The Manager’s Perspective: Buck Showalter on the Changing Game

Buck Showalter has been around the game for a long time. He’s been at the helm in Baltimore since 2010. Before that, he skippered the Yankees, Diamondbacks, and Rangers. After five years of managing in the minors, he got his first big-league job in 1992. It’s safe to say that Showalter has seen baseball evolve, and it’s equally safe to say that he’s evolved along with it.

At his core, though, Showalter has remained much the same. He’s smart, and to his credit — although sometimes to his detriment — he’s rarely shy about expressing an opinion. At 62 years old, with four decades in the game, he’s earned the right to do so. Buck being Buck, that’s usually a good thing.

———

Buck Showalter: “One thing about analytics is that we all question what we don’t understand. You need to learn, so during the spring we do Analytics for Dummies. That’s what we call it. We take our most veteran baseball people, our on-the-field lifers, and bring them upstairs to go over every analytic there is and find the [equivalent of a] .300 batting average in every one of them. We take the black cloud of unknown away from it.

“What we’ve found is that most of our veteran people go, ‘Oh, really? That’s all it is?’ They’re not demeaning it, they’re just saying, ‘Now I understand.’ Know where the .300 batting average of WAR is, and what it tells you. Just as important, what doesn’t it tell you that you have to be aware of.

“There’s also the environment you create. You need an environment where you’ll respect what they bring and where thy’ll respect what the field personnel can bring. The best organizations are the ones that branch those together to make evaluations.

“A problem you run into now is that the players feel almost robotically evaluated. The sixth tool is not… it’s only evaluated by the people that are with them every day. The makeup, the want-to, the crunch-time guys: everybody on the field knows who they are.

“The responsibility of leadership in today’s public world… Chase Utley is one of them, but it’s hard to find guys who are willing to be publicly viewed as That Guy. There’s the constant scrutiny. You say something to a teammate privately, trying to help him, or maybe constructively criticize, and if it gets out there publicly… it’s just different. Not that guys won’t do it, but there’s so much to being a major-league player that it’s hard to take on that responsibility, too. You used to have three or four of them on a team. That’s something that’s changed, the responsibility and burden of leadership.

“Has the ball changed? Cars are better. Medicine is better. Planes are better. I’m sure the baseballs are being made better. Why are people throwing harder? The human body gets better. We learn techniques and what does and doesn’t work.

“If they started to count runs according to how far you hit the ball — OK, 340 feet is worth one, and anything over 380 is worth one-and-a-quarter — or can you imagine if you got compensated for the distance you hit the ball? I think the contact-to-damage ratio has become… I’m on the competition committee. We talk about a lot, and I’ve really come to understand that a lot of things that we talk about — the why-don’t-we’s — well, they’ve already been talking about it for two years. There’s a process to get to that point.

“Nothing is going to change until it pays. If it pays to be a good-contact, hit-and-run, no strikeouts, play all phases of the game… if it pays, OK? If you show up in arbitration… and I’ve sat in those hearings. We’re barking up the wrong tree if we think it’s going to change before it’s compensated.

“But I’ll tell you one thing that did change. This offseason was the first time I saw front offices not do something they’ve done in the past. There was no collusion, no whatever. It was all about looking analytically at a player and saying, ‘He’s not worth X.’ And they stuck to it. Front offices are smarter with their contracts than they had been. Some of these that are held over… I guarantee you, if you sign a guy to a seven-year contract, you’re going to be lucky if you’re happy for four of those seven.

“So the game has changed, but it also hasn’t. You still have to do the same things to do well. It’s like when people were talking about Mickey Callaway and Gabe Kapler early on. I said, ‘Guys, everybody stop and give these guys a chance.’ I remember when I was 35, 36 years old, or whatever it was when I was with the Yankees. People were questioning everything. If you’ve got good players it kind of helps.

