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Bud Black to face new challenges as Rockies manager in 2019

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We know Black’s strengths, but he’ll face new challenges in his third season as Rockies manager

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By any measure, Bud Black had a successful 2018.

The Rockies earned their second consecutive trip to the post-season (even though the NLDS was grim), he was a finalist for Manager of the Year, and he coached his 800th win. Moreover, Black (and, in fairness, the Rockies organization) has shown that it’s possible to pitch at elevation — and be good at it. As Black puts it, the Rockies teach pitchers to value “attitude over altitude,” which fits with his the-teams-that-pitch-are-the-teams-that-win philosophy. That the Rockies are pleased with Black’s work is evident in their decision to extend his contract through 2022. Under Black’s leadership, the Rockies have become a Coors-defying, pitcher-centric team, although questions remain surrounding the offense. For a successful 2019, Black will have to show he can grow the offense in addition to pitching.

Strengths

In terms of metrics, it’s hard to measure the qualities of a good manager. In the 2019 edition of Baseball Prospectus Bryan Grosnick cites wRM+ as a metric that quantifies “how good a manager is at using their best relievers during the moments of highest leverage.” (A score of 100 is average.) Black earned a wRM+ of 105.3. Only Ron Gardenhire (110.0) and Tony Francona (108.5) scored higher. As a manager who knows how to use pitchers, Black is one of the best.

But there are also intangibles that make an effective manager. While understanding data is a requirement, a manager must also have an arsenal of “soft skills.” As John LaLoggia explains, “These attributes include interpersonal communication, listening, and empathy. The days of screaming at players are long gone.” This is key when working with young players.

Clearly, Black’s got the soft skills. In a radio interview with 97.3 The Fan, he explained his philosophy of coaching, which is very much about making players understand that as a manager, he has an interest in his players as people, not just athletes: “You don’t need the best guys. You need the right guys.” Black said this in the context of discussing the NFL dynasty New England Patriots. For Black, the team’s success rests on the ways in which this group of athletes works together rather than their raw talent. Nick Groke’s August profile reinforced this, emphasizing Black’s calming presence as the Rockies endured a disastrous June that morphed into an excellent July (the result of a Black-initiated “pitching summit”).

The players like Bud Black. As Charlie Blackmon put it, “His personality is really charismatic and positive and laid back in the sense that he trusts his players, and guys want to do well for him . . . The interactions with him are generally a good thing. That’s not always the case with managers.” The ways in which the Rockies players speak of Black — Kyle Freeland comes to mind — suggest that Black’s approach is working. While Rockies Twitter likes to make fun of “being a good clubhouse guy,” there’s a lot to be said for a positive workspace. Black makes that happen.

Bud Black sees himself a teacher:

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.’”

Challenges

That brings us to the Rockies’ offense. Perhaps telling hitters what a pitcher is thinking, while valuable, isn’t enough. The Rockies have struggled for the last two years, ranking 28th in the majors as measured by wRC+; according to OPS+, the Rockies were 25th.

It’s difficult to determine whether offensive decisions are made by Black or General Manager Jeff Bridich given their highly collaborative relationship. As Nick Groke points out in this article, part of Black’s managerial role is to be “[folded] into their front office as much as the dugout.” This suggests that it was Black’s decision to give Ian Desmond 619 plate appearances in 2018. Whatever the reason for all that playing time, Black stood by Desmond through a dismal year — and, frankly, a manager should. But it doesn’t answer the larger question about Black’s effectiveness as an offensive manager.

Black has been criticized for a resistance to playing less-experienced players. Purple Row’s Samantha Bradfield asked Bridich about this. He answered, “Just because you’re young and you’re talented, there’s always certain things that need to be done, whether it’s a position player or a pitcher in order to make sure that you show everybody that you’re ready to take on the responsibility of not just playing at the major league level, but winning games at the major league level and contributing to that group effort.” The extent to which Black shares his thinking is unclear.

Obviously, that changes this year with Garrett Hampson, Ryan McMahon, and Brendan Rodgers taking a run at the starting second-base position. Meanwhile, a similar contest will be happening in the outfield. The Rockies will, indeed, let the kids play, which will provide additional insight into Black’s ability to work with young players.

In terms of the coaching staff, Dave Magadan is probably the most consequential change, and given the number of young players trying to make the roster, he will have a chance to make an impact. (Read Nick Groke’s profile here.) Keeping Steve Foster and Darren Holmes in place suggests a positive future for Rockies pitching, assuming everyone stays healthy.

2019 will mark a year of possibilities for the Colorado Rockies. Now we see what happens when they let the kids play, which will provide a new measure of Black’s managerial skills.