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August 3, 2010

You Could Look It Up

The Showalter Gambit

by Steven Goldman

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Dave Bristol, the manager of the 1980 Giants, once made an announcement to his team: “There will be two buses leaving the hotel for the park tomorrow. The two o’clock bus will be for those of you who need a little extra work. The empty bus will leave at five o’clock”. This is not only funny, but clearly laid out the manager’s expectation: everyone needs extra work. Given that a manager’s major contribution to his team is not in-game moves but in setting a professional tone for the 25 men in his charge, this is exactly the kind of attitude you want. Unfortunately, the 1980 Giants went 75-86, finished 17 games behind the Houston Astros in the National League West, and Bristol, 47, never managed again. A manager can ask, cajole, joke, plead, or beg, but you’re only going to so far with Johnny LeMaster as your shortstop and Terry Whitfield as your No. 5 hitter.

Buck Showalter faces a similar challenge as he manages his first Orioles game this evening in Baltimore. In an interview on the MLB Network on Monday, the two-time Manager of the Year award-winner said that his goal with the Orioles is to, “Create a culture and an environment that everyone realizes that accountability and the covenant… that comes with putting on a big league uniform”. He added, somewhat ominously, “That’s not always pleasant for some people who don’t want to take on that accountability and responsibility”.

Uh-oh, sounds like a shot has been fired across the bow of certain Birds, or maybe all of them. The best authoritarian managers, the Billy Martin/Leo Durocher types, always used these kinds of threats—implied and explicit—to put marginal ballplayers in fear of their jobs and thereby pressed them to greater heights than they would have been expected to achieve. The problem for Showalter is that with the exception of certain Phillies and A’s caretakers, few managers have been asked to take over a franchise at once so mired in losing and at the apparent nadir of their ride through the valley; as bad as the Orioles have been since 1997, they have never before threatened to finish a season with a winning percentage below .300, a level to which only 20 modern-era teams have sunk. Only 25 teams have completed a season with a winning percentage less than or equal to their current .305.

The most recent parallel to the Orioles—excepting the Pirates—is the Tigers of 1994-2005. When Jim Leyland took over the Tigers in 2006, their streak of losing seasons extended 13 years. From 2000-06, their record was poor even by the low bar they set in the latter half of the previous decade. Beginning in 2001 they lost, consecutively, 96, 106, 119 (a .265 winning percentage), 90, and 91 games. In Leyland’s first season, the Tigers finished the regular season 95-67 and went to the World Series. Just as outgoing manager Alan Trammell didn’t deserve the bulk of the blame, Leyland didn’t deserve the bulk of the credit, regardless of his contributions to the Tigers' renaissance. The true culprits were a long-dormant farm system, a feckless general manager in Randy Smith, and a more canny GM in Dave Dombrowski.

Leyland’s inaugural Tigers team differed dramatically from that of 2003 and even the 2005 roster. The Tigers’ transformation was not immediate, and whatever Leyland brought to the table, it was likely insignificant compared to the hard work of the previous three years. In short, the old truism that managers don’t make players, players make managers, holds in the case of the Tigers. This was certainly true of Showalter’s initial Yankees teams, which GM Gene Michael dramatically reworked to solve the club’s crippling lack of plate discipline. Showalter was the beneficiary of upgrades from Matt Nokes to Mike Stanley and Charlie Hayes to Wade Boggs, the blossoming of Bernie Williams, and the acquisition of Paul O’Neill. On the pitching side, Jimmy Key and Jim Abbott took the roster spots of replacement-level types like the aging Scott Sanderson and the atrocious Tim Leary. No doubt Showalter helped mold the evolving roster into a cohesive and focused whole, but the parts had to be delivered before they were polished. As Showalter himself said in an interview yesterday on ESPN, “You get way too much credit and sometimes too much blame, but somewhere in between the truth lies”.

Showalter has always believed in esprit de corps, which is why he famously chided a young Junior Griffey for disrespecting the game by wearing his cap backwards on the field, and while waiting more than two years for the expansion Diamondbacks to take the field, he wrote the franchise bible. It was this fixation on managing not just ballgames but every aspect of his team’s comportment to which Orioles GM Andy MacPhail alluded Monday when he said, “We need an identity as a franchise”. Showalter will give the Orioles that whether they like it or not, and the players may buy into it for a time—at least until he reaches the postseason and then manages in a panic. At that point, he will reveal himself as the General George McClellan of baseball, a commander who is aces at drilling his players into shape but doesn’t know how to lead them into battle. At that point, the emperor’s new clothes are seen for what they are, all authority vanishes, and the clubhouse becomes a difficult proposition. When former Diamondbacks owner Jerry Colangelo fired Showalter after only three years of managing the now-realized team, he said, “Buck Showalter is an intense guy in everything he does. There are those who have an opinion that there’s a time and a place for that. But you also need to have an atmosphere that’s conducive for players to perform at the best of their ability.” Translation: after being swept out of the first round of the 1999 playoffs by a demonstrably inferior Mets team, the players could no longer tolerate his dictatorial tendencies.

This happened rapidly in Texas and without benefit of a failed playoff appearance; Showalter’s desire to purge not only players but off-field personnel that he disliked burned bridges with more facility than did the team’s mediocre records. Hall of Fame manager Joe McCarthy, asked if he would clash with Ted Williams, said that any manager who couldn’t get along with a .400 hitter should have his head examined. Showalter reportedly wanted to run Alex Rodriguez out of town, and did. The Rangers got Alfonso Soriano in return. Showalter didn’t like him either.

The good news is that in the short term, there are fixes that can be applied that should supply the Orioles with a boost, if not during the remainder of this season then certainly for next year. The Orioles are last in the American League in defensive efficiency, and if Showalter does no more than find a way to banish Ty Wigginton and Julio Lugo forever from the Orioles infield, he will have done the club a great service, one that should pay instant dividends for a beleaguered young pitching staff. The route to success for important projects like getting Adam Jones to take ball four every once in awhile, reminding Nick Markakis that he used to hit home runs, and politely asking Matt Wieters to do that cool hitting thing he did in the minors, is more nebulous, but the path is potentially short. Even small improvements by these still-young players could mean a major improvement in results.

The bad news is that if Showalter can’t reach the current roster, he’s in trouble. Most of the goodies from recent drafts are now in the majors. If Brad Bergesen, Jake Arrieta, Brian Matusz, and Chris Tillman can’t be put back on the path of righteousness, it’s going to take another cycle of drafting and development before the team has new toys to work with, and there are no guarantees that future drafts will be as productive as recent ones have been. As with the Rangers, no amount of schooling in fundamentals and the proper way to wear one’s cap will help disguise the fundamental emptiness of a training regimen that has no discernable endpoint.

Still, despite Showalter’s quirks and flaws, he was the best managerial hire by the franchise since Davey Johnson. He was hired for his distinctive point of view, not because he happened to be on the coaching staff when his predecessor was fired. He is a thinking man and, whatever the help he received from his general managers, his teams do have a record of improvement, at least from year one to year two. Given that all of their previous efforts have led them only to a team which may complete the season with one of the five worst records of the postwar era, the Orioles had nothing to lose by placing themselves in Showalter’s hands—but his arrival is not a cure-all, and the outcome of the experiment is far from certain.

Steven Goldman is an author of Baseball Prospectus. 
Click here to see Steven's other articles. You can contact Steven by clicking here

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