Black sharing insight with Rockies' young arms

New Colorado skipper and former MLB hurler brings 'pitcher's perspective' to job

March 23rd, 2017

SCOTTSDALE, Ariz. -- One of the first things Bud Black said when the Rockies hired him as their skipper was that he "sees the game through the pitcher's eyes," and sometimes those words are meant to be taken literally.

Black was watching throw a bullpen session here early in Spring Training camp, and he noticed that Gray's eyes were peeking too long on his leg lift as he went through his motion on the mound when they ought to be aimed at the catcher's mitt. Repetition is a pillar of pitching, and bad habits aren't easily unbound. But Black's observation was one small thing that Gray is attempting to address each time he takes the ball.

"I wish I could nail that sucker in for good," Gray said with a smile.

There are a lot of these little things taking place here at Salt River Fields, where Black's rich pitching background is being put to the big test that awaits when the season shifts to Coors Field and the balls really start flying.

Of course, Black's other challenge here has been the adversity that has struck a camp in which ' cancer recurrence, 's fractured hand, Tom Murphy's fractured forearm and 's rib injury will all negatively impact the Opening Day roster. But it is fascinating to observe the ways Black and the Rockies try to tackle the more immovable hurdle that is baseball at 5,280 feet.

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It starts with a very simple premise.

"Fundamentally," Black said, "we have to outpitch the other team. We [play at Coors Field] 81 times and they come in for a three- or four-game series. Teams from the [National League] West come in nine times, others just three or four and they're in and out. But still, for that night, we're pitching in the same conditions."

The notion of a pitching-minded manager coming to town and rescuing the Rox is inherently unfair to Black, general manager Jeff Bridich and the many people whose good work preceded Black's arrival. The Rockies already had an impressive stash of young arms.

Gray got a good feel for a new curveball last season, so now he's a 6-foor-4, 235-pounder with a 94-98-mph fastball, a four-pitch mix and consistent command. He's growing into a monster.

"His hair continues to grow, too," pitching coach Steve Foster joked. "We don't know where that's going to stop."

The hope in the Rox's rotation doesn't stop after Gray. 's road ERA (1.69) was the best in the Majors last year, and there's hope for his home numbers now that he has a better feel for his curveball after his second Tommy John surgery. 's rookie year saw him allow the lowest average exit velocity (85.1 mph) of any pitcher with at least 200 batted-ball events, as tracked by Statcast™. , , and Denver native are all intriguing options on the rise.

"If you're not watching closely," Foster said, "you might miss what's here."

The mindset matters, too. Whether it took the ol' hypnotizing swinging watch is unconfirmed, but the young men who came up in this organization have embraced the idea of making Coors Field work for them.

"You can use that place as a weapon," Gray said. "When you've pitched there more than the other guy and have a better feel for it, they're not as prepared for it as you are."

Gray understands the possibility that he could develop into an elite arm at this level without elite stats, simply as a byproduct of home inflation. He's strangely OK with it. Colorado might be the one place where an archaic pitching metric still matters.

"That only thing that should matter is the W," Gray said. "You can't get mad about going seven innings and giving up three or four runs. You just have to stay mentally tough every pitch."

What Black values above all else is the pitcher-catcher relationship, and Murphy's absence leaves the Rockies with an especially inexperienced catching crop fronted by Tony Wolters (71 big league games) and (46). That's why the whiteboard in Black's office features what looks to be a molecular chart showing all the potential counts in a given at-bat. Black will call one of his catchers into the room, give them the name of a Rox pitcher and the stuff that pitcher throws, and he will ask the catcher to take him through all the various counts and what sign they would throw down in that situation.

"It just gives them a visual guide to work through counts," Black said. "You can help simplify game-calling for some of our guys, which I think we need."

The season will show us how far these small insights take the Rockies. But Black's arrival and the mental maturity of the young arms give this club a chance to conquer Coors and maybe make waves in the West.