With nothing to lose, Tracy has Rockies winning
On the morning of May 29, Rockies general manager Dan O’Dowd drove to Clint Hurdle’s house in Highlands Ranch, met with the man he still talks to regularly and told Hurdle, whom he considers “one of the best friends I’ve got in the world,” that his lengthy tenure as the Rockies’ manager had ended.
O’Dowd then drove to the Denver home of Jim Tracy and his wife, Debra. They discussed at length the floundering Rockies, who were then 18-28 and had just been swept by the Dodgers in three games at Coors Field and outscored 31-13.
When O’Dowd offered Tracy the opportunity to manage the team, he sketched out a scenario that only could benefit Tracy. If the club continued to play poorly, O’Dowd said blame would go to him. But if the club made any sort of progress, Tracy would get credit.
“He had a no-lose situation, and good for him,” O’Dowd said. “And now he’s taken the opportunity and settled this thing tremendously. And he made some strategically very good decisions.”
Under Tracy, the Rockies are 26-11 after Tuesday’s 5-4 win against the Nationals. They tied the franchise record for consecutive victories, winning 11 games June 4-14, and set a franchise record for wins in a single month by going 21-7 in June.
The Rockies were 20-32 and 15 1/2 games behind after suffering their fourth straight loss June 3. They were hurtling toward oblivion when, suddenly, the rampant losing stopped. Now they’re 44-39, nine games behind the Dodgers and in the thick of the wild-card race.
“I never expected us, to be honest with you, to turn it around like this,” O’Dowd said, “because we had struggled for so long in playing the game the way I thought we were capable of playing.”
A fresh start
The turnaround began hours before Jason Marquis threw the first pitch May 29 when Tracy, who joined the team this year as Hurdle’s bench coach, met with the Rockies.
Tracy managed the Dodgers from 2001-2005, winning the National League West in 2004, and the Pirates in 2006-2007. In each case, he was hired in the offseason, giving him ample time to organize and prepare for spring training, not to mention the regular season. What Tracy, 53, had never done was parachute into the manager’s seat during a season and try to end a collective nosedive.
“I hit them with the fact that, ‘Hey, you know that identity that you guys worked so hard to gain for yourself in 2007? You surrendered it,’ ” Tracy said. “ ‘You gave it up. You gave it up.’
“I said, ‘You’ve got some work to do to get it back.’ And I said, ‘You know something, Rocktober, it was tremendous, just like 2004 for me as the manager of the Los Angeles Dodgers was terrific. But you know what, it’s long gone. It’s about today.’ ”
Closer Huston Street, new to the Rockies this season, said Tracy “put it out on the line and said we’re going to be accountable for our actions and, ‘I’m going to expect professionals and I’m not going to coddle you, and if I got to be a jerk, I got no problem being a jerk.’
“It wasn’t so much that Clint never said those things. It was just when you have a change like that, it’s almost like everybody opens up for whatever reason and prepares themselves to listen.”
A new voice in the clubhouse
The hard truth is the Rockies had stopped listening to Hurdle. Which isn’t to say they didn’t hear him. Hurdle is always the loudest voice in the room. His words boom forth like thunderclaps. He’s animated, clever, quick with a quip, maybe too quick at times. Hurdle is chummy by nature, effusive but can come across as bombastic.
Tracy has a much quieter delivery. His speech is more measured. His words track back, parts of one sentence showing up in the next. He has a legal-brief precision accompanied with a desire to explain and the ability to go on and on, even ramble. Tracy could filibuster with ease, his cadence a succession of gentle ups and downs and his sentences long and rarely trailing off to an elliptical incompleteness.
Here’s Tracy on the Rockies lineup:
I think it has a chance of being a devastating offense for an opposition due to the fact that you can go one through eight and make one bad pitch and somebody can put a crooked number on the board. And that starts with Dexter Fowler on the top all the way down to (Chris) Iannetta.
