Buck Showalter is in many ways an old-school baseball man, but that doesn’t mean the former Yankees, Diamondbacks, and Rangers skipper doesn‘t value data — or that he hasn’t for more than three decades. He unmistakably understands the mechanics of the game. Currently an analyst for ESPN, Showalter offered his thoughts on a variety of subjects, including how the game has (and hasn’t) changed, why Paul O’Neill could hit southpaws, why switch-sliders make good switch-hitters, and what makes the Twins the Twins.
David Laurila: You've been around the game for a long time. How much has the use of data evolved over the years?
Buck Showalter: Without trying to step on any toes, this isn't something new. I remember charting hitters in the Florida State League in 1984, putting a spray chart out with a red stencil. You had a humpback for a fly ball, a straight line for a line drive, you had a dotted line for a ground ball. There was where they hit it, what kind of pitch was it, what the count was…this was 1984. This is not some brand-new approach. Back then, I didn't hear a lot about it, but other people were doing it, I'm sure. Eye in the sky, scouting…I don't want to burst anybody's bubble, but this isn't something new in baseball, OK? But now it's being done with a computer, instead of by hand, and there are a lot more numbers and what have you.
DL: Essentially, you were using a lot of data nearly three decades ago?
BS: I was. We were looking at hitter-pitcher match-ups way back when. I was keeping them in the minor leagues and when I first started managing the Yankees you had matchups against guys and where they hit the ball. It was an advance scout doing it. Now a lot of people are taking their advance scouts off the road and doing certain things off the TV screen and whatever, but the problem with that is certain things go on in a game that you can only get from being there and from watching off the ball. I challenge guys all the time to be involved in watching off the ball, in the dugout, during batting practice, during infield, and their interaction with teammates. It paints a story for you every night if you'll just watch things other than the game itself. The use of data has evolved, but there are very few things that have come in where people go, “Wow, I've never thought about that.” And you never confuse change with a lack of respect for tradition.
DL: From your perspective, how receptive are most people within the game to statistical analysis and less-traditional information?
BS: Whether it's OPS, batting average, slugging percentage, on-base percentage… baseball guys look at that stuff to verify their gut. They don't let their gut be established by a stat. Someone like Nate Silver isn’t going to be on the field for 30 years, but I'm not going to be able to do some things that he does, and that's fine. You've got to make people feel comfortable when someone comes into your baseball meetings, and the way you do that is to tell everybody in there, before he gets there, that this guy can help us win. That usually gets people's attention. But he's got to bring something that these guys will grab on to.
DL: The Red Sox had Dwight Evans and Wade Boggs leading off long before Moneyball, yet some managers still put low on-base percentage guys at the top of the order simply because they run well. Does that make sense to you?
BS: Well, there are a lot of different ways to look at it and that's what makes baseball so fascinating. You have such a great piece of the pie statistically, and there are so many statistics that sometimes you can get bogged down with them and forget it is also about human beings with heart and guts and certain ability to perform under pressure, regardless of what the numbers may say. I remember guys, for years, talking about how this guy will hit a three-run home run when you're up 7-1, but he won‘t be there when it‘s 2-1. And there are guys who feast on mediocre pitching. There are some very good players who make a living out of hitting the fourth and fifth starter and the relief pitchers who aren’t eighth and ninth inning guys. You're always trying to expose those fifth-through-seventh-inning relievers and get to the fourth and fifth starters, because that‘s where guys should be able to do things. If the pitcher is on top of his game and the hitter's on top of his game, the pitcher usually wins that battle. That's why frontline starting pitchers and relievers are at such a premium.
With Wade Boggs, everybody knew he walked a lot, everybody knew he had a high on-base percentage. I had Wade and I found he was a lot more productive player if there were certain guys he didn't start against. And the ballpark. He didn't perform well in Oakland. A lot of it had to do with how they had so much foul ground. I knew his batting average there, and looking at the foul ground, someone didn't have to tell me why it was. And the hitting background he didn't particularly like because I listened to him talk. You listen to guys and you get a feeling for where they are mentally by talking to them, and that doesn't come across on a stat sheet. With Paul O'Neill, I knew how much he wanted to play against left-handed pitching. I know it wasn't something he was trying to duck in any form or fashion, because I talked to him.
DL: Can you elaborate on Paul O’Neill versus left-handed pitching?
