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The Rockies’ (unexciting) plan is working

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It doesn’t come with big deadline trades, but Jeff Bridich’s philosophy is keeping the Rockies competitive

With the July 31 trade deadline approaching, contending teams entered a trade fury. In the NL West, the Dodgers and Diamondbacks made significant changes while the Rockies, settled for acquiring Seung-hwan Oh and signing Matt Holliday and Santiago Casilla to minor-league contracts.

For Rockies fans, a general despair set in that the team hadn’t done more, which was consistent with baseball’s collective wisdom: The Rockies had whiffed. (For example, see here and here). A half game out of first place in the NL West, they said, the Rockies needed to add a left-handed reliever, a catcher, and a first baseman — at the very least, a right-handed bat. Like other contenders, the Rockies needed to do something.

Despite the frenzy, General Manager Jeff Bridich and Manager Bud Black remained confident. As Patrick Saunders wrote, Black said although they had “worked the phones,” no players were available that were a good fit; instead, current players needed to correct problems. In the same article, Bridich outlined his trade philosophy:

“I think honest and accurate self-evaluation is critical. . . . So you have to accurately look around and say: ‘OK, what do you have? Am I (as a GM) going to make us better? Are we going to be a better organization being reactionary, or are we going to consider what we already have, the people we have in place?’ Those are critical pieces to any sort of decision-making, especially this time of year.”

Bridich is notoriously opaque when answering questions, but in using the term “reactionary,” Bridich is saying that the Rockies’ strategy involves staying the course, no matter what other teams are doing or what fans think they want.

The Rockies developed a plan several years ago predicated on pitching. By considering what Bridich has said about his philosophy of team building, his strategy in practice becomes clear.

The Bridich Philosophy

Two articles provide insight into Bridich’s thinking as a GM. The first is a 2017 David Laurila piece, “Jeff Bridich on Building the Rockies (With an Eye on the NFL).” The second is an April 2018 report from Doug Ottewill, “Built from the Mound Up.”

Below are three key takeaways.

Takeaway 1: Make a plan, and stick to it

Ottewill’s article examines the Rockies’ evolution into a pitching-based team and describes the plan Bridich alludes to in the Laurila article. Black, Bridich, and pitching coaches Steve Foster and Darren Holmes held a three-day “pitching summit” that resulted in what Foster calls “the plan”:

There were strict specifics to the plan. While not a thick manual, it was still a manual. It had rules and instructions, guidelines as to how pitching was to be handled, from the type of pitcher the group believed could have success at Coors Field to the way he would be taught every step of the way, from draft or acquisition to stepping onto the mound at 20th and Blake.

“We’re going to have controls, and within these controls we’re going to teach and train from the bottom all the way up,” explains Foster. “We did it because we wanted to make sure that when guys got to the major leagues, even though there’s always development that will take place even at the major league level, they’re further in the development process with a plan.

In the 2017 and 2018 seasons, we’ve watched the effectiveness of this strategy play out.

Takeaway 2: Draft and develop your own talent

With the plan in mind, consider Bridich’s discussion in the Laurila article of his philosophy of team development. Bridich cites the Green Bay Packers as “the gold standard” in that they draft and develop their own talent: “The percentage of players on their roster who were drafted and developed by the organization is extremely high. . . . It takes a lot of discipline to commit yourself to that, and actually stick with it year after year.“

Similarly, the Rockies committed to developing their own farm system, with a focus on pitching, and to seeing through this transition by hiring a manager who was not just a teacher but specifically a teacher of pitchers. Enter manager and former pitcher Bud Black, a perfect hire. According to Thomas Harding, “Black said his teaching style came from his managers when he was a player. Dick Howser (with the Royals) worked on each player’s confidence. Roger Craig (Giants) helped his team gain perspective by having players take time with stadium workers. Dusty Baker (Giants) demonstrated that it’s OK to allow players to show intensity during the game.” The players like and trust Black, which is key to effective teaching. (This Nick Groke piece explores Black’s coaching style.)

