The Buck stops . . . in Baltimore?by Chris Jaffe
August 02, 2010
Buck Showalter is back - and Baltimore's got 'im! Yup, thrice-fired manager Buck Showalter is back for the unenviable task of bringing the Orioles back to respectability. Clearly, he's a braver man than I. Personally, I find Showalter's hiring interesting for reasons that are partially self-centered.
As I hope a few of you in reader-land know, I wrote a book, Evaluating Baseball's Managers (I have a book signing at this week's SABR convention in the vending room's McFarland table immediately after my presentation on Thursday) that examines the most important managers in baseball history (including Showalter), so I'm looking for an excuse to write about managers - and yes, plug my book (Read it and find out why Baseball America said "It deserves a spot alongside James' book in the small "managers" section of your baseball library.")
Coming soon to a dugout near you . . . .
Coming soon to a dugout near you . . . .
But not only is this manager-related news, but it's Showalter-related news, which allows me to dig up a nugget I've been sitting on. An irony exists in writing a book: Just because the book's published doesn't mean you're done with it. If you care enough about the material to put that much work in, you'll continue thinking about it and find out new facts.
One post-publication fact I've stumbled across deals with Showalter's 2005 Rangers. It's a fact that primarily tells us about the talent he had on hand, but also enlightens us a little bit about Showalter as well.
Showalter's historic 2005 infield
Though Showalter isn't a fanatic about running the same starting lineup every day, he does like to use his best players as often as possible. For example, in his last five years as manager, there were seven times a player appeared in at least 160 games, with a pair of 159ers right behind. That isn't too unusual, but it is a bit high.
Texas infielder Michael Young, part of Buck Showalter's historic 2005 infield
At any rate, his best players bunched up rather heavily in the infield when he ran the Rangers, causing Showalter's squad to set or at least approach a series of records. The starting four 2005 Texas Rangers infielders - Mark Teixeira at first, Alfonso Soriano at second, Hank Blalock at third and Michael Young at short - amassed 2,849 plate appearances, the most by any infield in history.
It helps playing in a high-offense era and with the infielders hitting higher in the batting order, but then again the gap between their first place finish and the second place team (the 1963 Cardinals, at 2,777 PA), is greater than the gap between second and 14th place.
Forget plate appearances for a second - under Showalter, the 2005 Rangers' starting four played in 638 games, tied for third most ever. Yes, they were a talented and healthy bunch, but there have been other fit and fantastic infield foursomes before. At least six or seven. The Steve Garvey-Davey Lopes-Bill Russell-Ron Cey Dodgers group never played in that many games. Nor did the Brewers infield of Cecil Cooper, Jim Gantner, Robin Yount and Paul Molitor.
That 2005 Texas foursome also combined for the seventh-most RBIs of any starting infield unit, and the second most homers (behind the 2002 Rangers, just before Showalter showed up. Though it isn't just the talent responsible for all these rankings, it's still the leading reason). The 2005 crew had the most hits by any infield quartet since 1936.
Man, that ain't a flattering photo of Hank Blalock.
My favorite factoid about the Rangers starting infielders centers on total bases. The most TB hit by any team's starting four was 1,318 by (of course) the 2005 Rangers quartet. Second place, way back at 1,244 total bases, was the 2004 Rangers, also helmed by Showalter. In third place stands the 2003 Rangers with 1,211 TB, and of course Showalter was there that year. You have to go all the way down to fourth place, where Davey Johnson's 1996 Baltimore bunch logged 1,209 total bases (more than 100 behind the 2005 Rangers and closer to 32nd place than first), to break up Showalter's Texas infield.
This does not mean current Baltimore fans should sit back and expect a record-breaking infield performance in the near future. But it was a remarkable achievement under Showalter's watch, and his decision to give Soriano, Teixeira, Blalock, and Young a combined 10 games off that year allowed for it.
Showalter the manager
There are other ways Showalter leaves clearer fingerprints upon his teams. He's arguably the least "small ball" manager ever. To him "bunt" is just another four-letter word. His offenses finished in last place with sac hits or tied for it four times, including at least once with every franchise he's managed. He's also come next-to-last twice. None of his AL teams ever bunted more than 27 times a year. MLB's record low for team SH is nine - and that was the Showalter-managed 2009 Rangers.
The longer Showalter's been around, the more anti-SH he seems to be. In New York, only one player - Pat Kelly - ever hit double-digits in SH. In Texas, there was only one time a player had more than FIVE sacrifice hits in a year (Rod Barajas, with eight in 2004). In Texas, in the 21 times a player qualified for the batting title under Showalter, the hitters collected a grand total of four SH. Young had three of them all by himself in 2003 and Gary Mathews Jr. had the other one in 2005.