BS: When Stick (Gene Michael) made the trade for him, we knew what his numbers were against left-handed pitching and we knew how good left-handed bats played in Yankee Stadium. We also knew he was an above-average defender with a plus arm. So we knew he was going to negate some runs and he was going to produce some runs. He was as much a run reducer as he was a run producer. We thought he was a perfect fit in right field but it was very important — and this is something that doesn't show up in a stat sheet — that you get off to a good start when a big trade like that is made.
We felt that with his hitting mechanics, this guy was going to be able to hit left-handed pitching. The sampling wasn't that big, but he had hit something like .091, or maybe .191, against left-handers. So I told Paul that we were going to start the year with him hitting against right-handed pitching only, and we thought it would evolve into an everyday role. He got ticked off about it, and he was killing it against right-handed pitching, but what came first? Was the reason he was off to such a good start that the fans were getting behind him in New York? It's not like Kansas City or Toronto; New York is a different animal. You wanted him to get off to a good start, and we also had a real good right-handed hitting part of that platoon in Gerald Williams, who feasted on left-handed pitching, and they were both above-average defenders. If you put their numbers together, you had a heck of a single player.
DL: How did you communicate that to O’Neill?
BS: I told Paul that he'd get opportunities late in the game against a relief pitcher where we're way ahead or way behind, and he'd get a chance to hit him. And it evolved. He became an everyday player versus left-handed pitching. He really concentrated on those at bats when he got him because he was trying to prove that he could do it and we felt that mechanically, and with everything he brought to the table, that he should be able to hit left-handed pitching. All of the weaknesses that you look for in a left-on-left match-up, he didn't bring those. He did the things that a left-handed hitter had to do to hit left-handed pitching and we felt that it was just a matter of time. The combination of the other side of the platoon, and also wanting to get him off to a good start, that's the way it started but it evolved into Paul being an everyday player hitting in the middle of the lineup.
DL: What are the mechanical things a left-handed hitter has to do against a southpaw?
BS: He's got to cover the outer half. People talk about the left-on-left breaking ball, but if a left-hander can get the fastball down and away, he's going to get a lot of left-handed hitters out. Paul could cover the plate. Paul had no fear on the breaking ball, he didn't bail on the breaking ball. He let the ball travel, he wasn't a guy that jumped at the ball. He could handle the ball down, where most breaking balls finish. But he covered the outer half of the plate. Most left-on-left fastballs that they try to throw in finish off the plate because of the natural tail. So many people talk about the left-on-left breaking ball, but once you can establish throwing a fastball down and away, away from your arm side, that's the one that really separates left-handed relievers as well as left-handed hitters, and Paul was able to cover that. We just felt that it was just going to be a matter of time that he got the reps and got it done.
DL: Do you have any inverse examples — guys who initially hit lefties well, but you could see from a scouting perspective that they were unlikely to continue the success?
BS: That's a good question, but no, we were looking for guys that we felt would be able to hit left-on-left. Basically, you have so many right-handed hitters that hit right-handed pitching because they grow up facing them. You've heard the stories about B.J. Surhoff and different left-handed hitters in the big leagues that hit left-handed pitching because their dad was left-handed. They saw it a lot. You're always looking for somebody that can handle that because that's what allows a left-handed hitter to hit in the middle of your lineup. You have Utley and Howard hitting back-to-back in the order and they have to hit left-handed pitching because they're going to see left-handed relief pitching in the seventh and eighth innings countless times during the year. I haven't really looked at the other way of it, because you're always kind of looking for the positive side of that. I've had some guys that I know why they struggled left-on-left, but it's hard to get them to adjust.
Don Mattingly hit left-handers well. I remember in Rookie ball, in Oneonta, he didn't play one night and asked Art Mazmanian, the manager, “Did I do something wrong?” and he goes, “No, it's a left-handed pitcher,” and Donnie goes, “So what?” I think a lot of it is that mentally we start making these guys think they can't hit left-handers. They play in high school and college and they don't think about who's pitching, left or right. Then all of a sudden they get into pro ball and people start ingraining in their minds that they're not supposed to be able to do it. I know in organizations I was in, I wouldn't let managers and coaches platoon guys in the minor leagues and put that in their head.
Donnie let the ball travel to hit the ball away, covering the plate just like Boggs. There were certain left-handers that Wade struggled against and you knew those statistically going in. I used to look in advance for places to give him a day off, because I knew the pitcher was someone he probably wouldn’t hit — he was a little older when I had him — and I could give Randy Velarde some at bats. You reach back for those experiences as you go through your career, whether it be with Arizona or Texas, and you see like situations and you try to build on them.
DL: You had Bernie Williams as a young player. Can you talk about his development as a hitter?
