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The Colorado Rockies’ first bench-clearing brawl broke out on May 12, 1993, after a San Francisco Giants reliever plunked left fielder Jerald Clark on the elbow. Clark, who had already been beaned earlier in the game, didn’t charge the mound so much as stroll leisurely toward it. He wasn’t angry, he said later; just curious as to why the Giants were treating him like a bull’s-eye. In fact, the dispute seemed like it would resolve itself peacefully—until San Francisco slugger Barry Bonds took offense to something and started swinging. In the resulting melee, Rockies starting pitcher Butch Henry, whom the Giants had knocked around for seven runs that day, got trapped at the bottom of a scrum and a cleat clipped his right thumb, causing a gash that required four stitches.
Despite the fisticuffs on the field, however, it was a war of words that dominated conversation following the 8-2 Rockies defeat. “I feel like I made a lot of good pitches tonight,” Henry said inside the old Mile High Stadium, where the team played its first two seasons before moving to Coors Field in 1995. “I feel like if I would have pitched in any other ballpark, I would have won tonight.” Henry, with both his pride and his paw mangled, could’ve been forgiven for being irritable. But Colorado manager Don Baylor wasn’t in a forgiving mood: “I’m tired of our pitchers complaining about our ballpark. I don’t see other pitchers complaining when they come in here.”
In fact, the Giants’ starter that day, a 35-year-old veteran named Harry “Bud” Black, felt pretty good about his first showing in Denver. Black surrendered two runs in the first inning but then gave up only a single over the following 25 Rockies at-bats. “There’s a tendency in a park like this, if things are going poorly, to pitch defensively, but that’s when you get in trouble,” Black said afterward. “You can’t take yourself out of the game because the park intimidates you. You can’t be afraid to make a mistake.”
In the 1,830 games the Rockies have played in Denver since that inaugural 1993 season, Colorado hurlers have committed plenty of mistakes—and paid dearly for them. The franchise has finished better than 20th in Major League Baseball in earned run average, or ERA, only twice in 24 years. ERA is one of the key measures of pitching effectiveness, and in that realm, it’s safe to say the Rockies have been wildly futile.
The speculation—from the media, players, and even scientists—has been that the Rockies’ woes stem from playing home games in the oxygen-deprived confines of Coors Field, where batted balls travel farther, faster. Strangely, Colorado has never hired a pitching expert as its skipper. “It’s not surprising to me,” says Ron Darling, a former pitcher and current analyst on the MLB Network. “Former pitchers rarely get the chance to manage.” In fact, only three teams employ ex-pitchers as managers.
The Rockies are now one of them: On November 6, 2016, Colorado named Black—the same Giants pitcher who so flummoxed Rockies batters in 1993—as its seventh manager. Though time has turned the southpaw’s once-dark hair nearly completely gray since he first pitched in Denver, Black’s thoughts on how to succeed in the city’s thin air haven’t changed. “As a visitor coming into Coors Field, I’ve seen all types of styles work,” Black says today. “It’s just a matter of making your pitches.”
Walt Weiss wrapped up the best showing of his four-year stint as the Rockies’ manager on October 2, 2016. Unfortunately, his best—a 75-87 record and third place in the National League West—wasn’t nearly good enough. The pitching staff finished with a combined 4.91 ERA, third to last in the majors. Weiss resigned on October 3.
Both Weiss and Black are clean-cut, cool-tempered former ballplayers, but that’s where the similarities end. Before becoming manager of the Rockies, Weiss’ only head coaching experience had been a season with Regis Jesuit High School in Aurora. Conversely, Black, who pitched for 15 seasons and finished his career with a respectable 121-116 record, embarked on an impressive coaching trajectory after his playing days. He served as a pitching coach for the Los Angeles Angels from 2000 to 2006. He then managed the San Diego Padres for eight-plus seasons. Black’s pitching staffs routinely ranked among the best in the league, earning the Washington native a reputation as a pitching guru. “It’s a big part of who he is,” Colorado general manager Jeff Bridich said during Black’s introductory press conference. “It’s part of his strength and what he brings to the baseball part of his job.”
