Rockies trying new approach in Minor Leagues
Development directors attached to teams replace roving instructors
DENVER -- Not many years back, the Rockies were considered a model for player development. Now they've blown up their model.
Starting last season, the Rockies quietly went to a novel structure for coaching and development. The club eliminated many of the roving instructors that are a staple of player development. Instead, they set up development directors -- usually former managers -- with each Minor League team up to Triple-A. The plan is to have someone permanently with each team whose job is geared toward developing players for the Majors, rather than the result of a given game.
Rockies senior director of player development Jeff Bridich doesn't claim to have all the answers. He admits giving some of the wrong answers at times.
Speaking to the Rocky Mountain Society for American Baseball Research at its annual dinner earlier this month in Denver, he admitted to a "spirit of dogma." He referred to "words that came out of my mouth: 'This is how we do it. ... This is how it's done.' And, probably the worst one, 'This is how the Rockies have always done it.'"
When the plan went into effect, Bridich and the Rockies didn't spend much time speaking about it publicly, partly because they wanted to see the results and partly because they didn't know how it was going to work. A year in, Bridich admits it's too early to tell how well the system is working.
The old system seemed to work at one point.
In 2009, the last time the Rockies went to the playoffs, their games-played leader at each daily lineup position was drafted and developed by the Rockies, as were their No. 1 pitcher and three of their four most frequently used relievers. But since then, the Rockies have been beset by outages in terms of top-end talent, pitching and depth.
Bridich, who has worked for the Rockies in various Major and Minor League capacities since 2004, has been working closely with general manager and chief baseball officer Dan O'Dowd, who has concentrated on the Minor League system for about a year and a half. Out of that relationship came the new, teaching-based approach.
"It was really Dan and I, some thoughts he'd had for a long time, just seeing if we could take a system and get more out of it than what we had," Bridich said. "That's why we didn't do it right away. I assumed the role a couple of years ago and it's not like I made immediate changes. I tried to get a lay of the land and tried to make sure we understood what we were experiencing. From a staffing perspective as well we were trying to figure out, we had all this expertise and a lot of experience from our staff members. But can we get more out of them?"
Bridich felt the old system didn't give instructors time to know players, that the teaching had a way of being inflexible. And when instructors who were making major decisions were around for a few days at a time, they weren't able to become familiar with players and their learning styles.
In 2013, the development directors each had lengthy Minor League instruction careers as managers or Minor League executives. Tony Diaz at Rookie-level Grand Junction, Ron Giedon at Class A Tri-City and Duane Espy at Double-A Tulsa had managed in the system. Fred Nelson at Class A Modesto had worked for 27 years in the Astros organization and even spent time in charge of that team's entire farm system.
It's the directors' job to keep organization policies in place and also help instruct. Theoretically, they can concentrate on developing players while the manager and coaches handle the day-to-day chores of keeping a competitive team on the field.
"Can we put them in leadership positions where they are really on the ground level helping to make important development decisions and putting them in day-to-day situations where they can help make us educated?" Bridich said. "Rather than roaming from town to town, staying in one place for five days and moving around and not really having that sense of ownership in that process, can we empower them to help us make better decisions in development?"
The plan is to individualize teaching. Bridich said it's partly due to the fact players are moved through the Minors quicker than in years past. Also, many players have spent their lives with private coaches, some of whom still have influence, and players who are often uncomfortable or resistant to new ideas.
"I've mentioned it as a classroom and a student-teacher ratio, and that's how I look at it," Bridich said. "The finishing school is the big league level, but development is grade school, high school, college, and we have to look at it as classrooms. Just like any of those teaching environment, we have teachers -- the coaches -- and students in the players that have different ways of learning.
"They have different ways of accumulating information and processing information, different ways of understanding information and understanding data and understanding ways of doing things, very different types of athletes, very different baseball IQs, very different general IQs, very different upbringings. To ignore that and say every single guy has to do it this one way for this specific skill or this specific way of doing something, I feel like it's shortsighted."
Not all aspects of the operation changed. In an attempt to improve their development of starting pitchers, the Rockies hired Mark Wiley last year as director of pitching operations, and former Rockies pitching coach Bob Apodaca is working with pitchers in the low Minors. Mark Strittmatter, a former Rockies player and bullpen catcher, left a job with the Pirates to return as the organization. But for the most part, stationary coaches have replaced rovers.
The new policies will be tested this year. For example:
• Will the instruction help 2010 first-round pick Kyle Parker, an outfielder and first baseman, top off his development? Parker, ranked as the Rockies' No. 9 prospect by MLB.com, has hit 23 homers each of the last two seasons, including last year at Tulsa, and needs to improve at grinding out at-bats to reach his potential as a lineup force.
• Can 2009 No. 1 pick and No. 14-ranked Rockies prospect Tyler Matzek, a left-handed pitcher who is 24-25 with a 4.38 ERA in an often rocky career, become a rare Rockies-developed player to succeed in the Majors?
• The development plan will be rated by the progress this year of two recent Draft picks who could make their Major League debuts -- 2012 supplemental first-round pick and No. 3 Rockies prospect Eddie Butler, who has made dramatic progress since coming out of the University of Radford, and 2013 No. 3 overall pick and top Rockies prospect Jonathan Gray, a hard-throwing right-hander from the University of Oklahoma.
It's not as if setting standards is proven to be a bad philosophy. Branch Rickey penned instruction manuals when running the Cardinals and Dodgers. A few copies of Al Campanis' "The Dodger Way to Play Baseball" can be found online for a pretty price. Famously, Orioles manager and general manager Paul Richards put together a small manual for his instructors that was the basis for what became known as "The Oriole Way" as the team became successful from the mid 1960s through the early 1980s.
But successful teaching also involved flexibility and knowledge of players, which is a hallmark of successful development. The Rockies are taking a different path, hoping to land at the same successful place as other winning clubs.
"That's on us," Bridich said. "Honestly, the way we had it before, it existed a lot in theory but not in practice. The setup we're trying to have now is not going to be perfect. It's never going to be perfect. It wasn't in our old way of doing things. But we're trying to make the best of that situation. So we'll see."