As the Colorado Rockies begin the search for a new manager fresh off the departure of Walt Weiss, there is no shortage of big league-ready men capable of managing what, at least on paper, should shape up to be a very young, talented team in 2017.
In the coming days and weeks, rumors and reports will come of the common sense internal candidates, as well as the long-time veterans that would bring outsider perspectives. Throw Glenallen Hill in that mix, along with Bud Black, and maybe Dave Martinez. Perhaps somebody will get crazy and float Ron Washington, or Robin Ventura. And maybe—no, hopefully—there will be a surprise or two in the mix, as well.
Enter: J.R. House.
Yes, House is very young, and yes, House is about as far off the radar as one could realistically get considering the parameters of the Rockies’ job search, but his approach to players, energy and intensity on the field, and personality all bear closer look. Whether the Rockies pull the trigger with him this year, or another club does it down the road, I’m frankly confident House will one day become a successful big league manager.
A former catcher who spent (small) parts of five seasons in the big leagues with the Pirates, Astros, and Orioles across a 13-year professional career, House is just 36 years old and only stopped playing pro ball himself at the end of 2011 after a season with the independent Long Island Ducks. Immediately after that, the Diamondbacks hired him as a hitting coach, first in rookie-level Missoula (2012) and then short-season Hillsboro (2013), before handing him the managerial reins in Hillsboro in 2014, and then promoting him to manage High-A Visalia for 2015 and 2016.
It was here, in Visalia this summer, that I saw first-hand how well House ran a Rawhide club that made it all the way to the California League’s Championship Series before being swept by a High Desert (Texas Rangers) team that was, wire to wire, the class of the circuit. In three summers at the helm of minor league clubs in the Diamondbacks’ organization, House is now 213-143 (.598), and he’s 3-for-3 in playoff appearances therein with a 2014 Northwest League championship and three divisional titles to his name. (Yes, winning in the minors takes a backseat to talent development, but if you truly believe that winning down here doesn’t matter to front office executives, you’re plainly ignorant. Ask the Mariners’ new front office how they feel about all seven of their affiliates making the playoffs this summer.)
Beyond the shiny win-loss record, I was consistently struck this summer by how well-disciplined, how high-energy, and how loose and relaxed a team the Rawhide were under House. He’s a vocal, energetic disciplinarian when he needs to be, and yet he’s not a negative force yelling just to yell; House struck me as equal parts constructive and forceful, patient and tough, and above all, extremely well-tuned to the needs and emotions of his young men. A player’s manager, you’d be right to call him.
His relative youth is no doubt partially at play here; he just got done playing this game not too long ago, and thus, he’s in a better position to relate to what his players are going through than, say, Rick Magnante in Stockton. And though young managers can run into difficulty by becoming too buddy-buddy with their guys, House appeared able to consistently walk the fine line between being a player’s friend and being a player’s manager.
As young and relatable as he was, though, House was equally a hard driver, especially in pre-game drills and batting practice—an area the Rawhide attacked arguably more intensely than any other California League club in 2016. Instead of letting hitters hack mindlessly through rounds of pre-game BP, House (and his hitting coach, Vince Harrison), were meticulous on every pitch, creating scenarios based on hypothetical pitch counts and baserunners, and pushing their players to hit to the situation every single time. Countless times this summer, Visalia’s BP rounds paused as House (positively) admonished a player for not driving a ball well enough on a hypothetical 2-0 pitch, forcing a re-do until the kid got it right. A hard-hit one-hopper to second base? It’s a 2-0 count, man, I need you to smoke a double in the gap.
In and of themselves those are extremely small moments, and yet taken they together say quite a bit about House as a manager. In a situation (pre-game BP) where it’s all too easy to go on auto-pilot and float mindlessly through the motions—eight hacks, then five, three, and comin’ out—House’s club didn’t do that. Daily pre-game infield was met with a comparable intensity and focus, too, even when by the end of the summer most Cal League clubs had altered their schedule to allow for informal ground ball sessions in an effort to battle fatigue and unforgiving temperatures.
House worked that Visalia club hard, but from everything I could glean throughout the summer by observation and discussion, his players loved it.
And yet, while he’s a nice underdog candidate here, and his name immediately popped into my head upon hearing of Weiss’ departure, to put it plainly House will most likely not be the Rockies’ next manager. Realistically, he’s probably a couple years away from managing a big league club at all, if ever. (Those jobs are hard to get!) The Rockies have a significant talent surge on its way to Denver, and with that, there are sure to be exceedingly high expectations and pressures under general manager Jeff Bridich. Knowing that, perhaps it’s imperative to hire a veteran—or at least a manager with some experience coaching in a big league dugout—to run the show for what frankly must be a significant competitive window for the Rockies.
But House ought to remain an intriguing candidate here, maybe unlikely to get an interview with the Rockies and yet undoubtedly already on the radar of front office executives around the league as a future option to run a club. Diamondbacks officials I spoke with this summer raved endlessly about him; it’s plain to see his charges played hard for him. With three exceptional summers of minor league ball now under his belt, and considering he’s still a few years south of 40, House is on the right track. It’s an unlikely move at this moment, and one I don’t expect Bridich to make, but the Colorado Rockies could do quite a bit worse than J.R. House when seeking the manager who will preside over the organization’s next winning club.