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Playing baseball in the heart of the Rocky Mountains at a far higher altitude than MLB’s other 29 teams has its advantages. The picturesque, snow-capped backdrop can’t be beat. No lead is safe in the thin atmosphere conducive to home runs, high-scoring games and thrilling comebacks. The mountain range even slow the rockies their nickname.
But the mile-high style—the 20th row of Coors Field’s upper deck is literally a mile above sea level—also comes with one debilitating drawback. In their 28 years of existence, many of which have featured explosive and even historically good offenses, the Rockies have yet to figure out how to consistently prevent their opponents from scoring, too. Both the team’s hitters and pitchers essentially have to learn how to play in two vastly different environments; that in the only ballpark in the Mountain Time Zone, and everywhere else. But the pitchers have it much tougher.
Since their first MLB season in 1994, the Rockies have ranked last in the majors in earned run average (4.97). No Colorado pitcher has ever won 20 games in a season. Of the top eight players in franchise history by wins above replacement, zero are pitchers. The only hurler in the top 10 is Ubaldo Jiménez, who started the 2010 All-Star Game and finished third in Cy Young voting that year but was never named to another All-Star team.
You see, the thinner the air in which a projectile is launched, the farther it will fly. Studies show that a baseball hit 400 feet at sea-level-based Yankee Stadium will travel 10% farther, or 440 feet, at Denver’s Coors Field, according to the team’s website. The thin air also prevents pitchers’ breaking balls from biting as hard as they do anywhere else. That makes hanging curveballs, sliders and changeups a much more frequent sighting. That, in turn, makes free-agent pitchers less likely to want to come to Colorado. And when the team has paid a premium to lure them to Denver, those agent-arranged marriages—from recent agreements with Wade Davis and Bryan Shaw to older, infamous contracts with Mike Hampton and Denny Neagle—have often ended in early divorces. And with all these issues complicating the way they play baseball, the Rockies have won just one National League pennant, in 2007, and zero World Series titles.
Fortunately, in manager Bud Black, Colorado may have the perfect manager to crack the code of pitching in Denver and, at some point, give the Rockies a real shot at winning a championship.
Black won his 1,000th game last Sunday against the Dodgers. In doing so, he became the only person in the live-ball era with 1,000 wins as a manager and 100 as a pitcher. Very few pitchers have carved out successful managerial careers after their playing days ended—Black is, in fact, the only 100-win pitcher with even 500 wins as a manager. He is one of just 66 managers to reach the 1,000-win milestone, and is primed to pass Felipe Alou, Jack McKeon and Frank Robinson, among others, on the career leaderboard wins this season.
“When I got [win No. 1,000], I received a ton of congratulatory texts from people who I’m close to inside and outside the game. That was quite a day,” Black, 64, says in an interview on Easter Sunday. “I thought, This is a pretty cool thing. And you look at some of the names on that list, and you really feel honored to be in that group of managers.”
Black has won a World Series as a player (in 1985, with the royals) and as a pitching coach (in 2002, with the Angels), albeit never as a manager in 15 seasons. He is, however, already the only manager in Rockies history to qualify for the playoffs twice and is widely regarded as a smart tactician—his choice of him to challenge a call led directly to a Rockies’ win last week—and a stellar bullpen manager .
Some may not understand why Black has lasted into his 15th season in the dugout despite never making the playoffs during his eight-plus seasons in San Diego and winning just one playoff “series” with Colorado, a wild-card playoff game during his second season with the team in 2018. But the fact of the matter is that he took over two franchises with scarce past success; the Parents and Rockies are two of just six franchises never to have won a World Series.
In Black’s first season with San Diego, in 2007, following in the footsteps of his friend and future Hall of Famer Bruce Bochy, he groomed Jake Peavy into a Cy Young winner and helped starting pitcher Chris Young make his only All-Star team. The Padres’ win total also improved by one to 89—but they lost to, ironically, the Rockies in a Game 163 playoff. In ’10, he became just the third former full-time pitcher to win a Manager of the Year award, along with Tommy Lasorda and Larry Dierker, but San Diego lost the NL West title on the final day of the regular season to Bochy’s Giants , the eventual World Series champions.
“There were a couple of great years that ended in tough losses—like any team that makes the playoffs and has a great year. There’s only one team that’s happy; that’s the team that wins the World Series,” Black says. “I don’t know if there’s one takeaway [from that time]except that every game is important, from Game 1 to 162, because you never know what’s gonna happen in September.”
In Black’s final few years in San Diego, some of the Padres’ single-season WAR leaders were Chris Denorfia, Cameron Maybin and Seth Smith. Do not disrespect those guys, who were good players for the Friars, but if they’re leading the charge, no manager will get that team to October.
Colorado’s 2007 World Series run represented that franchise’s only playoff success of any kind before Black’s arrival in ’17. He subsequently led the Rockies to a wild-card berth in his first season to snap a seven-year postseason drought, then did so again in ’18 to mark the team’s first consecutive playoff appearances. A thrilling 2–1 win in 13 innings over the Cubs at Wrigley Field finally broke Black’s playoff hex before the Rox fell in the NLDS to the Brewers.