Moreover, Black understands that pitching is essential to winning because he’s lived it: “The teams that win pitch well. For us to win, we’ve got to pitch well.” Under Bridich’s and Black’s leadership, that has happened in 2017 and 2018, largely because of the starting pitching rotation. But the starting pitchers came up through the Rockies’ farm system. developing skills and a new mindset. As Chad Bettis put it, “No one’s afraid to pitch at Coors anymore.”

The philosophy extends through the rest of the team: Nolan Arenado, Charlie Blackmon, and Trevor Story, for example, came through the Rockies’ system, and they’ve been key to the team’s success.

Takeaway 3: Trade sparingly and deliberately

In addition to the Packers, Bridich admires the Atlanta Falcons. who trade only for players that fill a specific need. As Bridich put it, ‘[T]hey targeted specific things, and specific people, in free agency,” a strategy he has adopted.

Young players come up through the team’s system while a few key veterans are brought in to provide experience and fill gaps. Bridich’s effectiveness in signing free agents is debatable (e.g., Ian Desmond and Gerardo Parra), but he’s been successful when addressing specific needs during the season (e.g., Pat Neshek and Jonathon Lucroy).

During the off season, Bridich knew what the Rockies needed, namely experienced relief pitchers Jake McGee, Bryan Shaw, and Wade Davis, and signed them to the tune of $106 million. Although the bullpen has been uneven this year, these players fit Bridich’s model. If they play to their potential, they will be formidable.

Sticking to the plan during the trade deadline

The Rockies’ conservative trade deadline actions make sense given Bridich’s approach.

Here’s a key passage from Bridich’s conversation with Laurila:

“It’s important to have principles, and it’s important to have a plan and a strategy, but you also need to have a common-sense approach. And there’s only so much you can do during the season. Unless you have completely unlimited funds, which maybe one or two teams in the league have, it’s very difficult to change your stripes in any one season” [emphasis added].

Bridich is clear, just as he was to Saunders after the trade deadline, that changes should be based on organizational assessment rather than external pressures. Notice as well that he points to the limitations of mid-season changes.

In light of Bridich’s philosophy, reconsider the 2018 trade deadline.

First, their decisions affirm the Rockies’ trust in their minor-league system. At the trade deadline, Groke reported that Black described David Dahl’s return from Triple-A as “be[ing] like we made a trade. . . . We got Dahl! Have you ever heard that one before? When a player comes back it’s like, ‘We made a trade!’” This comment was generally mocked by disappointed fans, but it’s consistent with the team’s philosophy. Ryan McMahon’s return from Albuquerque was much the same — including hitting two winning home runs in a series against the Dodgers. (It’s worth reading Groke’s article on this.) Both players have probably been more effective than a trade.

The ways in which the Rockies treat developing players is deliberate, even as fans are calling for players to be “mupped.” Black said, “We know strengths. We know weakness. We see flaws. We see potential. So when it comes to young players, that’s why sometimes were are hesitant to bring them up, because we know they will be exposed.” Tom Murphy and Garrett Hampson are in Triple-A for a reason: They’re preparing to be the next “trades” in the Rockies’ push to the playoffs.

Second, consider the trades for veterans. The Rockies traded for Oh, a player Bridich had been watching since 2016, as he told Patrick Saunders. Oh has been an effective reliever for the Rockies. Moreover, Holliday and Casilla are low-risk signings with significant potential. There are rumors that Holliday — the missing right-handed bat — will soon join the Rockies. Plus, Holliday brings with him the experience and mythos of Rocktober.

Unlike much of Twitter, Bridich and his team were never going to get caught up in a trade-deadline frenzy. They were sticking with the plan. The Rockies’ 65-56 record and standings in the NL West and the Wild Card Race show that the strategy, as unexciting as it may seem, is working.