Q&A: Rockies GM Bill Geivett, Part 1

Coors Field

“Want some Starbucks?”

Bill Geivett’s office is what you might call … spartan. Two months ago, the Colorado Rockies promoted Geivett, making him the de facto general manager. Though the Rockies website still lists him as “Sr. Vice President — Scouting & Player Development/Assistant General Manager,” Geivett ostensibly serves as the team’s director of major league operations.

You wouldn’t know it by looking at his office. The man in charge of personnel decisions for a major league franchise sits at a small gray desk in the back corner of a conference room in the Rockies clubhouse. Ever the scout and farm director at heart, Geivett’s desk sits next to an eraser board with the depth charts of the Rockies’ minor league affiliates stuck to it. The most exciting aspect of his setup is the coffee dispenser across the way, which does indeed deliver piping hot Starbucks.

We talked to Geivett about the state of the Rockies, the frustration of going through the worst season in franchise history, the challenges of winning at altitude, and the constant struggle between baseball orthodoxy and creative solutions.

Let’s start to talk about the season in general — what the expectations were, and why and how things fell short.

We certainly felt like we were going to have a much better season than we did. Going in, especially in spring training, not just with our staff but with a number of personnel from other clubs that were scouting, or front office people who really felt like, you know, the balance and offensive impact that we could have, combined with talented guys on the mound — maybe inexperienced but talented — and with the addition of [Jeremy] Guthrie coming in as a more veteran, innings-eater, stabilizer kind of a guy, we felt like, heading into it, and a lot of people felt like, heading into it, we were definitely a team to contend in the division.

Popular sleeper pick, for sure.

Yeah. As things played out, a number of issues that didn’t go our way in terms of injury and lesser performance than we expected certainly put us in the position that we are in right now. It’s funny in this game, there’s not — I was telling Jim Tracy back when we were in Philadelphia one time, it’s amazing with this game: There’s no real middle ground. Either you’re really good, or you’re really bad. That’s the one thing about Major League Baseball, for a lot of teams that have high expectations. You’re either in the playoffs, you win your division, you win the World Series, or it’s considered you’re bad. For us, certainly, our record reflects that we played poorly, but at the same time I think we have an opportunity to learn a lot about what we do and why things can happen this way.

The injuries are interesting. First of all, I’m going to throw out a way-out theory. Is there anything to playing a mile high that you’ve heard from trainers that might lend to players’ becoming more susceptible to something going wrong? Or is it just one of those things where there have been a lot of injuries this year, and that’s just how it is? Historically, is this a team that gets injured a lot?

You know, it’s our 20th season, and I think we’ve found we’ve had a lot of injuries. I think, for us, that’s a part of it, probably. What I’m doing here is really to dig into all that we do and try to figure it out. But we’ve had more than our share of soft-tissue injuries here.

More than the norm, you would say?

I think so, I think so. We seem to have a lot of those, as evidenced by the last few years. A lot of people like to point to, “Well, the Denver Bears played here,” or whatever. The problem that we have with equating a triple-A scenario when the players are in and out all the time, it’s much different than a major league club, where you hope to have your players there for [many years], often times. To me, I think besides altitude, you could probably point to a lot of other things. We typically play a little bit longer games …

But that’s kind of related to the altitude too.

Yeah, that’s true. I guess you could say that. But I mean, just in terms of looking at other areas. Bigger field, more ground to cover, all of these types of things can play into it, but for me, I don’t know. I think we go through with a lot of these things and try to point and look to reasons or whatever. Some people feel like they’re excuses or what have you. I think it’s more of, for us, trying to figure out — I think the days of, in the ’70s and ’80s, maybe early ’80s, definitely mid-’80s, where players, an everyday player played every day. I don’t know, in today’s game, if that’s truly the case. I think you need to manage playing time. I think you need to really look at that. For us, especially, we’re not going to have a $200 million payroll in our market. How do we get to a point of keeping our team intact all year long? I think that was the issue or reason behind looking at a four-man type of scenario. And also with our position players, how can we keep these guys healthy and intact for the entire season? Because we just keep on … [we] seem to run into some injuries.

You mentioned the ’70s and ’80s. This is more of a macro question, but what strikes you as the difference between then and now? Why is it that players can’t play 162? Or is it a selection bias, the same way that you would say, “Well, Christy Mathewson could throw a million innings.” Yeah, sure, but there are a bunch of other guys you’ve never heard of who broke down.

I think it’s everything. It’s a number of things, it’s usually not just one thing. I think longer games nowadays play into it. I think strength and conditioning and all the work —

Which is supposed to help!