Here’s Tracy on talking to Clint Barmes, upon moving him to the second spot in the lineup when Tracy became manager:
If you’re patient and as good a fastball hitter as you are, a bunch of them are going to show up, because, oh by the way, you happen to have one of the best hitters in baseball hitting behind you (in Todd Helton). So it’s two-fold, you get something you can hammer, you hammer and fire on it. Make it be over the plate. Don’t expand your zone, because if they don’t throw it over, we want the guy behind you to hit an awful lot with men on base instead of leading innings off because we make a frivolous out for the third out of the inning on a horse(bleep) pitch that you can’t do anything with.
But this kid’s a sponge. He wants to know all of this stuff.
Tracy begins his post-game media session with a summation of the game. He does not deal in sound bites, so these explanations invariably produce a verbal thicket as Tracy gives a no-stone-unturned analysis of the proceedings. Lately, the recounts have been glowing and upbeat as the wins have mounted and the Rockies put their dismal start and Hurdle’s fate behind them.
“I really feel that the team had become extremely distracted,” Tracy said. “There was a lot of scuttlebutt every day; we’d lose a game and the focus would go right toward Clint’s job status, etc., etc., to where the game became secondary. It was secondary.”
A sigh of relief
When Hurdle was twisting in the wind, Rockies players say that after every loss at home, they would be in the clubhouse and would think, upon seeing O’Dowd or assistant general manager Jeff Bridich pass the clubhouse on the way to the manager’s office, that the moment had arrived, the ax was going to fall and, with that done, the team could go out and play.
When the managerial change was finally made, there was a collective sigh of relief in the clubhouse, because, one, there was closure and, two, the players had wearied of Hurdle, who had managed the Rockies since April 26, 2002. Out of respect for Hurdle, however, the players didn’t want to publicly criticize him.
“It’s a fresh start for everybody,” shortstop Troy Tulowitzki said. “It’s a fresh start for me with a new manager. I was playing poorly. I just kind of started over, and I think some other guys did the same as well.”
Reliever Alan Embree said the team was at a point where it “needed a breath of fresh air, positive energy. And for whatever reason that move worked. Obviously, I think first and foremost the move made all of us look in the mirror. . . . Guys quite frankly were tired of losing.”
Even as the Rockies lost close games — they lost their first eight one-run games — and games that were not so close, there was a sense of collective bewilderment. Undermanned teams leave spring training and know the season ahead will bring little hope but instead will be a lengthy slog filled with insurmountable obstacles and strewn with losses. That wasn’t the case with the Rockies, coming off a crisp, successful spring training.
“I never believed,” Street said, “and talking with a lot of the other guys, no one believed we were the second-worst team in baseball behind the Nationals.”
Under Tracy, the ascent has been swift, in part because of some strategic moves and a vision that is narrow, hones in what is most important and is revealed in a picture of a couple tubs of champagne at the door to Tracy’s office at Coors Field. Above the picture it says: One thing at a time. Below the picture are the words: One day at a time.
An offensive spark
Tracy’s key strategic moves involved second baseman Clint Barmes and third baseman Ian Stewart. Tracy moved Barmes up to second in the lineup, letting catcher Chris Iannetta, more selective and less likely to expand strike zone, deal with the challenge of batting eighth ahead of the pitcher.
Barmes, who was hitting .234 when the switch was made, has flourished hitting second ahead of Todd Helton, raising his batting average to .283. Tracy instilled a few words of wisdom, a phrase that would serve as a mechanical reminder for Barmes: shake hands with the catcher.
“All that is doing is getting my weight back and keeping me back,” Barmes said.
By contrast, Tracy said Barmes’ first move when the pitcher started to drop his arm and get to his release point was to “collide” into the ball, rather than getting behind it and recognizing the type of pitch.
