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State of the Position: Manager and coaching staff

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Bud Black’s staff has made small but perhaps significant changes. Will they be enough?

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A year ago, when I wrote about the Rockies State of the Position Manager and Coaching Staff, here’s how the piece started: “By any measure, Bud Black had a successful 2018.” What a difference a year makes as the Rockies plummeted from back-to-back postseason appearances to a disappointing 71-91 — an outlier season, the Rockies maintain. In 2020, Black and his staff, which has seen small but perhaps significant changes, will be trying to prove that the Rockies are, in fact, a contender.

What We Learned in 2019

Black has been criticized for a resistance to playing less-experienced players. In 2019, that criticism was tested as the Rockies spent the second half of the season kicking the tires on the farm system as a battery of pitchers threw in September.

Black has always defined himself as a pitcher’s manager. Although pitching took the Rockies to postseason appearances in 2017 and 2018, that all changed for the worse in 2019. The Rockies had a National League worst ERA of 5.58; a league worst WHIP of 1.49; a bullpen ranked 29th; and an fWAR of 6.7, 26th in baseball. (In fairness, given changes to the baseball, the extent to which the fault lies solely with the pitchers remains open to debate.) Moreover, Black can only work with what he has, both in terms of personnel and injuries.

That said, 2019 must have been demoralizing for Black who, in addition to the team’s poor showing, was forced to allow Mark Reynolds and Ian Desmond to pitch on two occasions. Yet he retained his good cheer. In a recent Reddit chat, Nick Groke said this: “Bud Black is always great to talk to. He’s hilarious. I feel bad for today’s managers. As GMs have gained more and more power and have become less and less available, the manager has become something more like a PR voice.”

That may seem like a trivial observation, but in a grim situation, the person who shows up every day, putting the best spin on things, even when it’s hard, is a leader. Moreover, Black never lost the confidence of his players. As the 2019 season was ending, Patrick Saunders reported off-the-record conversations with players who were clear in their support of Black. That is no small thing.

Fans also remained confident in Black, as reported by a late September SB Nation FanPulse survey, Despite a disappointing 2019, Black’s approval was never lower than 60%, and as the season shuddered to an end, it was 65%, ranking 19th among fanbases, which was not especially good but compared to Clint Hurdle’s approval of 6% in Pittsburgh indicated steady confidence in Black.

When it came to leadership, Bud Black did his job.

Strengths

In terms of metrics, it’s hard to measure the qualities of a good manager. In the 2020 edition of Baseball Prospectus: The Essential Guide to the 2020 Season, Bryan Grosnick cites wRM+, weighted reliever management plus, as a metric that ““investigates how good a manager is at using their best relievers during the moments of highest leverage.” (A score of 100 is average with a wRM+ of 105 indicating is better than average at using relievers.) In 2018, Black earned a wRM+ of 105.3; in 2019 he earned a wRM+ of 106.0 behind Tony Francona (109.3), Ron Gardenhire (109.1), and Andy Green (109.9). So even in 2019, Black remained a top-tier manager in terms of wRM+. It’s easy to lose track of that in the ruins of a lost season.

More than skills, however, managers need to be effective teachers, who communicate well and listen with empathy. As Black told Purple Row in 2019,

“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.’”

There is no sense that the players see Black as any less effective going into 2020.

There is also evidence that the Rockies are getting better at incorporating analytics into their coaching. Steve Merriman has been promoted to Minor League pitching co-coordinator, bringing with him both a background in teaching and a facility with pitching technology. Jon Gray told Purple Row, “(Merriman) goes right along with the whole Driveline stuff . . . . He knows exactly what all that means. All the data and that stuff—he can read it. He’s a guy that can translate that to what you’re doing on the mound.” This is a welcome change.

In addition, Thomas Harding has reported that Rockies scout Doug Bernier has been promoted to a new position, Major League data and game-plan coordinator. As Bernier describes his job:

“I feel I’m the communication piece between the research-and-development department and the coaches and players . . . . Especially with the increase in analytics, my hope is to take some burden away from the coaching staff so they can spend more time in relationships—pitching coaches with the pitchers, hitting coaches with the hitters.”

While Bernier is not a coach per say, the addition of his position and the promotion of Merriman suggests that the Rockies are quietly transforming their approach to communication, technology, and analytics. They have come a long way from Adam Ottavino’s description of Black in The MVP Machine.

Challenges

A year ago, I wrote that Black’s biggest challenge was correcting the Rockies offense. Those problems persisted in 2019 with the Rockies earning a wRC+ of 86 (26th in MLB). Dan Szymborski argued that the Rockies are “wasting their stars” by playing sub-replacement talent to the detriment of their stars (Arenado, Blackmon, and Story). This is an issue that Black will need to address. He has said the Rockies are implementing strategies to address players’ chase rates, which should help. (Based on StatCast data, in 2019 the Rockies’ chase rate of 30.1% ranked higher than that of all but eight clubs.)

Black will also have to deal with rule changes, most notably, the new three-batter minimum. Given his experience as a pitcher’s manager, he is well positioned to make these adjustments. That said, he’s not happy about it. As he told The Athletic, “A team should be able to do what they want to do with their players.”

Perhaps, however, Black’s greatest challenge lies in mediating between the front office and Nolan Arenado. The disagreement between Arenado and Jeff Bridich has been much publicized. Black finds himself in the uncomfortable position of having to face the media when the general manager will not, and he must do this while keeping the confidence of the players. He must also make sure his team stayed focused amidst a swirl of Nolan Arenado trade rumors.

Coaching staff

The staffing changes appear to be minor, but the additions of Merriman and Bernier suggest a shift in approach. The Rockies have kept the coaching core that got them to the postseason in 2017-18 while adding more analytics and better communication to improve the team. It’s worth noting that both Merriman and Bernier have histories with the Rockies, an indication that the team continues to look inward.

Despite the team’s record, Black’s leadership in 2019 suggests the Rockies are on a solid managerial foundation as they head into 2020.