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Buck Showalter, a Baltimore perspective: Part 1—A conversation with Mark Brown of Camden Chat

I asked the managing editor of Camden Chat, who has watched far more games managed by Buck Showalter than I have, about who Buck Showalter is as a manager, his fit for the Mets, and his legacy in Baltimore.

Houston Astros v Baltimore Orioles Photo by Rob Carr/Getty Images

When the Mets hired Buck Showalter to be their new manager, my first thought was, “Yay, I like Buck.” Having been a Baltimore resident for much of his tenure as manager of the Orioles, I was likely more familiar with his style than most Mets fans; I plan to write about my own perspective in greater detail as a companion piece to this one. But my second thought was, “I want to know what Orioles fans think about this.” So I sent a message to Mark Brown, the managing editor of Camden Chat—the Orioles SB Nation site—asking him if he’d be willing to answer some questions about Showalter for us. He very graciously obliged.

Q: What can Mets fans expect from Buck Showalter as far as his overall managerial style?

A: In spring training one year, as reporters asked Showalter what he felt about the team’s lack of offseason additions, he said, “I like our guys.” This became a rallying cry for the whole organization. They put it on a giveaway t-shirt, and on the back they had every player on the 40-man roster’s name arranged in the shape of the Oriole Bird. I still have that shirt in a drawer somewhere.

When you get down to it, I think that is the essence of Showalter. He is going to like your guys because they are going to become his guys. He will put who he thinks are his best players on the field and he will probably leave them there unless his bench has a very specific platoon option. As many players as possible will be playing just about as many innings as possible, so much so that you might wish they got a tiny bit more rest to avoid September tiredness.

This is not just some quiet, internal process. He will demand respect for his guys if he thinks the umpires are screwing them over, especially if he thinks they’re screwing over his pitchers so a bigger-name hitter gets a smaller strike zone, or screwing over his hitters so a bigger-name pitcher gets a bigger strike zone. He will be boosting his guys to the media, to fans, to anyone who will listen.

This was probably not a specific job requirement in the interview process, but I think that one thing that the Mets will get from Buck as manager is he is now the #1 booster for the New York Mets in the whole world.

Q: How is Showalter as an in-game tactician?

A: One of Showalter’s big strengths, and one of the things that I think contributed to greatly beating expectations in Baltimore, is the way that he was able to build a bullpen out of relative nobodies. The thing with Zack Britton and the 2016 wild card game was such a rude shock because it felt out of character: Buck was usually good with the bullpen. He had players with defined roles and particular rules about how often they could be used (including bullpen warm-ups before entering a game) before needing rest. Those nobodies turned into a fine bullpen that delivered a nearly-unprecedented record in one-run games.

Bullpen use might be about the only thing you notice about in-game tactics, especially if the DH comes to the National League and he’s not regularly forced to use pinch-hitters. According to Baseball Reference, Buck only used a pinch hitter on average once every two games as Orioles manager, and a pinch runner once every five games. His teams didn’t steal much (though part of that was a lot of slow guys) and he joined the league-wide trend against sacrifice bunts.

Q: Buck has a reputation of being great with the clubhouse and the media. Is that reputation accurate?

A: You’ve probably already seen just since Showalter got hired by the Mets that a number of former Orioles have been singing his praises, including Zack Britton, Adam Jones, and Manny Machado. The guys who played for him clearly enjoyed playing for him. He had expectations for everyone and private moments of accountability for when things came up short and I think the players appreciated those things about him and played their best for him.

About the media, you might have gotten a sense about that during the hiring process too, given how many folks in the media seemed to be rooting for him to get another shot as an MLB manager. His press conferences were typically a treasure. The New York press is a more aggressive beast than the Baltimore press, so that dynamic will surely not be exactly the same, but I think he’ll be fine.

Q: Is the characterization that he might be resistant to analytics or front office input fair?

A: I think the idea that Showalter is hostile to anything at all analytics-flavored is overblown. When Showalter was here in Baltimore, the Orioles were one of the forerunners in the league of incorporating infield shifts. He clearly recognized that even with Gold Glove-caliber talent on the left side of his infield in J.J. Hardy and Machado, there were benefits to be gained by making sure they were standing in the right place. I think this is another part of what helped the team surprise everyone and overachieve in his tenure.

On the other hand, shifting is pretty much the ground floor of analytics. Everyone’s doing it. That doesn’t set a team apart any more. Is Buck going to take into account the modern understanding of the times through the order penalty? Max Scherzer and Jacob deGrom are good enough that maybe you won’t have to worry about this too much. Is he going to bat the best OBP guy in the leadoff spot if that player isn’t fast? I would be less sure he will lead in implementing things of that sort that maybe don’t line up with a traditionalist’s gut understanding of baseball from the old days.

Q: Can you talk a little bit about the circumstances leading up to the end of his tenure in Baltimore? Did the Orioles just feel that he was not the right guy to lead a team that was now rebuilding or were there other reasons behind his firing?