BS: I had Bernie in extended spring, in Fort Lauderdale, in Double-A… I had him his whole career, ever since he was 17 years old. We made him a switch-hitter and he was about ready to quit and go home. I had kept his dad’s phone number, and one day in extended spring he came in and said that he wasn't going to switch-hit anymore, and that if he had to switch-hit, he was going back to Puerto Rico. I said “Oh really? Well, let me call your Dad and let him know you're coming home.” I said “Bernie, one day you'll thank me that that breaking ball is coming toward you instead of away from you.”
Bernie ended up being very close, left and right, but he wanted no part of it at first.. What happens with a lot of players, especially Latin players that can run like Bernie could, you want to automatically put your foot in the water and test the switch-hitting thing. It was obvious that Bernie could run well and he could handle right-handed pitching at that level, but you knew what an advantage it was going to be for him down the road. He fought us on it tooth and nail, but it finally started coming together about halfway through the Florida State League season the next year, and I still kid him about it every time I see him. I knew where his button was. He wanted no part of calling home and letting them know he was coming home and that he had quit. I had met his dad and I knew what was going to happen in that conversation.
DL: What did you see in Bernie that said “switch-hitter?”
BS: Well, first of all he could run. He had great hand-eye coordination. We tested his eyes and he had the same level of strength in both eyes. He was also able to slide on both legs. If I put 100 major-league players in front of you, I'll bet you that you're going to be lucky to find five of them that slide on both legs. In other words, they're switch-sliders. Paul O'Neill couldn't slide, Reggie Jackson couldn't slide. I've had some great players that couldn't slide at all. But Bernie was one of the few guys that was a switch-slider, so I knew that he could handle both parts of his body with a lot of agility. His foot speed and watching when we were doing sliding drills, he was one of the few guys I'd seen that could slide on both sides of his leg.
There’s a little drill where you’re working on getting your hands up and your butt underneath you. Watch how many guys will have their left foot out and how many will have their right foot out, and then ask them to do it the other way and it looks like a monkey on top of an elephant. For most people it just feels strange.
When Bernie was hitting .100 against right-handed pitching, you threw it out the window because it was a work-in-progress. It was, “What is being gained here?” From experience, you know that they just don't start doing it right away. But I've seen some guys try to switch-hit that you knew you were wasting your time with. I saw it with Rex Hudler; he tried to do it. We had three or four guys that we tried to switch hit and it just wasn't there. But Bernie was a low-ball hitter left-handed and a high-ball hitter right-handed. You had to throw the change-up to him right-handed, and you had to rush the ball up with the fastball left-handed. That's the only way you could pitch him. He was a completely different hitter from two sides of the plate. Very few guys are the same hitter from both sides of the plate.
DL: You also had Mark Teixeira as a young player.
BS: Yes, he was 21, 22-ish and I remember when we took him to the big leagues, he was hitting about .150 after April and everybody thought we had rushed him, but we knew that Mark was going to figure that out. That was fun to watch. That was an easy call on Mark.
And Mark was a great slider. I've never seen a good switch-hitter that wasn't a good slider. That was one of the first things that hit me; Mark was very good with his body; he had great body control. That's why we knew he could play first base. He was a third baseman when they first gave him to me and we made him a first baseman because we had Hank Blalock too. But Mark had such a great wingspan. He is very similar to Bernie in that he's a low-ball hitter left-handed and he's a high-ball hitter right-handed. You've got to go hard and up to him left-handed, and you've got to go soft on the change-up, and with the fastball you've got to bust him in right-handed. He's two completely different hitters.
DL: As much as you appreciate data, you clearly appear to value the importance of traditional scouting.
BS: As you go through your career, you reach back for those experiences on what you did with Bernie, and what you did with O’Neill or this guy or that guy, and that's how you formulate these opinions. But you also try to keep an open mind, which I think is where a lot of people miss. You've got to be willing to go, “Wait a minute, that's different, I haven't heard that before,” instead of just throwing it out because it doesn't fit with what your eyes have shown you. There are different ways. Very seldom do I hear something that makes me kind of stop and go, “Wow, yeah.” But I do. We have better cars, we have better medicine, houses are built better. Shouldn't our game be? Certain ideas come in, and whether it's someone who went to Harvard or whether it's somebody who went to the school of hard knocks, what difference does it make as long as it helps us win baseball games?