Showalter is more willing to steal bases than to bunt a guy over, but that isn't saying much. He'll usually have one guy who runs some, but it helps if the guy is a good percentage stealer. For instance, Showalter's biggest base-stealing threat was Tony Womack, who stole 72 bases in 85 attempts, a rather nice success rate.
But a runner like Womack is the exception, not the rule. His clubs have been last in steals twice, in the bottom four teams in six different campaigns and in the bottom half in all but two of his 11 managerial seasons. In four years under Showalter, a young (age 23 to 26) Bernie Williams averaged 10 steals a year. In his first three seasons without Showalter, Williams stole at least 15 bases a year. Alfonso Soriano stole 43, 41 and 35 bases in the three seasons immediately prior to his arrival in Texas. He averaged 24 a year in a pair of campaigns under Showalter, but then stole 41 in his first post-Showalter season.
However, unlike the SH, Showalter's become increasingly likely to employ the stolen base. The Yanks featured both of his last-place stolen base finishes, and never ranked higher than 12th in steals in the 14-team AL under Showalter. Neither Arizona nor Texas ever came in last in steals, and each had some middling seasons at it.
In the 22 times a player qualified for a batting title in the Bronx under Showalter, a man went the entire year without a stolen base six times. Meanwhile, only five times in New York did anyone steal more than a handful of bases for him. Since New York, every single batter qualifying for the batting title has had at least one stolen base for Showalter, and a majority (19 out of 35) have stolen more than a handful. Even with Soriano, his depressed stolen base totals were because Showalter moved him from the leadoff slot to the heart of the batting order.
Also, Showalter's generally done a good job putting OBP at the top of the order. The chart below shows the team OBP for all the squads Showalter's managed, as well as the OBP from the Nos. 1 and 2 slots - the table setters in the order:
Year Team No. 1 No. 2 1992 NYY 0.328 0.328 0.329 1993 NYY 0.353 0.354 0.345 1994 NYY 0.374 0.388 0.420 1995 NYY 0.357 0.359 0.409 1998 ARI 0.314 0.340 0.306 1999 ARI 0.347 0.326 0.382 2000 ARI 0.333 0.311 0.353 2003 TEX 0.330 0.324 0.347 2004 TEX 0.329 0.354 0.349 2005 TEX 0.329 0.321 0.385 2006 TEX 0.338 0.361 0.356
This isn't fantastic, but it is above average. One out of every seven teams gets worse OBP from each of the top two slots than the team as a whole, but that's never happened to a Showalter team. Of the 1,378 teams from 1954-2009, 35 percent have worse OBP in their No. 1 slot than the team as a whole. With Showalter, it's 64 percent. So it's fairly standard.
Where Showalter does stand out, is in the No. 2 hole. From 1954-2009, 42 percent of teams have worse OBP in the second slot than on the entire team. Showalter only did it twice in 11 years, and neither of those years was much below the team average. Oftentimes, a manager will place a bat control specialist in that role, and prioritize that over all else. Showalter, with his lack of interest in the bunt, is more interested in getting someone else on rather than moving the runner over. He isn't the best at putting OBP at top, but he is good at it.
Also, it's especially important that he get such good OBP from his table setters, because if there's one thing his teams have been good at over the years, it's slugging the ball. Twice a Showalter-managed team led the league is Isolated Power, on two other occasions they finished second, in a fifth year they came in third, and in two more campaigns they came in fourth. Not bad for an 11-year haul.
Thinking it through, there's a clear theme to everything above, a theme that represents Showalter's offensive philosophy. He isn't playing for one run at a time, but prefers going for the big inning. To that end, he'll try to put good OBP at the top of the order so his big boppers can drive runners in.
The ballparks Showalter managed in (especially Arizona and Texas) play a clear role in these high ISO rankings, and talent always matters the most. That said, what a manager prioritizes and how he coaches can affect things as well. Of the 21 individuals who played in at least 300 games for him, 14 set new personal single-season home run bests under his watch, eight of which still stand. Showalter presided over unexpected power surges from Mike Stanley and Jim Leyritz, had 30-something veterans Jay Bell and Steve Finley defy time to improve their power, and witnessed the best seasons from Young, Mathews Jr. and Kevin Mench.
I don't want to overstate my case. Showalter's no magician who automatically makes everyone a better power hitter (Soriano, most notably, did not improve under him). My point is much simpler. Baseball can be like any other workspace in that employees respond to items their boss pays more attention to.
