team: “We have to pitch well. That’s the most important thing.”
Bud Black, the first former pitcher to manage the Rockies, calls the bullpen during a recent game at Coors Field.