Bud Black has seen the look countless times. The poised and sturdy gaze that Bruce Bochy emanates when something he wants is within his grasp. Nearly 150 games managing against the Giants skipper allows Black to easily recognize Bochy’s signature stare.
Only this time, it didn’t come while Bochy finagled his bullpen to set up a Javier Lopez-Seth Smith matchup, and Black didn’t spot it from the opposing dugout. It appeared in a ski cabin in Jackson Hole, Wyoming, on a trip the National League managers took with a group of friends. It was poker night, and a sizeable pot sat on the table.
“It was late, and it was after a number of drinks,” the Padres manager recalled with a slight chuckle, “and I could just sense the competitiveness in him.
“A bunch of guys, not even playing poker, were just around and sort of loud. He was locked in. He was focused playing, and that always struck me. He was able to have fun and (be) relaxed, but yet remain steely eyed.”
Beyond Bochy’s poker face and relaxed demeanor lies a competitor with an ability unlike any other when it comes to managing a ballclub. Before the first pitch, Bochy knows exactly what he has in his hand, the strengths the other manager is holding, and how to handle any situation the game might deal.
“I just know when I manage against him, I better be on top of my game if we are going to try and do anything,” Brewers manager Ron Roenicke said. “[I’m] not just talking about letting the guys go out and play. But if I want to hit and run, if I want to steal a base, if I want to double steal, I know he pitched out one time on me and got me in a play. I think there’s lots of things he does as a manager in games.”
Bochy manages with the same energy that Roenicke saw when the two were teammates on the Padres Triple-A affiliate. Roenicke remembers a time when a steep hill stood between the pair and comfy hotel beds. The team had just wrapped up a double-header. Bochy had caught both games.
“We were walking up, and I said 'Boch, man, you got to be exhausted?’" as Roenicke tells it. “He said, 'Ah, I feel good.' And he goes, 'I can run up to the top of this hill,' and sure enough he took off and ran up the top of that hill, which would be hard to do just normally and he just caught a double header.”
Part of Bochy’s unique touch in managing comes from his playing days and the experience he gained in handling different pitchers and understanding how they best fit within the rhythm of the game.
“Watching him maneuver his 'pen is something I always watch because I can learn from it,” Black said. “He’s got a great feel for not only his guys but -- as the game progresses -- knowing the options the opposition has and knowing how he wants to use his bullpen based on the other team’s lineup and the other team’s bench.
"Very rarely does Bruce get a match up that he does not want.”
But Bochy’s colleagues say the success he has developed over his 20 years of managing at the major league level stems more from his own instincts and trust -- trust in his players, trust in his coaches, and trust in himself. Bochy’s game decisions are not made based on ERAs or batting averages with runners in scoring position as much as they are on the conviction that, given the support and an opportunity, a player will meet or exceed expectations. It is the reason Bochy does not play by the book.
“I love him for that,” said longtime friend and Pirates manager Clint Hurdle. “Everybody uses that book to cover their backside. Bruce doesn’t worry about that.”
“I think there are some, obviously, some decisions that make sense analytically, that make sense baseballwise,” Black said. “But there’s also the bold move in Bruce that shows up as well.”
Of course, the moves don’t always go as planned. Reliever Hunter Strickland had trouble keeping the ball in the park during this year's playoffs. The imposing rookie can hit 100 miles per hour, and made his first postseason roster after spending most of the season in Double-A.
Strickland gave up a pair of home runs in his Game 1 outing in the NLDS. Yet Bochy turned to the Seotember call-up in the later innings of Game 2 and in Game 2 of the NLCS.
Strickland entered with a one-run lead in Washington and picked up the save against the top of the Nationals order. But he entered a tie game in St. Louis and served up a solo shot against the heart of the Cardinals order.
“Bruce does a great job of showing faith in his players,” Black said, “and those moves from the outside that may look questionable are those that are probably so uplifting for the player because it is showing confidence in certain guys on his ball club.”
“His greatest strength that I get -- looking across the field from the dugout -- (is) his feel for the game combined with his feel for his club,” Hurdle said. “He’s able to qualify, quantify skillsets with all his players and then have the timing and the feel for when to plug them in or take them out.”
Stickland gave up six home runs total during the Giants' successful run through the 2014 postseason -- a record for a reliever. But the managers on the Giants schedule next year have little doubt they will see a much more consistent Strickland next season.
“What I admire about Bruce is the way he always seems to get players to play better for him than anywhere else,” Mets manager Terry Collins wrote in an e-mail. “He has a knack for putting in the right guy at the right time. Witness [Juan] Perez and [Michael] Morse in the World Series. When I look over at him he is never excited, always calm no matter what the situation. What he has done -- three World Championships in five years -- is just remarkable.”
The Dodgers Don Mattingly wrote: “Bruce is a manager you expect nothing to get by him, and also you know he will not be afraid to be outside of the box and has the credibility to back it up. The biggest things with his clubs, they always play extremely hard and seem to have a unified team feel when you play them.”
Of all the National League managers, Hurdle has played against Bochy the most and has known him the longest. Their friendship reaches back to their high school days in South Florida, where the two played on the same American Legion team. It continued through the start of their professional playing careers when they were teammates on a winter ball team in Venezuela. Even then Bochy had an air that was as easy to like as it was easy to notice as his 8 1/8 hat size.
“He was in charge," Hurdle said. "He didn’t have to be the guy that told everybody he was in charge. He always (had) a physical presence but it’s not like he demanded attention vocally. He’s very confident in his own skin.”
Along with Washington’s Matt Williams, Bochy and Hurdle are the other finalists for this year’s National League Manager of the Year honor. Bochy has always been a good manager, Hurdle says. But watching how he’s maneuvered the Giants through San Francisco’s last three postseasons separates him from any other manager in the league.
“You don’t get the (postseason) experience he’s got without being good," Hurdle said. "When you’re good for a long time you become great. For me, he’s the best manager in the game now. He’s been one of the best for a while.”
“Incredible. Incredible,” Hurdle kept repeating. “I’m happy for him. I’m proud of him.”
And as for how Bochy fared in that late night poker game in Jackson Hole?
“He did win," Black said. "Yeah, he did win."
He sounded a bit surprised to be asked. It's not unusual for Bochy to come home having won the whole dang thing.