A: Showalter was always in a bit of an unusual situation as the manager. When he was first hired in August 2010, the GM was Andy MacPhail. When MacPhail left after the 2011 season, Buck carried over to the next GM, Dan Duquette. It’s been long rumored that Orioles owner Peter Angelos told interviewing GM candidates that they could not replace Buck. Consequently, every assistant GM regarded as a future GM ran screaming from the job and they had to settle for Duquette, who at that point had been jobless for nearly a decade.

This peculiar power balance paid off immediately with the surprise 2012 team and was still working out when the Orioles won the AL East in 2014 for the first time in 17 years. There were stories about people in the front office who were Buck people and people in the front office who were Duquette people. There were stories of occasional tension but as long as the team was winning, that success smoothed over the wrinkles.

After the 2016 season, though, the volume of stories about tension and dysfunction increased. The situation turned into a toxic sludge. As things stopped working out, there was finger-pointing about who was responsible for what. It was a mess so severe that even reporters for the team-controlled television network MASN were writing about it. One rumored path for the Orioles after the 2018 disaster was that Showalter would take over as GM.

The way the contracts worked out, Showalter and Duquette’s deals both expired after 2018. So neither was fired so much as the team moved on from both rather than picking a side after the deals ran out. Much as I liked Buck, I do think he was the wrong guy for the rebuild and certainly he would have been the wrong rebuilding GM. The next generation of Angelos sons who by 2018 had moved into the franchise-controlling position decided that it was best to make a clean break from all of that dysfunction.

Q: Is he the right guy to lead a team in “win now” mode, such as the Mets?

A: One thing that you might have heard bandied about since the Showalter hire was announced is that “the Buck Showalter effect,” whatever it may be, has not kicked in until his second full season as a team’s manager. These were his win totals in his first full year at each of his four previous stops: 76, 65, 71, 69. Here’s the second year with each team: 88, 100, 89, 93. This is small sample size stuff but it’s a clear pattern across four jobs.

My suspicion is that there’s enough talent on the Mets roster right now that Showalter should be able to break this pattern and be a “win now” manager even though he’s been more of a “win soon but not right now” manager up until this point.

Q: How would you describe Showalter’s legacy in Baltimore? Is it marked entirely by his decision to not use Zack Britton in the 2016 AL Wild Card Game (what most baseball fans outside of Baltimore probably know about his time there)? How do Orioles fans feel about that over five years later?

A: One of the things that comes with the territory of really caring about a sports team is that you’re going to be haunted by “What if?” questions. I was born one month after the most recent Orioles World Series win, so I’ve had nothing but “What if?” for my whole life of baseball fandom. The big one for my adulthood is “What if Zack Britton had pitched in the 2016 AL WC?” Until I experience an Orioles WS championship, that question will eat at me.

Having said that, the cliché saying is that time heals all wounds and I think that even regarding the Britton non-use, that’s true. It’s hard to stay mad about one specific thing as time goes by, especially when there are so many other great, happy moments from Showalter’s time as manager.

The 2012-2016 Orioles were, against the expectations of just about any national baseball writer, projection system, or oddsmaker, a consistently winning group of misfits who brought forth an era of regular season success unmatched in my lifetime. I don’t believe that era would have happened without Buck. That one game still sucks and always will suck, but it was a fun five seasons until then. That’s worth a lot.

Q: Is there anything else about Buck that you think Mets fans should know?

A: After Buck was hired in Baltimore 11 years ago, my predecessor Stacey asked a similar question of the manager of Lone Star Ball, the Rangers blog, for a post for our site. If someone is reading this article thinking, “This guy likes Buck WAY too much. I want to read something negative,” you should read that 2010 post. The Buck of 2003-2006 did not impress him much. I feel that we did not see a lot of these negatives in Baltimore. I think Buck learned something from his time in Texas.

One area where I agree with the critique is that Showalter seems to be a guy who wants to get a say in the way that the organization is run. Given that the Mets also just had a tumultuous search with a number of public rejections before finally hiring a general manager, plus with your owner reportedly preferring Showalter, I wonder if that situation has created potential for there to be a front office with “Buck guys” and “GM’s guys.”

You may also run into a player who can be a good major leaguer who just doesn’t seem to become one of Buck’s “I like our guys” guys. The Orioles are mocked for infamously trading away Jake Arrieta after he stunk here only to see him blossom and win a Cy Young with the Cubs. I think part of why they traded him away is Buck decided Arrieta was no good and was done with him. It was not, in retrospect, a good judgment.

Unrelated to anything to do with the business of managing baseball games, Buck Showalter was the Orioles manager when Freddie Gray died in the custody of Baltimore police. In the days after Gray’s death, unrest in the city led to a baseball game being played in an empty stadium. His remarks after that game are full of an empathy that marks him as one of the good people out there. I hope he leads the Mets to a World Series title, unless, by some strange circumstance, your favorite team ends up playing the Orioles.