“And as a result you’d get a number of those two-strike sliders where you’d get that god-awful swing, inhibiting him big time from being able to use the right side of second base,” Tracy said. “All the other things were in place (to be a very good No. 2 hitter). He’s a good bunter — bunt for a hit, sacrifice bunt, push bunt. He has all the attributes.”
Tracy benched third baseman Garrett Atkins in favor of Stewart. The latter earned National League Player of the Week honors for the week ended June 7, going on an offensive tear playing second base while Barmes filled in at shortstop a few days when Tulowitzki was out with a sore left hand. When Tulowitzki returned, Tracy met with Atkins and told him Stewart would start at third base. That switch greatly enhanced the defense, as did the decision to bring up Carlos Gonzalez and have him be the primary left fielder. Gonzalez joined the team in St Louis in early June.
A few days earlier in Houston, where the Rockies began their surge on June 4, Tracy brought first baseman Helton and right fielder Brad Hawpe, veterans who have been the team’s most consistent players all season, into his office. Tracy said they talked about the team’s passive offensive approach. Tracy was fed up with watching a succession of hitters trudge back to the dugout after taking a third strike and mumble about the ball being at least a half-inch or an inch inside.
Tracy did more than convey his concern about players being overly selective with two strikes. He asked Helton and Hawpe for help with the younger players, and not just about being more aggressive with two strikes. Tracy encouraged Hawpe and Helton to lead and let them know it was fine to speak out.
“That was the whole purpose of the get-together,” Tracy said. “But what I pride myself in also is recognizing people’s personalities, and (I) don’t try to push them to go outside their box. And they’re not going to be the outspoken guys with the, ‘Hey, what the hell?’ and here goes a chair flying across the clubhouse. They do it by example and verbally; they do it very quietly. And you know something? That’s OK.
“I just encouraged them. ‘I know you guys. I’ve admired you for years from the other side of the field. But you know what, you have my permission to be those guys (to speak up). And if it’s a matter of just sitting down next to a guy and whispering, Hey, what the hell you got going on? Have that type of professional conversation. And if you ever need me, you know where the office is, and oh by the way, if nobody’s in there with me, you don’t have to knock. Come on in, and let’s talk about it.’ ”
Meanwhile, on the mound . . .
Of course, it has also helped the Rockies immensely that their pitching, the bedrock when it comes to success or lack thereof, has been superb. The rotation has solidified with the starters going 19-5 with a 3.51 ERA and averaging 6.6 innings per start in June. According to the Elias Sports Bureau, in the past 40 seasons, the only other National League team to 19 games in a month was the Mets in July 1985.
Tracy has proven to be an adroit handler of the bullpen, a situation that has been compounded when Manuel Corpas, who had been pitching well in an eighth-inning setup role, went on the disabled list June 20 with right elbow inflammation. Tracy has let long reliever Josh Fogg sit for extended periods, knowing he can deal with it and still respond, and has ridden Street hard at times.
The players take comfort in knowing that in the late innings, when matchups and contingency plans become crucial, Tracy will have a left-hander and a right-hander warming up.
Hurdle tried not to let any reliever sit or pitch for more than three successive days. Tracy takes a more touch-and-feel approach to the use of his bullpen, just another difference between him and Hurdle.
The players are sometimes not even aware Tracy is around. When he does venture into the players’ lounge for something to eat, he makes a point of coming and going quickly, by no means guaranteed to be heard and quite content to go back to his office and pore over information that might help him win the game that is a few hours away.
“(Hurdle) was very outspoken and very personable,” Stewart said. “Not to say that ‘Trace’ isn’t. He’s just more of a quiet voice. He kind of keeps to himself back in his office. But he’ll be in your face, if he thinks you need it, too.”
Then and now: The 2009 Rockies under Clint Hurdle and Jim Tracy
|Under Hurdle||Under Tracy|
|Runs per game||4.89 (225 runs)||5.08 (188 runs)|
|Starting pitchers||14-19, 4.62||22-8, 3.42|
|Relief pitchers||4-9, 5.52||4-3, 3.90|