BRUCE BOCHY SPEAKS in a low rumble, walks like his shoes are three sizes too small and prefers to talk about anything but himself. He manages a baseball game as if there are actual human beings on the field and not just a collection of numbers designed to dictate all outcomes, big and small. He is 68 years old and back for another run at glory that, if successful, he will refuse to accept credit for helping to create.
His Texas Rangers players swear by him, going so far as to believe he possesses a magical sense of time and place when it comes to postseason baseball. His history is certainly a faxctor: Bochy managed the San Francisco Giants to three World Series championships in the 2010s despite never having anything close to the best roster. He won as a division champion and a wild card. He sat out three years, pointedly refusing to call his 2019 departure a retirement, before returning this season to oversee a Rangers team that held first place in the American League West for 159 days but ended up on the road as the AL’s second wild-card team. The Rangers rinsed away that disappointment by dispatching the Rays in two games notable for what they didn’t have: fans and drama.
The Rangers have difficulty explaining what makes Bochy so different. It’s instructive that one common theme is to extol his penchant for doing as little as possible. He sends out nearly the same lineup for every game, and he stays out of its way unless circumstances demand otherwise. The team believes his consistency and experience are precisely what it needs to navigate a challenging course.
“Honestly, I’ve talked to him probably three times since I’ve been here,” says starting pitcher Jordan Montgomery, who came to Texas in a deadline trade with the Yankees. “But that’s the greatness of Boch. He smiles at you, says, ‘Hey, how ya doing? How’s the family?’ and that’s it.”
Bochy emanates what might be described as radical calm. During batting practice, he leans against the cage with a fungo bat tucked under his left armpit, dropping his head every minute or so to send a line of spit to the dirt at his feet. He can go an entire session without saying anything, just observing, looming over the scene.
He watches games in much the same way, his arms folded on the rail toward the middle of the dugout. He talks to pitching coach Mike Maddux when the need arises, but he mostly keeps to himself. When a Ranger hits a home run, he inches his way closer to the dugout stairs, claps three times and extends his right hand for the celebrant to slap. There’s something to be said for consistency.
“We know one thing,” reserve outfielder Travis Jankowski says. “No matter what happens in [the postseason], Boch won’t be surprised by it.”
Jankowski enjoys telling Bochy stories, and he says he always starts with the one about the left-handed pitchers. Jankowski is a left-handed hitter, and he has always been a part-time player because he has never proved he can hit lefties. Jankowski has played in analytics-heavy organizations, and before this year he hadn’t been in the lineup against a left-handed starter since 2018. There are reasons, starting with Jankowski’s .186 batting average and .493 OPS against lefties in 253 career at-bats.
But that, as Jankowski says, was pre-Bochy, before anyone could look past mere numbers. This May, with shortstop Corey Seager out and backup outfielder Ezequiel Duran moving to short, Jankowski was starting and playing left field against right-handed pitchers. He was hitting over .300 and feeling like he could put a good swing on whatever pitch came his way, from whatever side of the mound it came from.
He showed up to the clubhouse for the second game of a three-game series against the Angels in Anaheim, knowing Reid Detmers was starting, and there it was: his name in a lineup against a lefty for the first time in five seasons.
“That’s when I knew this was different,” Jankowski says. “I was like, OK, this is a guy who’s been there and done that, played the game, managed the game. He knows when you’re seeing the ball well it doesn’t matter: lefty, righty, submariner, 110 or 78, you’re getting a hit. He also understands the opposite: When you’re not swinging well, you can go to a high school field and they’ll get you out.”
Jankowski went 3-for-5 that night, and he says at least part of that — maybe a hit and a half — was because of Bochy’s confidence in him. “I mean, he’s a legend,” Jankowski says, “so it means something when he believes in you.” There are a couple of things at work here in Bochy’s second act as a big league manager: he chose the Rangers when he didn’t have to return to the game — “his bills are paid,” Jankowski says — and, unlike many other managers, his decisions aren’t dictated by anybody in the front office.
“At some point, you have to let your manager do what he wants to do,” catcher/DH Mitch Garver says. “He sees the skill sets, and he’s going to pair them up to the game situation in a way that he sees as necessary. I think that’s something that’s a little lost in today’s game, and so be it — that’s our manager.”
Bochy treats the game like a living organism, something that changes form and requires him to change along with it. He knows baseball is a slow game that can somehow speed up and run away from a manager who doesn’t foresee the moments of acceleration. The idea of managing by feel has become an epithet, synonymous with guessing or simply winging it, but guys like Bochy and Astros manager Dusty Baker treat every game as if it has a physical presence, and maybe their success, and the wild-card failures of managers such as Toronto’s John Schneider and Tampa’s Kevin Cash, signals that feel might be in the midst of a minor comeback.
“He obviously appreciates analytics and uses analytics,” Jankowski says, “but he’s trusting his gut and his baseball instincts. We’re not computers. We’re human beings, and I know guys appreciate and thrive on being treated like one.”
It’s not revelatory in any way to observe that much of baseball is predicated on failure. It’s baked into the game’s processes and psyches in a manner that doesn’t exist in other sports; failure, in a way, is the expected outcome in a majority of the game’s scenarios. It’s such a recurring theme it’s a wonder anyone wants to play.
And because of that, the ability to understand and mitigate failure can be a massive advantage — maybe even a market inefficiency — and it might also be Bochy’s defining quality as a manager.
