PHOENIX — After Torey Lovullo was hired as the manager of the Arizona Diamondbacks, he immediately began calling players, setting up meetings, and getting to know the players he would go to figurative battle with on the field every day. He didn’t know for sure that his philosophy would work. He didn’t ask his players, either. He just did what he has always done.
One of Lovullo’s main messages this season is a cliche, not very different from other managers. Lovullo believes in the moment — touching it, feeling it, embracing it, as he has said many times throughout the season. If he, the players and coaches can live in each moment, not looking ahead and not worrying about the past, everything else will take care of itself.
t’s not what he is saying that has made a difference this season. How he goes about it — how he lives it — has.
Lovullo bought into his philosophy as a player and followed it from there.
“I wanted to win every moment against the other guy,” Lovullo said. “And I thought if I did that I would be successful. It was also about preparing for the moment because when you prepare for the moment, then you’re already a step ahead.”
He had to — as a role player, he needed every edge he could get. He spent eight seasons playing in the majors, but he was a .224 hitter who played in more than 65 games in a season just once in his career. He credits his playoff experience with getting so much out of his bench this season and knowing how to keep everyone fresh.
Many things are different this year for the D-backs compared to the disaster that was 2016. The starting rotation is better, thanks to Zack Greinke returning to form; improvement from Robbie Ray, Zack Godley and Patrick Corbin; and the addition of Taijuan Walker. The bullpen improved internally and externally. Returnees made effective tweaks, and outside additions by new general manager Mike Hazen hit the spot. Among position players, A.J. Pollock and David Peralta have largely remained healthy, enabling their talents to shine through.
Measured against 2016, a lot of things are still the same, though. There are two new catchers, a new starting pitcher, a new closer, and some complementary pieces. Otherwise, it’s largely the same roster that went 69-93 a season ago.
By getting the D-backs to forget what happened last year and to not worry about what might happen next, Lovullo’s impact is clearly felt and reflected, especially in the standings.
“Last year wasn’t anyone in particular’s fault,” Archie Bradley said, who moved from starter to reliever this season to fill a more immediate need. “Everyone was just trying to do more and more last year. Everyone wanted to be the guy or the stopper to turn it around. We couldn’t find that click. I don’t know what it was.
“This year, from literally spring training, it was like, man, this was a different feel. From the veterans to the coaches, it just feels like everyone is in the right spot.”
Lovullo’s effect on a clubhouse was something Hazen saw early in Lovullo’s managerial career, when the two came up together working in the minor leagues. It didn’t take long for Hazen to see the potential.
“I know this isn’t the biggest deal, but they won every year,” Hazen said of Lovullo’s teams in the minors. “He always had such a good feel. When you’re around him in the clubhouse and see the relationship he had with those players, he puts himself on their level so well. You always saw him in that way. At least I did, and every year you got more and more examples of how he operated in that realm.”
Lovullo believed in himself and his body of work, but knew it would take someone to believe in him and give him that chance to prove it. Arizona was that place and Hazen was the person.
“He had seen what I could do,” Lovullo said. “I knew it could open a special opportunity for us.”
It has been special earlier than many expected, in part because everyone has bought in right away. But how does Lovullo get 25 professional athletes to trust a message that is articulated similarly throughout the majors?
“Torey really cares about people,” said Dustin Pedroia, who was part of Red Sox teams with Lovullo. “Whatever message he has, you buy into it because you respect him so much.”
“He really believes that every day if guys just take care of their business today, it’ll work out,” Hazen said. “And I know it’s cliche at times but he really believes that and lives it. He doesn’t get distracted by things, and he’s always present. I think that comes through (to players).”
Bradley said the message sank in during spring training, when the team focused not only on the day but the little moments within the day. Seeing little things in preparation, stealing a base, taking an extra base, moving a runner over or throwing strike one, the D-backs have done enough little things to see big results.
“With good talent and the right leadership, we understand those moments,” Bradley said. “We see them, we recognize them. We’ve understood that if you can seize that moment, whether it’s the third inning or fourth inning, that can be the determining factor in the game.”
Lovullo has an understanding of how today’s player functions. He is not trying to get anyone to run through the proverbial wall, a tactic that rarely works with professionals anymore, at least not over an extended period of time. He has taken the time to know who the players are when not in uniform. He has learned about family members and girlfriends and regularly checks in on life away from the field, which hasn’t gone unnoticed or unappreciated in the clubhouse.
That accumulated trust has given him leeway to make decisions he feels are necessary… and might not be popular. He has stuck to his guns on giving players regular rest. When he sticks with a starter, it has usually worked. When he moves a player up in the order, he usually finds a way to produce. When a reserve gets a start, it seems he always gets a big hit.
“He’s a very smart manager,” Hazen said, “so I don’t believe a lot of that stuff is luck. I think a lot of that stuff is very well thought out and he makes good decisions. But I think in the clubhouse itself, the belief on a day-to-day basis, I think he’s helped foster that. Walk-off wins and hits from a number of different guys in the lineup, or even going deeper into the walk-off hits, are the people who helped build the innings into those situations. I think he fosters that environment and does a great job with that. Every single person is important in that clubhouse.”
The positive environment is needed now more than ever. The D-backs got off to a fast start with a 53-36 first-half record, but they’re 8-15 in their last 23 games, falling from 1.5 games behind the Los Angeles Dodgers in the NL West to 12 games back after a win over Atlanta on Wednesday. Their lead over the Chicago Cubs is down to 4.5 games in the wild card race, though they lead the Colorado Rockies by a half-game for the top wild card spot.
There has been no change of tone in Lovullo’s message, with the exception of some mental exhaustion at the end of games here and there. That’s by careful design.
“I believe in these guys,” Lovullo said. “I believe they’re going to be just fine. I believe in the process. I believe in staying with what I’ve done to show these guys I’m gonna be the same day in and day out. I might not make the decision that’s very popular, but if it’s consistently what I’ve been doing I’m going to continue to do it. That’s who I am, and I want these guys to know I’m going to be the same every single day.”
That can be another cliche. In this case, that’s a good thing.
“This team is as cliche as it can be,” Bradley said. “No one gave us credit; it’s Dodgers this, Dodgers that. The Rockies, whoever. The Diamondbacks are kind of having an OK year, whatever. We want to be cliche. We want to be the underdogs with a chip on our shoulder. We want people to doubt us. We’re taking it day by day, we’re not looking too far ahead. We see the moment where we can take over a game, and for the most part we’ve done that.”