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Between his managerial gigs, Black probably could have done what many personable ex-managers do and accept a cushy media job. While working in a five-man booth for Fox Sports 1’s alternate broadcast for the 2014 NLCS (alongside future Giants manager Gabe Kapler), Black was praised by Awful Announcing’s Joe Lucia as the “star of the show” for being a “funny, intelligent and insightful” presence. Lucia speculated that if Black were to ever sit out for a year or two before getting back into the game, he would make a fine analyst.
But that’s not what happened after the Padres fired him in June 2015. Black instead worked the following season as a special assistant to then-Angels GM Billy Eppler, returning to the franchise he helped win a World Series. That 2002 Anaheim rotation featured Ramón Ortiz, Jarrod Washburn, Kevin Appier, Aaron Sele and rookie John Lackey (again, no disrespect to those guys, but that is not the caliber of most title-winning rotations). During the ’16 season, Black learned some insights Eppler brought over from the yankeessaw how Mike Scioscia had evolved as a manager during his time away from the organization, scouted college games and got back into what he calls the “grassroots of player development.”
“My passion is with a team—being part of a team and helping that team ultimately try to win a World Series,” Black says. “I enjoyed that year and learned a lot.
“All of those things helped me when I got here to Colorado, reconnecting with those parts of an organization.”
After a few tough years near the bottom of a stacked NL West, the Rockies have soared in the early going of the 2022 campaign. They opened the season with their first home series win over the Dodgers since August ’18 and haven’t slowed down since. At 8–4, they’ve yet to lose a series after taking two of three from the Phillies this week. Only the Dodgers (9–3) and the Mets (9–4) have better records than Colorado.
A philosophy tailored around keeping the ball on the ground on defense, rather than stocking up on fireballers who miss a ton of bats but are also prone to home runs, has seemingly paid off over the past couple of seasons. This year, the pitching staff boasts a 3.96 ERA, an impressive mark considering the Rockies have played 10 of their 12 games at Coors Field. The franchise’s ERA record is 4.14. And the bullpen has been even better, recording a 3.06 ERA and not taking its first loss until Wednesday.
Even though it’s early, the improvement on the mound seems to be legitimate. The talent is there. Germán Márquez is only 1.8 WAR away from passing Jiménez as the team’s all-time pitching WAR leader and already leads the franchise in career WHIP (1.27) and K/BB rate (3.48). Denver native Kyle Freeland, who signed a five-year, $64.5 million extension Tuesday, is also close to working his way up the career leaderboards. The left-handed worm burner’s 2.85 ERA in ’18 stands as the best single-season ERA by a Colorado starter. All five Rockies who made at least 20 starts last year recorded an ERA between 4.30 and 4.60. (Jon Gray is gone, but Márquez, Freeland, Antonio Senzatela and Austin Gomber remain to welcome offseason addition Chad Kuhl.) Those aren’t Cy Young–worthy numbers, but they’re quite good considering the circumstances.
“We have a pretty seasoned rotation of three guys who have been here for five years [Márquez, Freeland, Senzatela] and are really getting into hopefully the prime of their pitching careers. Then you have Gomber and Chad Kuhl, who had some success in Pittsburgh,” Black says. “So our starting pitching, I think, has the capabilities of being really solid. And so far, the bullpen has done a really nice job.
“I’m proud of the entire pitching staff.”
Oddly, it was Colorado’s offense that held back the team last year. The Rockies had the worst lineup in the league by most advanced metrics. One of the team’s top five all-time WAR leaders, Nolan Arenado, was traded to St. Louis before last season and another, Trevor Story, struggled in his final year with the club before signing with the Red Sox last month But the acquisitions of Kris Bryant and Randal Grichuk have helped buoy what’s been the third-highest-scoring offense in the majors thus far, as have fast starts from Connor Joe and CJ Cron, who seem to have found his true home at Coors Field. Cron hit his MLB-leading sixth home run in Colorado’s comeback win Tuesday and recorded a 1,073 OPS in home games last year—a better output than 2021 NL MVP and MLB OPS leader Bryce Harper.
“For us to get where we want to be, those home-road splits have to improve,” Black says.
It all comes back to Coors Field. Cron is one of five Rockies the team has worked out multiyear extensions with over the past eight months under GM Bill Schmidt, who had his interim tag removed at the end of last season. It’s a sign of faith in players who are already familiar with Coors Field’s unique challenges. And it’s a sign of patience that those players will eventually work out how to produce for the bulk of 81 road games, too.
In February, the Rockies extended Black through the 2023 season despite coming off three consecutive losing campaigns. For now, that decision is paying off. The team’s executives seemed to have realized they’d be well-served to give the newly minted 1,000-win manager the courtesy of faith and patience, too. Even when this pretty Colorado peak inevitably gives way to a valley somewhere down the line.
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