On Aug. 24 against the Twins, with the Rangers failing their way to a seven-game losing streak, first baseman Nathaniel Lowe rolled over a Pablo Lopez changeup and dribbled the ball between first and second. He was angry with himself, and he ran as hard as he could toward first base, as much out of irritation as professional responsibility. The ball squeaked past first baseman Joey Gallo, and by the time second baseman Kyle Farmer picked it up and threw to Lopez covering first, Lowe was a step past the bag.
It was the saddest of all possible hits, and Lowe remained furious. He jogged back to the dugout after the inning ended, still seething, and noticed Bochy inching toward the steps and leaning toward him, as if he’d just hit a homer.
“That’s a good piece of hittin’ right there,” Bochy grumbled in Lowe’s direction.
Lowe looked at him, saw the glint in his eye and burst out laughing.
“He’s got such a good feel for getting the most out of guys,” Lowe says. “After he says it, I wasn’t even mad anymore. He’s the master of knowing what to say and when to say it.”
The next night against the Twins, with the Rangers failing their way to an eight-game losing streak, starting pitcher Dane Dunning lived a nightmare. He walked four and allowed four earned runs in the first inning. He ended up walking six in a four-inning outing that left him wondering if he should be more embarrassed or angry.
He chose angry, and after he came out of the game he stayed angry. Bochy, a man who hit .239 over nine seasons in the big leagues, approached Dunning in the dugout and said, “Don’t sweat it. S—, even I struck out every once in a while.”
YOU WANT TO know what ballplayers appreciate? Being left to themselves. They’re usually at the ballpark five or six hours before game time, and the clubhouse is like a season-long fraternity house, only cleaner. There’s always a time and place for a good motivational speech from the manager, but that time is rare and the place is almost never the clubhouse.
“I think Boch has been in the clubhouse one time all year,” Jankowski says. He knows the exact date, too: June 4, the night he won his 2,014th career game to move ahead of Walter Alston and into 10th place all-time. “He came in and we did a little toast to him, but even then it seemed like he didn’t feel comfortable in the clubhouse. That’s the old-school mentality: ‘You guys control the clubhouse and I’ll be in my office if you need me.'”
Garver says, “He’s the first to say he’s got no business being in here. This is our space.”
Jankowski’s locker in Seattle is near the entrance of the Rangers’ clubhouse, and on a recent Friday afternoon he stands with his back to the door. After he tells the story of Bochy’s one visit to the clubhouse, I see a large figure turn the corner, take a look inside and walk straight into the clubhouse.
“You’re not going to believe this,” I tell Jankowski quietly, nodding over his shoulder as Bochy strides into the clubhouse. “I think you’ve got your second clubhouse sighting.”
Jankowski’s jaw drops in disbelief. He shakes his head and laughs.
“Yeah, but look at him,” he says as Bochy clears earshot. “Just look at him. He’s so uncomfortable right now. See how uncomfortable he is walking in here?”
And yes, Jankowski is correct: Bochy looks like he’d rather be anywhere else. Head down, moving as quickly as his old catcher’s knees will allow, he finds the staffer he was seeking, says about three words and leaves the same way he came in.
NONE OF WHAT lies ahead figures to be easy. Bochy’s most famous postseason skill, his ability to mix and match a bullpen through three or four innings, always a move ahead of the opposing manager, will be severely tested. He and Maddux oversee one of the worst bullpens in baseball, a group that tied for the most blown saves (13) in the big leagues while running up a 4.77 ERA. It has been a stack of teetering plates, and the Rangers are playing the divisional series against top-seeded Baltimore relying on their third closer of the season, Jose Leclerc, who has had the job for less than a month. Aroldis Chapman, who threw a clean inning in Game 1 against the Rays, is a coin flip at best; his mechanics got so off-kilter that Bochy had to remove him with the bases loaded and nobody out in the ninth inning against Seattle on Sept. 28. That’s feel; Chapman was the closer-designate that night until he wasn’t. Will Smith pitched in the seventh inning of a game the Rangers trailed by eight runs the next night, if you’re wondering whether Bochy has confidence in him.
It was far different in San Francisco, when he could go from Javier Lopez to Sergio Romo to Jeremy Affeldt to Brian Wilson without the constraints of the three-batter minimum.
The best solution to a bad bullpen, of course, is good starting pitching. The Rangers got that against Tampa Bay, with Montgomery throwing seven shutout innings in Game 1 and Nathan Eovaldi giving up one run in 6⅓ in Game 2.
“Yeah,” Jankowski says, waving off any concern about the Texas bullpen. “But he’s borderline genius when it comes to managing a bullpen in the playoffs. He’ll figure it out.”
Maybe. It might take something closer to magic than genius to coax a deep run out of this bullpen, but just maybe. It’s the smallest sample size, but the Rangers clinched a postseason spot with an unlikely 6-1 win over the Mariners. Texas had placed the expected starting pitcher, Jon Gray, on the injured list the day before, leaving Bochy to steer the game through emergency fill-in Andrew Heaney and three relievers. Asked if it felt like a vintage Bochy game, he smiles and says, “Yeah, it kinda did.”
When it was over, he went into the clubhouse for at least the third time this season — the fourth would come four days later in Tampa — to watch his team scream and yell and spray champagne all over the room. “This is what I came back for,” he said as he watched.
He stood there for what seemed like a long time, taking it all in. You couldn’t call him a bystander, but he was definitely not a full participant. His team gave him his space, and he gave them theirs. He was back in his native habitat, happy to see everyone else happy.