Which is supposed to help, but I think the body can only take so much. I think players in today’s game — what is it, since 1990, the average weight of a major league player has gone up 22 pounds. I think that whole aspect of it really needs to be looked at in terms of how much work are they doing prior to a game? My joke around here is that, you know, guys like Dante [Bichette], Larry [Walker] and Vinny [Castilla], nobody ever accused them of working hard. But they were good players, great players.

Larry was just sort of … he was just naturally gifted.

He was, but he wasn’t a guy who was in the weight room, or hitting off the tee at two o’clock in the afternoon or doing all that stuff. They were baseball players, and they got their work in, and went out to play. I think that’s an aspect of what we do as well in today’s game. Players are so conscientious and trying to work so hard that I think they might be out-working, or at least, working to the extreme, that it puts pressure on them as far as playing the game, and doing all the work they’re doing.

As a hypothetical, let’s say that you did some longitudinal study and you found, yes, the Rockies are over-training, this is happening. Could it work, would it go over if you or representatives of you, or maybe Jim, or the strength and conditioning coach went to the players and said: We’re changing it up. It’s all yoga, you can do a little bit of light lifting, a little bit of hitting, but show up to the ballpark an hour later, weight-train-less, so and so, change it up. Let’s say you found those results. Could that even play? Or is that sort of, that’s their domain, you can’t get too involved, and that’s overreaching?

I think what we do is what we do, specific to each club. I don’t think there’s — it’s the same, it’s no different than in Atlanta where they have a lot of heat, or the Cubs where they play a lot of day games. Or Seattle, they’ve got to travel, or Florida, their travel and all the things that they do being on the coast or far away. I think everybody has individual differences and how they need to look at their program, and how they do things. I think ours seems to be, because ours is so unique in that nobody really plays at altitude. Arizona’s closest but it’s a couple-thousand-feet difference. Nobody really does that except for us. So I think it’s an issue for us to really look at and engage in, what can we do to put ourselves in a better position to be more competitive and ultimately win a championship? And at the same time, just know that this is part of us, and we love it here, and it’s home, and we need to make our home the advantage. I’d say, over time, clubs are better prepared to play here.

Why do you think that is? Or how do you think that is?

Well I think that players understand if they’re coming here, they need to drink more water. Trainers have been coming here now for years. So they know what’s going on. The days of a club flying in on their off days, what we used to like, because we know they’d go down to LoDo and enjoy all the things that you can do there.

Falling Rock Tap House!

That’s right.

Wonderful place.

They can enjoy all their activities at night, knowing that when you drink alcohol at altitude, it affects you more adversely. But those are the types of things that I think everybody has, they’ve gotten more used to how they’re going to make sure that they can grip a baseball and pitch here. Players have been coming in here now. They know, they truly know the difference. I think, basically, what I’m saying is, players from either — that have played here and have gone on somewhere else, that know what it’s like and the type of things that you have to do — I think they’ve helped all the other clubs and all the other players, coming in here to play, what it’s like. When it was brand-new, there was a bigger advantage, I’ll put it to you that way.

One thing that presents itself as an opportunity with the change between you and Dan [O’Dowd] and the way the job selection has changed is, like you said, you’ve been brought in to look at things and potentially make modifications. I’m wondering if there are out-of-the-box solutions that could be possible. In other words, the typical baseball club has strength and conditioning, and trainers, and a hitting coach, and a pitching coach, and so forth. Is there any logic to, say, a USGS person coming in, or somebody who looks at physics, something different, who can look at the ballpark and look at the environment in a way different than somebody who has extreme baseball knowledge, but not extreme climate-science knowledge, or nutritional knowledge, or whatever. Could you go outside of the normal sphere to find experts to help you get the most out of what should be a big home-field advantage despite the adjustments by other clubs?

Well, we don’t need to go look for them. They’ve been volunteering. People contact us all the time.

Is that right? But would hiring one or having one as a consultant, is that a viable option, or is that too far afield?

I don’t know. I think that, the one aspect that might be our biggest weakness, for all of us in baseball, is that we’re training traditionally. And that is a big weakness that, I’d say, comes into what would be termed as a nontraditional type of environment. It’s different, playing baseball at altitude. It just is. No way around it. At the same time, we love it here, and we think there could be some great competitive advantage by being here. And right now, we’re trying to really solidify that. There’s been more studies and statistical stuff looked at or whatever. I think what it’s really going to come down to, though, is the traditional baseball minds looking at this environment, and our ball club, and really putting together what might be things that are a little bit different in terms of what you would say are “inside the box,” but really fit for us in our environment and where we play. I really do believe that. Some of it will be traditional, but we cannot have the blinders on, trying to exclude things because we haven’t done them before.

