Foster, Holmes empowering Rox pitching staff

Coaches combining veteran advice with analytics to support young arms

June 9th, 2017
Pitching coach Steve Foster (right) talks with starter Antonio Senzatela and catcher Tony Wolters. (AP)

CHICAGO -- When Jeff Bridich interviewed Bud Black for the Rockies' managerial job last fall, he told him he'd be able to make some coaching hires, but not all of them. Pitching coach Steve Foster and bullpen coach Darren Holmes were staying, and that wasn't negotiable.

It's easy to see why, looking at the first-place Rockies these days. They're rolling, beating the Cubs, 5-3, on Friday for their sixth victory in a row. They've kept their pitching staff together despite the absence of their Nos. 1 and 2 starters, and , and they may finally have cracked the combination for thriving in the hitter-friendly conditions of Coors Field.

"It's the mindset of 'execute a pitch,'" Foster said. "Whatever happens, happens, but execute the pitch. Not focus on what happens when the ball falls into the large gap or hits off the short right-field fence. You think you've got an out, and all of a sudden the ball bounces off that wall. That happens. We don't focus on that. We focus on what are you going to do about it? Next pitch."

Bridich had hired Foster and Holmes two years early, shortly after he had become the general manager. He sees them as a full-service combination of coaches who can meet the needs of a diverse pitching staff.

Both pitched in the Major Leagues. Foster served as the Royals' bullpen coach in 2010-12 before moving into a pitching coordinator's role as Kansas City completed its climb to back-to-back American League pennants. Holmes spent five of his 13 Major League seasons working the Rockies' bullpen, and he studied biomechanics extensively after his career, opening a teaching academy with former Braves teammate John Smoltz.

"They're extremely passionate about their job," Black said. "They love what they're doing. Their commitment to the work they have to do is off the charts. Not only just the physical part, but doing [bullpen sessions], watching video. I think the key thing is they truly care about the pitchers. The personal connection with these guys is wonderful."

Foster says that he and Holmes "team teach," and he praises Holmes' ability to spot mechanical flaws and provide fixes that help pitchers adjust during games. Black, who was a Major League pitcher and pitching coach before being hired to manage the Padres in 2007, loves the dynamic between the coaches.

"They work great together,'' Black said. "They come to the park together, eat together, sit on the plane together. They're two peas in a pod. They're great. I empower 'em. I let 'em do their thing, and then I see some things. Our three-way dialogue is great. They're terrific."

With Gray (broken bone in his left foot) and Bettis (testicular cancer) sidelined, the Rockies have climbed to 17 games above .500 with a starting rotation anchored by 27-year-old . It includes a pair of 24-year-olds (right-hander and left-hander ) and 22-year-old right-handers and .

That group ranks sixth in the National League with a 4.08 ERA -- quite a step forward for a rotation that had the highest ERA in the NL for five consecutive years before finishing 13th in 2016.

"They were raised the right way -- player development did a really nice job," Black says of the young starters. "The underlying thing is they have good arms and they think the right way. They're looking at it the right way."

Foster and Holmes combine common-sense ways to support their pitchers with knowledge gleaned through biomechanics and analytics.

When Foster reached the Major Leagues with the 1991 Reds, he faced the snap judgments of manager Lou Piniella, but he was supported by pitching coach Larry Rothschild. It's fair to say that left an impression.

"I was telling my wife the other day, when I was out on the mound in a big league game I could hear Larry's voice over the stands, over everybody," Foster said. "I could hear Larry's voice, and it meant something to me. Larry is an encourager. Over everything, that's probably his greatest strength, and it's one thing I've tried to carry over. I want [my pitchers] to know I'm there, that I'm a presence, that I'm supporting them no matter what happens."

Bridich, who joined the Rockies after the 2004 season, has emphasized the building of a young, powerful pitching staff since replacing Dan O'Dowd as general manager. Black says the mental side plays a huge role -- the Rockies want pitchers who covet team wins, not low ERAs -- but for Foster and Holmes, it's about how to attack hitters.

"One thing we do know is high spin rate leads to more swing and miss," Foster said. "Four-seam fastballs with velocity seem to play well at Coors Field. Curveballs work well at Coors, especially with a high spin rate. Sliders don't break as much. Changeups will break less and have less rotation. We know these things."

Historically, some pitchers have shied away from throwing curveballs at Coors Field, believing balls didn't break in the thin air. But Foster says he and Holmes have encouraged their pitchers -- Gray and Bettis, specifically -- to throw more curves there because they are effective.

According to Statcast™, the Rockies have had a slightly higher average spin rate on their curveballs at Coors Field since 2015 (2472 rpms) than on the road (2463 rpms). The spin rate at Coors is higher on the four-seam fastball as well (2173-2170 rpms average).

"A lot of people come into Coors and don't throw their curveballs,'' Foster said. "Guys who throw it there [succeed]. comes in and throws it and it doesn't look any different to me, even when I look at it on video."

This is not to suggest that results are ever the same for pitchers at Coors Field as elsewhere. Even Kershaw has a 4.58 ERA there. But the goal is to win, and it looks like the Rockies have figured out a way to do that -- maybe even a way to sustain that success.

"I'm cautious," Foster said. "I know valleys are coming. That's part of the 162. I know we have to keep doing what we're doing -- encouraging, engaging and equipping. When we do that, I think we'll be able to sustain through the valleys to get to the mountaintop. It's exciting."