Showalter the person
That covers the baseball side of Showalter but he's also gotten attention for his personality. By reputation, Showalter is a very controlling individual and thus not the easiest person to get along with. As a result, Showalter has a nasty tendency even when the results wouldn't seem to warrant it. He took the Yanks from their early-1990s torpor to their first postseason appearance since Leonid Brezhnev's heyday. Then the club let him go after the postseason. The Diamondbacks got rid of him after back-to-back winning seasons, despite the fact he'd played a leading role in shaping the three-year-old franchise.
All of which builds up a key concern about his new assignment: How can a manager known for controlling tendencies and butting heads get along with Orioles owner Peter Angelos?
Angelos, Showalter's new boss
Since becoming team owner in 1993, Angelos has earned a poor reputation for working well with others. He fired GM Pat Gillick despite a successful run in the 1990s, alienated the team's longtime broadcaster Jon Miller (who fled to San Francisco) and dumped manager Davey Johnson immediately after Johnson won a Manager of the Year Award for guiding Baltimore to a plus-.600 record.
Admittedly, this would not be Showalter's first go-around with a controlling owner, as he broke in with George Steinbrenner in the Bronx. Then again, Showalter broke in when Steinbrenner was considerably less involved with the team, in the wake of his suspension.
Angelos, as far as I know, has not taken steps away from helming the club he owns. In fact, the recent series of Baltimore managers is about as forgettable a bunch as one can possibly find in MLB. If I still gave multiple-choice quizzes in my history classes, I'd be tempted to include something like the following:
What was the name of the prominent turn-of-the-century labor leader in charge of the AFL?
1. Samuel Gompers
2. Lee Mazzilli
3. Sam Perlozzo
4. Dave Trembley
5. None of the above.
I bet many would get the wrong answer to that one. To be fair, I don't live anywhere near Baltimore, and if I lived in Oriole Country I'd probably have quite a few more correct answers. Probably.
Could you name this ex-O's skipper? (It's Trembley.)
Showlater and the future
Right now, it looks like a guy who can't get along with his bosses working for a boss who can't get along with his employees. Sounds like a bad sit-com idea. I have no idea how it'll play out, but my guess is that Showalter will make the Orioles play more professionally, but I wouldn't expect him to last too long there.
Which means this, Showalter's fourth go-around, could be his last stand. Looking it up, since 1900, 35 managers have been hired four times (not including interim manager stints). Of those, only 14 had a fifth hiring.
That may be too harsh, though. Since Showalter had an early start (in his mid-30s when he first became Yankees manager), and hasn't lasted too long anywhere, he's still a fairly young 54 years of age. While no spring chicken, that's a normal manager age these days.
Still, Buck Showalter is in danger of taking the Charlie Dressen career path: a talented and highly regarded manager who didn't pan out with the best teams he had and ended up migrating from team to team, ultimately devolving into one of the profession's what-ifs.
References and Resources
This inspiration for this column came from the Camden Crazies blog about the Orioles, which asked me if I'd be willing to write a guest piece for them. I agreed, telling them it would probably be something short. (Of the 89 managers in my book, Showalter was one of the managers I unexpectedly had trouble saying anything about. This article is much better and certainly much more thorough than what I said about him in the book, and largely covers different material.) Anyhow, after having more success than I expected writing something on Showalter, I realized this was better than anything on planning for THT this week, hence it ends up here.
I knew the general reputation of Angelos, but the specific comments made came from a quick glance at his page in B-ref's bullpen.
I mentioned in the article I counted 35 managers hired four times since 1900, including 14 hired at least five times. Here they are. First the five-plus hired guys: John McNamara, Bill McKechnie, Jimmy Dykes, Bucky Harris, Lou Piniella, Alvin Dark, Charlie Dressen, Rogers Hornsby, Billy Martin, Jack McKeon, Jeff Torborg, Dick Williams, Joe Torre, and Gene Mauch.
The guys hired four times only are: Buck Showalter himself, Dave Bristol, Donie Bush, Hugh Duffy, Don Zimmer (I don't count his brief stint filling in for Joe Torre with the Yanks - that wasn't a real hire), Casey Stengel, Bill Rigney, Frank Robinson, Bill Virdon, Chuck Tanner, Danny Murtaugh (all four with the same team!), Bob Lemon, Ralph Houk, Charlie Grimm, Jim Leyland, Davey Johnson, Lou Boudreau, Leo Durocher, Jim Fregosi, Clark Griffith, and Steve O'Neill.
Oh, and the correct answer to the quiz is Choice A) Samuel Gompers.
History instructor by day, statnerd by night, Chris Jaffe leads one of the most exciting double lives imaginable; with the exception of every other double life possible to imagine. Despite his lack of comic-book-hero-worthiness, Chris enjoys farting around with this stuff. His new book, Evaluating Baseball's Managers is available for order. Chris welcomes responses to his articles via e-mail. Oh, and now he's on twitter.
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