On October 4, 2016, I was seated at the bar at Smaltimore—one of my favorite bars in Baltimore, located in the Canton neighborhood of the city—to watch the AL Wild Card game between Buck Showalter’s Orioles and the Toronto Blue Jays. The place was packed—remember when a crowded bar didn’t automatically elicit feelings of anxiety?—nearly everyone was decked out in orange and black, and the beer was flowing. I was just happy to take in a baseball game in that atmosphere, being invested in the outcome, but not too invested. Just 24 hours later, I would watch the Mets lose the NL Wild Card game in heartbreaking fashion, feeling waves of anxiety and nausea too intense to experience outside of the comfort of my own home. Looking back, it was a pretty bad week in a pretty bad season of a pretty bad year, but the type of “bad” that the current versions of ourselves would probably scoff at as trivial.
But as I sipped my beer and looked up at the big screen that night, both the Mets and Orioles had yet to lose and Buck Showalter had yet to make the decision not to use Zack Britton in extra innings that would ultimately define his legacy in Baltimore in the minds of many observers, including likely many of the patrons who left Smaltimore unhappy that night. Last month, I chatted with Mark Brown of Camden Chat about that legacy and what to expect from Buck Showalter from the Orioles fan perspective. And now that the full picture of the coaching staff has crystallized, I wanted to provide a bit of my own perspective about Buck Showalter as a Mets fan who lived in Baltimore for a large chunk of the Showalter era.
When Showalter was announced as the favorite for the managerial job and ultimately as the final pick, Mets fans fell into two camps pretty quickly: fans who valued Showalter’s experience and pedigree and therefore thought he was the right man for the job and (mostly more analytically-minded) fans who feared he might be resistant to input from the front office. Both of these views, in my opinion, are lacking nuance.
As far as Buck’s chops as an in-game tactician, two common critiques levied at him seem to be: 1.) He trusts “his guys” too much, perhaps to a fault; this reputation seems to stem at least in part from the infamous 2016 AL Wild Card decision. And 2.) He is resistant to defensive shifting. Are these critiques fair? Let’s take a deeper dive into what the data says. With a pitching staff that will feature established repeat Cy Young Award winners in Jacob deGrom and Max Scherzer, the concern that Showalter may stick with his starter for too long may be understandable. But when you look at starting pitching usage in aggregate, the Orioles actually ranked consistently near the bottom in innings pitched by their starting pitchers during the seasons Buck Showalter was the manager.
Baltimore Orioles Starting Pitching IP (2010-2018)
|Season||Orioles rank in MLB|
|Season||Orioles rank in MLB|
Of course, this is an oversimplified, bird’s-eye view of the situation and only tells one part of the story. The Showalter-era Orioles were, for the most part, not known for their starting pitching, even during their contending years, so it’s not a surprise that those staffs did not throw a lot of innings. But it does show that—at least in aggregate—there was not blatant overuse going on.
Let’s take a similar bird’s-eye view of the Orioles’ deployment of defensive shifting during Showalter’s tenure. Baseball Savant only has data going back to 2016, but in every season from 2016 through 2018, the Orioles were in the top ten teams in baseball in terms of how often they used the shift.
Baltimore Orioles Defensive Shifting (2016-2018)
|Season||% PAs where Orioles defense was shifted||MLB average (%)||Orioles rank|
|Season||% PAs where Orioles defense was shifted||MLB average (%)||Orioles rank|
Again, this is a somewhat crude picture that doesn’t tell the whole story. It is simply a binary; is the infield shifted, yes or no? This does not take into account finer play-by-play adjustments in positioning. But, as the use of defensive shifting dramatically increased in baseball, the Orioles stayed ahead of the curve in the Showalter era. In 2021, the Mets were second in all of baseball in defensive shifting (50.2% of PAs), behind only the Dodgers. The MLB average was 30.9%—dramatically higher than even just three seasons prior. Of course, as Mark Brown touched on during our discussion about Showalter, it’s not like shifting is exactly the forefront of modern analytical baseball anymore. Every team, even the clubs with the most bare bones analytics departments, utilizes the shift. It’s going to take a lot more than that to curate a reputation of being a modern, forward-thinking manager. That said, many of the critiques I’ve seen of Showalter in this area seem to be at best a bit overblown and at worst almost entirely without evidence.
One sentiment that is backed up with a preponderance of evidence, however, is that Buck Showalter’s players love playing for him. The most prominent among former players that sing Showalter’s praises is Manny Machado, who came up during Showalter’s tenure in Baltimore at the age of 20 and had some growing pains emotionally in the majors. “(From) a manager’s standpoint, he was awesome, one of the greatest managers I’ve ever had the pleasure to play with,” Machado said to Brittany Ghiroli of The Athletic in a recent interview. “Obviously, me as a young player, I learned a lot from him. It made me the player I am today by learning and observing everything he did, how he handled everything on the baseball field.”