The other day, a coach bought in this machine called Fungo Man, and the first thing that went through my head was, “Jeez, they're not going to need coaches any more.” You can program it and it throws any type of ball you want to throw. And the coaches automatically think, “I guess we're not going to be needed any more.” That's never going to be the case. You're always going to need the human element in that clubhouse, in that dugout, on those planes, in spring training, to find out what makes guys tick. And the organizations that do it the best will win, too. Boston and the Yankees have good baseball men and they have a great payroll. Let's not confuse their intelligence level and their player evaluation with having more money than everybody else. You can be real smart when you're getting to spend a lot more money than everybody else. When you've got Randy Winn as your fourth outfielder, who was hitting third for San Francisco, let's keep that in mind. Minnesota and those teams can't do that. They can't go get Randy Winn as a “what if?” Big-market teams have great “what-ifs?” but when you blend smart, new-age and old-age together, and that payroll, you get what you're getting with teams like the Yankees and Boston. I do think they're smart and they're doing a lot better job with where they spend their money, and they're blending the old with the new.
DL: Why are the Twins successful?
BS: The Twins know who they are. You walk into a meeting with them and they know their lifeblood is their player development, their player procurement, their evaluations in the minor leagues, and they understand the free agent market. In the Latin market, they were ahead of their time. For years they just killed Venezuela. They did the best job in Venezuela out of anybody. They had an academy there before anybody did. They have good coaches in the minor leagues. They know what's important. They don't spend time talking about the top free agent. They don't enter into the Halladay sweepstakes, or Cliff Lee. They can't afford to put that much money into one player.
What's a joy to watch is when you go down through their minor league system, and I've hit all three or four of their stops, and they do it the same way. They look for the same type of player; there is a Minnesota Twins type of player. They're fun to watch, they hold their players accountable for playing the game a certain way, and they have to do all the little things that teams that are more talented don't necessarily have to constantly do. Most importantly, they know who they are and they know who they're not. They know who they are and they don't deviate from it, and that's why they're consistently successful. That comes from ownership, too. Ownership believes in the GM and the baseball people. They let the coaches coach. The great GMs value what their field personnel are telling them about player's makeup. If you don't bring that into the equation, you're gonna get your butt kicked.
DL: You feel that makeup is important?
BS: Oh, without a doubt. That's the sixth tool. It functions more in baseball than in any other sport because you play over 200 games counting spring training. I chuckle when I hear football coaches say they weren't ready to play this week. Shoot, you're playing 15 games. Are you [kidding] me? Try strapping that thing on seven days a week. I talk to a lot of football players who tried to play baseball, like Deion Sanders and John Elway. I've had probably ten of them. And to a man, they go, “Holy cow!” Mentally and emotionally, and physically for some…baseball is just every day. It's every day. It's a game of repetition.
DL: From a managerial perspective, how much has the game of baseball changed?
BS: There are certain absolutes in baseball, but you’re always trying to win the war. You don’t want to win the battle and lose the war. You always have to keep your eye on the end game — what you’re trying to accomplish. I don’t think the game itself has changed all that much. The important things are still important, but maybe it’s harder to find buttons on players. I love the players more than anything in the game — I like baseball players — and most guys that I’ve been around that are good baseball people like baseball players.
You know, people talk about how things have changed, and how different it is, but I don’t really see it, to be honest with you. That’s the beauty of our game. It is still 90 feet and 60 feet six inches — the distances are perfect. What it takes to be successful are still the same things. They talk about the specialization of relief pitchers and all that stuff, it’s just that back in the ‘40s, ‘50s, ‘60s, and ’70s, people just weren’t talking about it. A lot of these things were being done. I remember Billy Martin saying, “See those things you’re doing? They’re nothing new; we were doing this with Casey Stengel. You‘re just doing it with a different drill.” Bunt defenses and different things.
I’ll tell you what has changed a lot is that so many things are being put in mechanically. I tell guys all the time, “Let these kids have some fun.” They’re calling pitches from the dugout, they’re telling everybody what to do. A common denominator, with very few exceptions, is that when I look at bios of players, they were all multi-sport athletes. These travel squads who only play baseball year round — first of all, their bodies aren’t ready for it. We don’t let guys freelance as much as we used you. You know “You’re on your own.” If you want to put on a bunt play or a pickoff play, put it on yourself. Sometimes we get so mechanical that everything comes out of the dugout. Everything comes through a coach and we don’t let the players play. That’s part of the beauty of basketball. You may have a play called, but if it breaks down, it’s helter-skelter. In football, great quarterbacks break the pocket and make plays happen. We don’t have that in baseball, where you make something happen out of the norm, because we do it so mechanically. That’s a change I don’t particularly like. I’d like to see the players get a little more of an opportunity to freelance.
