Bud Black has made a lot of tactical decisions at Coors Field. He’s done so from the visiting dugout, having previously served as the skipper of the San Diego Padres. His perspective will be different going forward. Following a year-long stint as a special assistant in Anaheim, Black is now at the helm in Colorado. The Rockies named the 59-year-old former big-league lefty as their new manager earlier this month.
Black was a pitching coach before becoming a manager, and run-prevention remains his area of expertise. He’ll have his hands full in his new position. The offensive environment at Coors is well known, and the Rockies pitchers allowed the second-most runs in the National League this past season. Their 4.92 ERA was also second from the bottom.
Black has ideas of what will work in Colorado. He’s receptive to analytics — a trait surely not lost on GM Jeff Bridich — so while he has no intentions of trying to reinvent the wheel, he’s by no means old school. His moves will sometimes qualify as conventional, but that’s a matter of pragmatism, not a cookie-cutter mentality.
Black, who was featured in this past Sunday’s Notes column, talked about the approach he’ll bring to his new job — the focus was on pitching — late last week.
Black on managing in Colorado: “I have a little bit of perspective, because I’ve managed close to a season [at Coors Field]. I’m not sure of the exact number, but it’s probably 80-90 games. Even though they were three- and four-game series over the course of a nine-year period, I’ve experienced all types of ballgames there.
“You do manage differently at Coors. I think you can forecast runs being scored on a given night, based on… you look at the starting pitchers and at how the game is going early. You have to make some hard decisions. Do you leave a guy out there because you need the innings, even though his performance might not be up to snuff? If your bullpen is in pretty good shape, you can probably afford to take him out a little earlier than you’d ideally like to.”
On embracing data, and the relative value of analytics in extreme environments: “Over the last decade — my first managerial job was in 2007, with the Padres — a lot has changed as far as the information we get as a coaching staff. The trick has been how to utilize it, how to decipher it, how to get the right information to the players. Every player is different in how they use that personal information. There’s also the team concept of data, especially on the defensive side.
“As it relates specifically to Colorado, I think it’s more about getting a feel for a particular ballgame and blending that with what you know from the data. I definitely embrace the data. I’ve learned quite a bit over the past decade. In the last five years, things have dialed in even clearer. That will only aid me, and other managers. There are more focus points we can use as we plan a series, going over things like lineup construction and how we’re going to use our bullpen.
“I don’t think [analytics] are necessarily more important in Colorado than in other places. Conversely, a park that really slants toward the pitcher — AT&T comes to mind — do analytics come into play more there? You have to look at it both ways. I think there are things you can do with the numbers in Colorado, but I don’t know how drastic that analytic input is, as it pertains to going through the course of a game, or a series.”
On spin rate: “A question I’ve asked is, ‘Is there a difference… are the numbers drastically different in Coors than they are at sea level?’ They said no. I’m paying attention to it. Even in Anaheim this past year, I ran the exercise with our analytics guys: ‘Who has the top spin rates? Who are the top performers? Is there a correlation?’ The only thing the guys have really come up with is that it’s not a dyed-in-the-wool, ‘If you have a high spin rate, you’re going to have success.’ There have been some guys with low spin rate who have been very good pitchers.
“I do think it tells you something about the fastball — why a guy has success when his velocity is a little bit less than another pitcher. At times there’s something to his spin rate. You can make a case for that being a reason why.
“The spin rate on a changeup doesn’t really matter. It’s almost, the less spin rate the better. Guys with good breaking balls, and guys with mediocre breaking balls, there’s not a huge difference in spin rate. But I like it as an evaluating tool, to try to understand why certain guys have success when you might think otherwise.”
On if certain types of pitchers perform better in Colorado: “I don’t want to get too in depth on that, but we’ve had a really frank conversation about it. If you’re a good pitcher… if you’re a four-seam-fastball, overhand-curveball pitcher, and you’re talented, that still works in Coors Field. Granted, you have to locate the four-seam fastball at the top of the zone. You still have to move the ball in and out. You’ve got to keep the ball down at times. But if you have good stuff, and you execute pitches, you can be successful at Coors.
“Organizationally, we’re not thinking in terms of ‘You can’t do this, or you can’t do that.’ There were times in Rockies history where they tried certain things, like maybe having a large amount of sinkerballers on the staff, or having a lot of guys who strike people out. But every team likes pitchers who strike guys out.
“I don’t know if I’d call it a shift in philosophy, but I do know the Rockies, through the draft and through trades, are now trying to accumulate as many good pitchers as possible.
“A big component of that is mentality — who they are as competitors, their mental toughness, their resiliency, their self-evaluation skills. That is criteria that we think goes a long way toward being successful in our situation.”
On ground-ball rates, and Jon Gray: “All teams are trying to keep the ball in the ballpark. There’s less damage when the ball is on the ground as opposed to when it’s in the air. But we’re not going to shy away from a fly-ball pitcher if he’s shown that the exit velocity on his fly balls, and the distance on his fly balls… we track that stuff. Mis-hits and less exit velocity work everywhere.
