Bud Black should be a leading contender for Manager of the Year, and it’s not because the Rockies have exceeded expectations. It’s because of the effectiveness of his educational style of managing and the way it has spread among Rockies players.
Clearly, the Rockies got to Rocktober as a team of players — Black has said repeatedly they would need all 40 of those players to make the post-season. But helping those players become a team is Black, a former-pitcher-turned manager, who is first a teacher. His pedagogy, or teaching philosophy, involves empowering players in large part through building a community based on talking.
Kyle Freeland has given the clearest insight into Black’s pedagogy. He recalled his July 4, 2017, game when Black challenged him on the mound: “He said, ‘Hey, you need to figure out what you’re going to do to keep this team in the ballgame’ . . . . It was a big learning moment for me.” Freeland adds, “At the same time, he’s not going to dress you down and rip you and tell you everything you’re doing wrong. He’s going to try and teach you, instead of just yelling at you.”
In other words, Black is guiding his players to become better.
Freeland elaborated on Black’s teaching style during a July 10, 2018, Morning Lineup interview. He first noted Black’s “positive energy” and pitching experience before adding this:
You’ll see him in the dugout, cameras will be on him, and he’ll grab a baseball from our bat boy, Tino, and you’ll see him start gripping pitches in the dugout as the game’s going on, and he’ll walk over to me, or [Chad] Bettis, [German] Márquez, whoever it is, and talk about a certain pitch with us. Maybe we’re struggling with it, or he wants to know how we throw it, or what we think about this pitch when we’re throwing it. So he’s constantly in a mindset of he still wants to learn, and he’s still wanting us to continue learning in our young careers.
That’s the mark of a teacher: someone who’s mastered a skill, teaches it to others, yet remains a life-long learner.
During the Rockies’ final September series with the Arizona Diamondbacks, Black told Purple Row’s Samantha Bradfield (herself a teacher) that he “loves” teaching. He added, “[T]hat’s what I view myself as. It’s the most important thing . . . I think a coach/manager, head coach, whether it’s Nick Saban, or it’s Phil Jackson, Tony Dungy, Joe Maddon, Mike Scioscia. I think we are teachers.”
“For me -- here’s my line, what a coach is: ‘teacher, motivator, leader.’ So, that’s how I view myself, those three components. I gotta lead these guys, and I gotta motivate ‘em, inspire them, but most importantly I gotta teach them. . . . I love teaching this game, in all facets. Whether it’s strategy, whether it’s off the field, whether it’s some pitching sign, some pitching mechanics, some fundamentals. Am I gonna teach Trevor Story about hitting? No. But I can teach him about ‘Hey, here’s what a pitcher thinks. Here’s what I would do to you. Here’s what I see from my swing recognition from the pitcher seeing it.’”
Black’s comments give a new twist to the Rockies as a team built on pitching. That Black teaches pitchers has always been clear; what’s been less obvious, however, is that he’s teaching position players to see themselves from the pitcher’s perspective.
It makes sense that Charlie Blackmon insists Black throw him batting practice: He’s training with the master.
Good teachers know the importance of empowering students. Chris Iannetta describes Black’s management style as “laid back,” saying, “I think it’s the sign of a good manager when he knows when to be hands-on and when to take his hands off. Sometimes, Bud steps in to send a message, but for the most part, we take care of the clubhouse ourselves.”
That is, Black delegates. He trusts the players and shows that by empowering them.
A key characteristic of Black’s teaching is its emphasis on talking. Nick Groke first pointed this out when the Rockies we in a late-August slump:
[Black] only doubled down on the routine, reminding his hitters to keep reading daily scouting reports and engaging in collective chit-chat. He emphasized talking through plate approaches in the underground batting cage, trading insights at the bat rack in the dugout, working through frustrations during the pre-game batting practice.
In other words, Black wants players teaching each other, another form of team building and learner empowerment.
I asked Groke to elaborate in a September 19 online chat:
Here’s another example: Adam Ottavino last night, after he answered my two quick questions, walked across the room to talk to Wade Davis and Chris Rusin. They know exactly what he was trying to do against Chris Taylor last night. And they know exactly what went wrong. And Ottavino is confident enough not to second guess his decision to throw a slider there. But he had to hash it out with them. Not just for reassurance, but as a learning tool. And a psychological one. He had to let his frustration go by putting it in the air and letting it float away. If that makes sense.
Black is similar, I think. Talk about what went wrong, not as a blaming mechanism, but as a learning experience.
Groke also described a quick between-bats conversation when Blackmon told DJ LeMahieu to swing early against the Diamondbacks’ Yoshihisa Hirano who was pitching quickly. This led to LeMahieu hitting a game-winning homer. A quick conversation led to a Rockies win.
Black further explained to Bradfield the value of talking:
“Generally speaking, like if you have players talking about the game, talking with each other and have a truly passionate discussion about the game with their team, that tells me that there’s an investment, there’s a care, there’s a legitimate care about winning and the team first. That’s imperative to winning, having players who care, care about winning.
“And when I see that conversation about the game we just played or tonight’s game or interaction about the opposing pitcher or the opposing team that dialogue, it’s awesome. If you don’t have it, it means guys don’t give a shit. They just care about playing, they just care about their statistics, their numbers. You gotta have players who care and truly want to win, that proceeds, that overrides everything and that’s evaluating, scouting, because over my forty years, I’ve come in contact with players that are maybe not that competitive. They’re competitive, they’re good players, but they’re really not (into it). So you try to, you gotta get as many guys that really just like want it.”
Nolan Arenado is a fan of talking baseball. In a pre-season 5280 profile, Richard Sanchez makes a key connection. Arenado has described the 2015-16 seasons as difficult: “As the losses piled up, Arenado would watch guys shower and take off, a stream of teammates heading for the door. “I like to stay around, talk about the game,” Arenado says. “But no one wanted to talk. . . . Going to the ballpark was awful . . . . It wasn’t fun. We were playing to lose — like, to just get it over with.”
But after Black’s hiring, the atmosphere changed:
After the first games this past year, Arenado noticed that a couple of players were sticking around the locker room and talking — rehashing key moments, describing how certain pitchers attacked them. A few weeks later, even more stayed. Arenado, Blackmon, LeMahieu, and first baseman Mark Reynolds were constants after games. They’d pop a few beers and talk for hours nearly every night. “The worst thing for me is going home and not talking it out, having it consume me,” Arenado says. “I think that’s why we did better, because we sat and hung out and talked. It’s healthy. If you hold something in, it’ll consume you. It was awesome. We were a team.”
In other words, Bud Black has created a learning community — and successful learning communities are like families: The members care about each other and are invested in helping each other achieve. Meaningful conversation is a key indicator of a learning community’s success.
Here’s hoping that the Rockies are talking deep into October and that Black’s teaching style gets the attention is deserves.