Although Black, 59, will be the first Rockies boss who can accurately be called a pitching expert, it’s difficult to blame his predecessors, including Weiss, for Colorado’s troubles. Denver’s high elevation makes for an inherently hitter-friendly environment: The lack of air at 5,280 feet creates less drag, so a batted ball travels farther. Moreover, thinner air means pitches don’t curve as much because there’s not enough resistance—friction between the rotation of the ball and air is what causes pitches to break. For example, last season, Rockies starter Chad Bettis threw a curveball at Dodger Stadium in Los Angeles (elevation: 267 feet) that bowed 24 inches. In Denver, a pitch traveling at the exact same speed and with the same revolutions per minute would have stayed two inches straighter. Hitters love that sort of science, considering the barrels of MLB-approved bats are just a shade over two-and-a-half inches wide.
The Rockies have tried to overcome nature on a couple of occasions. The franchise signed one of its first big-name pitchers, Bill Swift, in 1995. Swift possessed one of the nastiest sinkerballs in the majors. Sinkers produce ground balls, and no matter how thin the atmosphere, worm burners can’t turn into home runs. Or, at least that was the theory. Swift’s ERA ballooned to 5.47 during his three years in Denver. Skill having failed them, the Rockies turned to physics. In 2002, the club began storing game baseballs in a humidor at Coors Field. Denver’s arid climate makes baseballs drier and lighter—they become bouncy, like Super Balls. The humidor worked: The average ERA at Coors Field fell from 6.5 to 5.46. Unfortunately, that was still a run more than the mean at all other MLB ballparks. The team’s most recent effort came before the 2016 campaign; the Rockies raised the outfield fences by as much as nine feet. Yet the pitching staff still couldn’t manage an ERA near the MLB average.
Black understands that no matter what sorts of tricks he uses, ERAs will always be higher at Coors Field. “I look at it as a great challenge,” Black says. “I’m a great believer of when the game starts, you just have to outpitch the other team.”
As manager of the Padres, the Rockies’ divisional rival, Black visited Coors Field nine times each season. On each plane ride to Denver International Airport, the Padres’ position players would grow excited at the prospect of hitting at the highest-elevation ballpark in the majors. San Diego’s pitchers, though, stayed mostly silent on the descent into the Mile High City. “If they felt going to Coors was bad, they didn’t say it, believe me,” Black recalls.
Even if they’re loath to admit it, pitchers change when they take the mound at Coors Field. Darryl Kile was an All-Star pitcher with the Houston Astros in 1997 and then led the NL in losses the following year with the Rockies. Mike Hampton saw his ERA jump from 3.14 in 2000 with the New York Mets to 5.41 the next season in Colorado. More recently, there’s Tyler Chatwood. Arguably the Rockies’ ace in 2016, the fifth-year major leaguer posted a respectable 3.87 ERA. But in ballparks not named Coors Field, he recorded a stingy 1.69 ERA; in Denver, that skyrocketed to 6.12. “I walked too many dudes last year,” Chatwood says. “Then you give up a bloop single and three runs in an inning.” If Black’s career as a pitching coach and manager is any indication, he won’t abide that sort of pussyfooting around the plate.
In 2002, the Angels, with Black as pitching coach, faced Barry Bonds and his Giants in the World Series. Bonds was the most feared hitter in baseball. Terrified pitchers limited his output in 2002 by walking the All-Star nearly 200 times. In one of sports’ more ignominious moves, the St. Louis Cardinals intentionally walked Bonds during the playoffs—with no runners on base.