“In Jon Gray’s case, here’s a guy with good life at the top of the strike zone. If we were to take that away from him, just because there’s a greater chance of a ball being hit in the air… that wouldn’t make sense. Jon Gray has a powerful arm. He can pitch at the top of the zone and get the swing and miss; he can produce the pop up or the fly ball. I want him to be himself. A lot of his style is power at the top of the zone, along with a hard breaking ball and a developing changeup.
“Again, we’re not going to shy away from guys with certain styles, per se. Balls in play at Coors can be a little bit more dicey, so you’d probably prefer guys who generate strikeouts, or a lot of ground balls, but in the end, we’re looking for the best possible pitchers.”
On the third-time-through-the-order penalty, and bullpen depth: “There’s truly something to that. In some cases, if you’re as good as say, the Cleveland staff, third time through could be the sixth or seventh inning. That’s a good thing. Other times, third time through could be the fourth or fifth, and you might need a starter to go a few more innings. If you make it a rule that you’re going to be cognizant about taking a guy out third time through, you also have to be aware of how taxing that is on your bullpen — and where your bullpen is at that present moment.
“You also have to look at where it will be down the road. That gets a little tricky, because then you start talking about player moves, and getting fresh arms. You could be potentially getting into less talented pitchers. You have to always be cognizant of trying to keep your best 12 pitchers active, and not going too deep into your talent pool. You’d like to think you don’t have a drop off from the 11th or 12th man on your staff to your 13th, 14th, and 15th, who are in Triple-A. But in reality, sometimes there will be.
“Digging into our roster, here in Colorado — digging into our scouting reports — we’re as deep as we’ve been in a long time. That’s reassuring to us. On the pitching side, if we have to go down and grab an option-able player, and send an option-able player down, we should still be in pretty good shape. A lot of times, when you talk to general managers, that’s a key — having those option-able relief pitchers, so that you don’t need to go to the waiver wire. Teams with that kind of depth don’t suffer as much when they make roster moves.”
On bullpen leverage and the Miller model: “What Tito [Terry Francona] and the Indians did in the playoffs, and even late in the year, with Andrew Miller… the Miller model works when you have Miller. He’s special. You also have Cody Allen behind him. You kind of need two guys for that model to work. When you get into leverage situations, having that combination of two, maybe three guys — Bryan Shaw is good, too — they got it done.
“In San Diego, I was fortunate enough to have a couple different subsets of pitchers who were really good. We had Trevor Hoffman, Cla Meredith, Heath Bell, Scott Linebrink. Joe Thatcher. Then it sort of transitioned to Luke Gregerson, Mike Adams and Bell. We felt good about those guys. That’s what it boils down to — having talented pitchers.
“The key to bullpen usage — lengthening relievers out, and putting your better relievers in leverage spots — is having two or three guys to get through those last nine outs. When we talk about losing a game in the sixth or seventh inning, you can lose a game in the ninth when it’s leverage as well.
“If you throw your best guy in the [earlier] high leverage, you better have somebody else to close it down. All losses are the same on paper, but walking in after losing a game in the ninth inning, where you had the lead… those are tough on teams, psychologically.
“How much I’m willing [to deviate from standard reliever usage] is going to depend on our roster. If we feel comfortable with what we can project for the ninth inning, there will be more of an inclination to do the Miller model. Absolutely. But again, a big reason the Miller model works is because he’s really good. I’m not saying he’s the only guy who can do it, but you need multiple weapons. And I think we’re getting closer to having that.”
On outfield positioning and defensive shifts: “That’s been an age-long discussion — how to position [at Coors Field] — because of the vastness of the outfield. When we went there as a visiting tam, we always played just a little bit deeper. We wanted to defend the extra-base hit, and not worry as much about the blooper, that shallow fly ball. We wanted to minimize the slug.
“At the time, we had a staff that was more prone to contact. We weren’t a big strikeout staff. So, outfield depth is something I’ve got to look at with our analytics guys. I have to pick their brains about what they see from the data, as far as outfield positioning. But my initial thought is that maybe a little deeper is better.
“I’m a proponent of shifting. First and foremost is where a guy hits the ball — what the data tells us — and then there’s the mental component. Hitters feel good in Colorado. With the altitude and how the ball travels, that’s going to help your extra-base and home-run possibilities. So if you’re a hitter there, and you see the shift, it’s the rare player who is going to change his swing to try to get a base hit the other way. That’s something that’s magnified in Coors. You don’t want to change your swing, because you know you have a chance to do damage. As a defense, and as a pitching staff, our job is to limit damage.”
David Laurila grew up in Michigan's Upper Peninsula and now writes about baseball from his home in Cambridge, Mass. He authored the Prospectus Q&A series at Baseball Prospectus from December 2006-May 2011 before being claimed off waivers by FanGraphs. He can be followed on Twitter @DavidLaurilaQA.