Scientist stuff? Or are these laypeople giving you scientific information?

We’ve probably had it all, we’ve probably had it all. And that’s why it’s so fascinating here for me or anybody who’s been in baseball for a long time, because you just don’t seem to run into this stuff. And you’re still at a point where, just 20 years in, it’s not like it’s been a tremendously long history here or anything.

And there have been different kinds of Rockies teams that have been successful, and different kinds that have been unsuccessful.

There’s no question about it, and that’s what makes it even more difficult. It’s definitely something where, you know, Blake Street Bombers and those guys —

Meantime the ’95 team had one of the best, probably the best, bullpen in the history of the franchise and nobody talks about that because a bunch of guys hit home runs. Steve Reed, those guys.

Yeah, there’s no question. Those are the things, I think, that make it fascinating. You still, you’ve gotta be able to pitch and catch better than the other team. In this ballpark, definitely, having powerful offensive players is to your advantage.

So basically, having the same characteristics as any good team anywhere.

No question.

Let me ask you, so this Blake Street Bombers theory. I affectionately refer to players of this ilk as “big, fat guys who hit 30 home runs.” I say that with the utmost respect, by the way, as a terrible baseball player who played one year of Little League. And Dante’s not — I don’t mean to disrespect Dante, but someone like Dante or Vinny —

I’ll go tell him you said that.

Hey! But guys like Dante or Vinny, these are, I don’t want to say one-dimensional, but very much sluggers. Has that been thought of? You mentioned the pitching and the catching and so forth, but gee, you’re playing in this park, you’re humidoring it up, it’s still, by park effects, the number-one offensive park. There’s only so much you can do. Is there a certain point at which you say, let’s just go get seven sluggers? You can’t get seven Pujolses because they cost too much money. But seven Jack Custs, maybe. Is that a viable strategy, or would that just break apart?

I think that would be great if, in fact, you could still pitch and play defense.

Well, it’s hard to play defense, but maybe you get good pitchers and a bunch of home run guys who are not great fielders.

Yeah, but that’s still the aspect that I think that, even thinking nontraditionally, I think that to some point, traditionally, you’ve got to know that to win baseball games, you’re going to have to pitch and play defense. I don’t think that’s going to go away. I really don’t.

It’s a spacious ballpark too.

It is a big ballpark, and you’ve got to cover it. So just getting some guys that can’t really move around, and try to throw them in the outfield, that could really cause you a lot of problems. And that’s the thing. You want power, but you want the defense. The bottom line here, for me anyway, with our injuries, we’ve gotta pitch better. We need to tailor our game to pitch in Coors Field. That’s kind of what happened this year. I don’t think we were … with the injuries and the guys that came in, or even Jeremy coming in, knew what to expect, in a year which — my dad was a meteorologist, but I’m certainly not one — but in a year where you can see fires all over the place. Definitely, the ball was flying.

I just moved here and I heard this is the hottest summer in Denver in, maybe ever.

There’s no question that the ball was moving out of here like it never has. What that is, why, I have no idea. But I know how the ball was carrying. And we had pitchers at the same time who were probably ill-suited to pitch here and be able to put the ball on the ground. And another time where, Ramon Hernandez, whom we brought in, who was supposed to be there to help the young pitchers, got hurt and missed two months. And now Rosario … great hitter, but basically gets thrown into the calculus of the major league level, and all these lineups and all that, and handling pitchers, some of which he had never caught, except in spring training and early in the season. All of that came to the point where it kind of went haywire. There are definitely aspects of what we do, I believe, that we can get a lot better at. We have talented pitchers. Somewhat inexperienced in some cases. When the injured guys come back, and the guys that, to me, the way I see it, the guys that are getting experience now, they really wouldn’t have been pitching during the season unless we had injuries. So now we’re to the point of those guys getting experience, and I’ve had a couple of players on other teams tell me that that’s what they’re seeing right now, is that we’ve got guys that, yeah, they might not quite be finished and ready to be pitching in the big leagues. But them getting experience, they know, is, when they were younger pitchers, that that type of experience is really going to help them. A nd when the other guys come back, it’s really going to help to form a closer group in terms of talent and experience.

Thanks to Minda Haas for her help with this story.

Come back next week for Part 2 of our interview with Rockies GM Bill Geivett.

Filed Under: MLB, Colorado Rockies, Grantland Q&A

Jonah Keri is a staff writer for Grantland. His book The Extra 2%: How Wall Street Strategies Took a Major League Baseball Team From Worst to First is a New York Times best seller. The paperback edition of his new book, Up, Up, and Away, on the history of the Montreal Expos, is now available.

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