DL: Are most managers predictable?
BS: I’ll say this, I would rather manage against a guy who I knew was really in tune with what was happening on the field. It paints a picture every night. Certain things happen on the field that dictate that this is getting ready to happen and they’re waiting to find out what they’ll be doing. But there are some managers who you aren’t sure if they were watching what the game just told them. You aren’t sure if they saw it, so you don’t know if you need to counteract it or let it go. If you’re going against Tony La Russa, Bobby Cox or Bobby Valentine, you know they saw everything that was happening on the field. That is still challenging, but at least you knew that they saw it. Guys who don’t can be hard to manage against. It usually catches up to them, but because they’ll sometimes do things with no rhyme or reason, they’re harder to manage against.
I love innovations, and that’s part of the beauty of it, but sometimes you can out-think yourself. Baseball lends itself to a lot of blending of ideas, and I like some of the new stats, but there are also some stats I’ll call bullshit on. A guy comes in with pie charts and tells me that a guy can play cente rfield, but I know that my eyes tell me he can’t play centerfield. I’m not sure if anyone can adequately quantify defense and base running. When was the last time someone really quantified a good base runner, regardless of his foot speed? I look at guys that are perceived by the media as a good defender, but people in baseball know that he’s horse crap.
DL: Are the Red Sox being smart in putting Jacoby Ellsbury in left field?
BS: What they have is a good problem. I’d say that my answer is no, but I’ll also give them a benefit of a doubt. But why not be good in left and in center, instead of just center? Jason Bay was a bad defender on the road. It’s pretty easy to defend left field in Fenway Park, but you play 81 games on the road and he killed them on the road. I told Don Wakamatsu, who is a guy that I hired in Arizona and took to Texas, that if you want to get better…I talk to him a lot and I talked to him about Franklin Gutierrez. When I was with Cleveland, I thought Franklin Gutierrez was the best centerfielder in the American League — he was better than Grady Sizemore. Cleveland wanted to put him in center and Sizemore in left, but there was a little bit of PR involved there. I said to Wak, “If you want to get better, you have a great advantage in that ballpark, in Seattle.” You have Endy Chavez and you could put Ichiro where he should be, over in right field, and you put Franklin Gutierrez in center, and you have an advantage. You have run reducers and now it’s just a matter of run producers. I mean, those guys reduce at least a run a night.
When a pitcher is on top of his game, that big run producer is going to get his bat [taken away from him]. But defense doesn’t go in a slump when it comes to running a ball down in the gap. And people put a premium on defense way back when. That’s why I chuckle about Moneyball and the stuff that Oakland did for years. I remember Billy Beane and Sandy Alderson picking my brain, when I went out there to interview years ago, about what we were doing in New York with on-base percentage and looking for people who walked a lot. This was back in the early ‘90s and all of a sudden it became something Oakland had a corner on? Every time you find something in the game, with the exception of evaluating base running, and to some extent defense, I’ll show you examples in baseball history where the same approach was taken.
DL: Davey Lopes is getting a lot of accolades for his work with baserunners in Philadelphia.
BS: Davey Lopes was a good baserunner. He was good, and it’s not just a foot-speed thing, but you didn’t hear about it when he was in San Diego or Milwaukee. Now, all of a sudden, you hear about him in Philadelphia. Why is that?
DL: Possibly the same reason Terry Francona didn’t win in Philadelphia but is winning in Boston?
BS: He has better players?
DL: That’s my guess.
BS: Gee, that’s a novel thought. But here’s the greatest compliment you can pay to a manager. They used to say that with Bear Bryant, he could take his and beat yours, and he could take yours and beat his. There aren’t many guys you can say that about. What you like to have said about you is that if you’re on an equal playing field, with the same amount of bullets, you’re the guy that’s going to win. But if you can’t afford bullets, you’re not going win. You just want to be somewhere around what they can spend, and then I’ll take my chances.
DL: That said, some small-market teams find a way to be competitive. You talked about the Twins earlier.
BS: Year in and year out, nobody does a better job than Ron Gardenhire and his organization allows him to do a good job. There’s support. The players know who they have to please — the coaching staff and him — and they know how to do it. They get support from the owner and the GM and there is a certain morale in that organization because it’s all from within. There are no exterior forces. I’d rather watch Minnesota play than the Red Sox any day of the week. I like both of them, but with Minnesota, after they win a game you feel good about baseball. There’s a lot to be said for doing things the right way.