“Buck was the first male figure in Manny’s life who ever really held him accountable,” former Orioles infielder Ryan Flaherty said to Ken Rosenthal, also for The Athletic. “The amount of coaching moments Buck gave this kid in the six years he was there are off the charts.” But Machado certainly isn’t alone among Showalter-era Orioles in praising their former manager. “I think this would be great,” Adam Jones—considered one of the leaders of the 2010s Orioles—tweeted in response to the possibility of Showalter managing the Mets. “Folks don’t have any idea of the real impact he can make on a ball club,” he went on to say.
Even Zack Britton, the “victim” of Showalter’s most infamous managerial decision until this point, says he would “100 percent” play for Buck Showalter again if the opportunity presented itself. “We always had this spring training thing, which I thought was cool — off-site, get together in a movie theater, kind of show you the highlights of the previous season, just a bonding moment for the team,” Britton said to The Athletic. “During that meeting, he got up there and said, ‘Before we start, I just want to address the elephant in the room.’ He apologized to me, which I didn’t think he needed to do. I think there were some guys on the team that were frustrated by the move. He just said: ‘That’s my bad. I messed up.’ And it was done with.”
The love for Showalter in Birdland extends beyond the players, however. Monica Pence Barlow was the Orioles’ public relations director during Showalter’s time in Baltimore and he was a friend and mentor to her. Monica passed away at the age of 36 on February 28, 2014 after a years-long battle with lung cancer. Showalter and his wife Angela have remained close with Monica’s family. “Buck and Angela are two of the best people I know and I am lucky to count them as friends,” Monica’s husband Ben said to the New York Daily News.
Showalter made a point on his very first day on the job to ask Monica what it was like as a woman working in a baseball clubhouse and asked her to come to him if there were ever any issues. Former sportswriter Kat O’Brien recently tweeted that Showalter was one of only five people in baseball who weren’t reporters who reached out to her after her piece about sexual assault and sexual harassment in baseball appeared in the New York Times. Given the Mets’ recent notoriety in this area, having a leader whose allyship of women in baseball is genuine would go a long way toward repairing that reputation.
There are many examples like this that speak to Buck Showalter’s character. But none is more potent and memorable for me than Buck’s response in the aftermath of the uprising that followed the death of Freddie Gray in the custody of Baltimore police in April of 2015. Watching the city I had come to call home pull apart at the seams was heartbreaking. Like I did for the Mike Piazza home run in September of 2001 as a kid, I turned to baseball for solace. Watching a baseball game proceed without fans in the stands—what is now unfortunately a more common occurrence—was harrowing. Kendall Hilton, a Baltimore resident, was covering his first professional game. And in Showalter’s post-game press conference, he asked the pointed question that no one else did.
Buck, I’m a resident from here. I grew up in, like, the neighborhoods that everything is happening. What advice would you give to the young black males in the city? Because you’re well respected in that area.
I held my breath. I remember that. Because I did not expect a tactful response to that question. At best, I expected a dodge or some sort of empty “We need to come together as a city” platitude. I certainly did not expect the response Buck gave, which lasted only about 90 seconds, but had an impact that lasted much longer.
Well, you know, I talk to people — a lot of times, you hear people try to weigh in on things that they really don’t know anything about. I tell guys all the time when they talk about — you know, I’ve never been black, OK? So I don’t know. You know, I can’t put myself there. I’ve never been, you know, faced the challenges that they face, OK? So I understand the emotion, but I don’t, you know, I can’t — it’s a pet peeve of mine when somebody says, “Well, you know, I know what they’re feeling. Why don’t they do this? Why don’t somebody do that?” You have never been black, OK? So just slow down a little bit.
But you know, I try not to get involved in something that I don’t know about, but I do know that it’s something that is very passionate. Something that I am, with my upbringing, that it bothers me and it bothers everybody else, but you know, I just, can we — I understand we’ve made quite a statement as a city, some good, some bad. But now let’s get on with taking the statement we’ve made and creating a positive. I want to be a — we talk to players — I want to be a rallying force for our city, you know? And doesn’t mean necessarily playing good baseball. You know, it just means, you know, everything we can do to — there are some things I don’t want to be normal, you know what I mean? I don’t [want some things to be normal].
I want us to learn from some stuff that’s going on, on both sides of it. And none of us — you know, I could talk about it for hours, but you know, that’s how I feel about it.
“He gave me a real, genuine answer,” Hilton later recalled. “Looked me eye to eye. Looked me in my face the whole time. It was a great moment for me, just for him to answer that question.”
None of this means that there won’t come a time when we are screaming in the gamethread because Showalter isn’t using the correct reliever for the situation. But while it’s true that the media may treat Showalter favorably and write about him with rose colored glasses because he is personable and gives good quotes in press conferences, the “off field” stuff matters too. I would argue, in fact, that it matters even more. A leader of baseball players needs to be a leader of men. And Buck Showalter demonstrates, through his character and his leadership, that he is exactly that. If nothing else, his hiring by the Mets demonstrates that the team is determined to go in a different direction than the relatively inexperienced hires of the recent past and in my view, that’s a positive change that can hopefully propel the team forward to contention.