Cowering, however, didn’t jibe with Angels star Jarrod Washburn, a gritty lefty from rural Wisconsin in his third year under Black. “Buddy is super easy to get along with,” Washburn says. “He’s probably my favorite pitching coach that I ever had.” Black displayed a deft creativity when fixing whatever troubled his pitchers. Washburn, for example, struggled with his change-up; he’d discover a grip that would work for an outing but subsequently fall apart. So Black began tossing out a new change-up grip before every game. “He just did little things like that that seemed to work all the time,” Washburn says.
But Black’s greatest gift as a coach seems to be his ability to stoke his players’ confidence. For Washburn, that meant encouraging boldness no matter the adversary. “I bought into it and agreed with him wholeheartedly,” says Washburn, who threw his fastball 80 to 90 percent of the time. The pitch wasn’t overwhelming, but Washburn relished challenging batters: “If you’re going to beat me, I want you to beat my best.” And Washburn’s best led him to a fourth-place finish in Cy Young Award voting in 2002.
Black and Angels manager Mike Scioscia decided to ride their ace’s aggression against Bonds. Before Game 1, Black even approached Bonds and told him the Angels weren’t going to shy away from a showdown. The confrontation arrived in the top of the second inning. Washburn started out Bonds with two balls, then rebounded with a strike. The next pitch—Washburn’s favored fastball—cruised down the middle of the plate. Bonds smashed the pitch 418 feet into the right-field stands.
If the Rockies pitch as courageously as Black wants them to, they’ll undoubtedly incur some damage—just as Washburn did against Bonds. But even though the Angels lost that battle, they ultimately won the World Series. Thanks to the thin air of Denver, there’s little chance the Rockies will ever lead the league in ERA, but that doesn’t mean they can’t bring home the Commissioner’s Trophy. “There are going to be some games in Colorado where you’re the starting pitcher, and it’s the sixth or seventh inning and you might have given up five or six runs,” Black says. “But if you’re still battling and you’re still getting outs, you’re going to wind up being the winning pitcher.”
Entering 2017, Black feels like the talent on the Rockies’ pitching staff is finally approaching the ability the team has in its lineup. The club boasts an undeniably gifted, though young, starting rotation. Last year, Chatwood, 27, Bettis, 27, Jon Gray, 25, and Tyler Anderson, 27, combined for an average ERA of 4.20—right at the MLB norm. Led by defending NL batting champ D.J. LeMahieu, All-Star third baseman Nolan Arenado, and budding second-year phenoms Trevor Story and David Dahl, Colorado is likely to again rank among the top hitting clubs in the league. “The Rockies are one of the sleeper teams in baseball,” says Darling, the MLB Network analyst. “Are they short a couple of things? Sure. [Relief pitcher] Jake McGee needs to pitch better.” Of course, that goes for the entire bullpen, which finished last in the majors in ERA in 2016.
Which explains why, shortly after becoming Colorado’s manager, Black traveled to Salt River Fields at Talking Stick, the Rockies’ spring-training facility in Scottsdale, Arizona. There, within sight of the distinctive humps of Camelback Mountain, Black began counseling pitchers McGee and Mike Dunn.
McGee joined the Rockies in 2016 from the Tampa Bay Rays. Before arriving at 5,280 feet, the veteran lefty relied on a scorching fastball often thrown high in the strike zone. But McGee posted a dreadful 6.38 ERA at home last year. Dunn, a southpaw reliever Colorado signed during the offseason, pitches much the same way as McGee. The situation is not lost on Black, who has already set about sprinkling his patented brand of confidence-boosting fairy dust on his relievers. “I told both of them that just because we’re in Coors Field, I don’t want them to change who they are as pitchers,” Black says. “These guys have had success in the past pitching up in the strike zone with their fastballs. I don’t want them to be tentative because of Coors Field.”
Will aggressive pitching finally solve the Coors curse? Black believes so, and he has experience backing him up—not to mention a stable of talented pitchers. In short, there’s never been a better time to prove that, when it comes to pitching, the Rockies can actually beat the air.