Bichette seeking new era of Blake Street Bombers
First-year hitting coach offers unique perspective on effects of Coors Field
DENVER -- Dante Bichette knows how it feels to put up strong batting numbers in a Rockies uniform and have them answered by the baseball world with a collective, "Yeah, but ..."During a seven-year stint with the Rockies that saw him earn four All-Star Game trips, he learned to answer, "So what?" The experience makes Bichette, the Rockies' new hitting coach, unique among the coaches who have been asked to work with a team that for 20 seasons has feasted in Denver's altitude and languished on the road. "It was always a challenge that I took on and tried to figure it out," Bichette said. "It was a bummer when people said I was a creation of Coors Field. I knew that my numbers weren't going to be as good as at Coors no matter where I played my home games. But if I played somewhere else, my numbers on the road would have been better. I just decided that it would all come out in the wash." Before this offseason's appointments of Bichette and new manager Walt Weiss, who was Bichette's Rockies teammate for four seasons, the person who had played for the franchise and went on to become an official member of the coaching staff was one-time hitting coach Alan Cockrell, who made nine plate appearances in purple pinstripes. Guys like Weiss and Vinny Castilla have been special assistants, but now the Rockies have coaches with significant playing time experiencing the ups and downs of Colorado baseball. The wide home/road splits, which have appeared on every significant hitter's stat sheet, draw plenty of barbs. They always come up when Hall of Fame voters discuss Larry Walker's candidacy, and they will again when Todd Helton becomes a candidate five years after his final game. The splits of center fielder Dexter Fowler became a familiar retort when the Rockies asked teams to pay dearly if they wanted to trade for him -- something that hasn't happened. But Bichette's hiring is a signal that the Rockies plan to unapologetically pound opponents at home. From there, they'll work on the other stuff. Bichette joined Eric Young, Walker, Castilla, Ellis Burks, Weiss and Andres Galarraga as part of a power hitting-speed combination known as the Blake Street Bombers. The offense led the Rockies to the playoffs in 1995, just their third year of existence, and in 1996 the Rockies became the first team in history to reach 200 home runs and 200 stolen bases in the same year. "I don't know that you can actually fix the Coors Field effect, but we need to get back to dominating at home offensively and surviving on the road," Bichette said. "The biggest difference is the breaking ball. You see much better breaking balls on the road, and once you start getting used to it, you've got to go back home. There are some things we can do, like seeing more breaking balls at game-level speed in batting practice, so it's not such a drastic difference. But it's a matter of getting our swag back at home. "Don't get me wrong, we can win on the road, although it will take using our speed, some defense and some pitching that can step up. But the model for me is what the Blake Street Bombers did." Did production fall off on the road when Bichette played? Certainly. But the attitude of fearlessness at home endeared the young franchise to its fan base. Poor pitching, more than the offensive imbalance, kept the team from being a big winner. Pitching is still a major problem, but the Rockies are coming off consecutive losing seasons at home for just the second time since Coors Field opened in 1995. The decision to let Carney Lansford go at the end of the 2012 season was a clear indication that the hitters weren't blameless. Bichette is being asked to solidify what has become a revolving situation. Since Clint Hurdle was promoted from hitting coach to manager during the 2002 season, the Rockies have had Cockrell (twice), Duane Espy, Don Baylor (manager of those Blake Street Bombers teams) and Lansford in the hitting-coach job. Bichette actually turned in several respectable seasons on the road as well, mainly because he became an advanced thinker in the batter's box. History shows proper thinking as an offense is more important than batting average. For example, the 2009 playoff club -- which finished with the only winning road record in club history at 41-40 -- hit .235 on the road but scored 340 runs. Last year's club hit .241 on the road but managed just 272 runs. "The best way to approach it is to play to win, period," Bichette said. "And you'll be surprised. If you are dominating at home, it's late in the season and you're up there in the standings, sometimes that's what you need to take momentum on the road for games that really count." Weiss said Bichette's career is an excellent example for Colorado hitters. "I said, 'On the first day, you need to bring in your highlight film, man, because these guys are a little younger and they might not remember you,'" Weiss said. "For me, Dante, where he was special as a player -- one of the best I played with -- he was great with two strikes, and he was really, really good with runners in scoring position, because he took his at-bats with conviction and he was committed to a plan. A lot of it just came down to his mental approach." Bichette loves the roster. If shortstop Troy Tulowitzki, outfielder Michael Cuddyer and Helton make successful returns from injuries and left fielder Carlos Gonzalez benefits from other big bats in the lineup, there is a ready-made leadership council of strong offensive players. Then Bichette can take on the delicate task of working with a promising group of young hitters. Fowler, outfielders Tyler Colvin and Eric Young Jr., and infielder Chris Nelson all had what could be called breakout seasons in 2012, and rookies Jordan Pacheco, Wilin Rosario, Josh Rutledge and DJ LeMahieu all finished with strong numbers. However, all will be facing heightened awareness from opposing pitchers. "I have more life under my belt. I've had a lot of hits, and probably made more outs than all of them except for Helton, because he's played so long and been so great. But how to get out of a funk, or how to maintain, how to use a scouting report to make those small adjustments, I believe I can be of benefit in those areas." Lesson No. 1, and a key to turning the Rockies around, is that hits, runs and home runs are to be enjoyed, no matter where they occur or what anyone says about them. "If I was hitting 50 or 60 points lower on the road than at home, I didn't let it bother me," Bichette said. "I knew we were always going to come home, and we were going to get an opportunity to hit and intimidate the other pitchers."
Thomas Harding is a reporter for MLB.com. Read his blog, Hardball in the Rockies, and follow him on Twitter @harding_at_mlb. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.