“To shut down one thing and say, ‘Hey, I’m doing veteran managers only’ or ‘I’m doing first-year managers only’… every situation calls for a different approach or a different voice. But there are certain absolutes. I enjoy the analytics. I really do, but you have to be careful, because you can slant them to back up anything you want them to back up. And there’s always point-counterpoint to every one of them.

“There’s a cause and effect to it, too. We’re doing a thing this year with charting. If we played straight up the whole year, how many hits did we keep from happening? On the flip side, if we were in shifts, how many balls did we get outs on that would have been hits? I decided, ‘Let’s evaluate what we’re getting out of this.’

“There’s some strong talk about eliminating shifts, too, trying to make the value of a ground ball more… trying to dictate more action on the field, as opposed to strikeouts and home runs. Defense is still important. I actually think it’s magnified more in the big leagues now than it’s ever been. The good teams playing late into the season are good defensive clubs, with no exceptions. When the ball is put in play, you better catch that sonuvabitch. If the ball is put on the ground with a man on first, you better turn two. Outs are big. Everybody’s got power.

“The players up here are good. I think we have the biggest chasm ever between the minor leagues and the big leagues. It’s a huge chasm, and the ability to evaluate… and sometimes guys can be hitting .250 down there and do better up here. Same with pitchers. The ability to evaluate what plays up here is important in an organization.

“Let’s face it. Guys come out of college football and they go right to the NFL and are all-pro. They come out of high school and play in the NBA. They come out of Stanford and are on the Ryder Cup in golf. Baseball? Doesn’t happen. There’s such an apprenticeship here. Guys are coming to the big leagues so fast that the importance of being able to teach at the major-league level is higher than it’s ever been. You can’t assume anything anymore. Nothing.”

We hoped you liked reading The Manager’s Perspective: Buck Showalter on the Changing Game by David Laurila!

Please support FanGraphs by becoming a member. We publish thousands of articles a year, host multiple podcasts, and have an ever growing database of baseball stats.

FanGraphs does not have a paywall. With your membership, we can continue to offer the content you've come to rely on and add to our unique baseball coverage.

Support FanGraphs




David Laurila grew up in Michigan's Upper Peninsula and now writes about baseball from his home in Cambridge, Mass. He authored the Prospectus Q&A series at Baseball Prospectus from February 2006-May 2011 before being claimed off waivers by FanGraphs. He can be followed on Twitter @DavidLaurilaQA.

newest oldest most voted
Skin Blues
Member
Member
Skin Blues

My opinion of Buck Showalter has increased about 100 fold by reading this interview. As a Jays fan that’s seen him be the enemy as part of the Yankees and Orioles for so long, and after the whole Britton thing against us in the WC game, it’s hard to like him or think highly of him. But he does really seem to get it. They might as well make him the GM in addition to the manager because for a guy that values defense so much, he’s got by far the worst group of defenders in baseball.

bananas
Member
Member
bananas

“….if you give a guy a seven year contract….”

nevinbrown
Member
nevinbrown

Chris Davis

TKDC
Member
Member
TKDC

He’s not talking about him. There is no way the Orioles will become disappointed with Chris Davis’ contract after four years.

DBA455
Member
Member
DBA455

Agreed. This was shockingly open-minded and reasonable (relative to what I thought Buck was going to say – which I have to admit was something like “Gregg Zaun without the sexual harassment” level nonsense.)

sadtrombone
Member
sadtrombone

Buck Showalter is an incredibly smart guy, and he understands analytics very well. I think the idea that he’s some sort of baseball relic has to do with two things: (1) He has a reputation for burning out his players with his intensity, although I think he’s done pretty well with the Orioles; and (2) His rant against projection systems, which is really just him doing his us-against-the-world schtick.

Jon
Member
Jon

Really? Was there anything remotely unusually insightful here? I agree with a lot of what he said, but nearly everyone that works in baseball that has a brain would say the same things. “We teach our old guys about new stats”, “Arbitration rewards the wrong things”, “There was no collusion this offseason”. Nice thoughts, but these are the baseball equivalents of “climate change exists” and “vaccines don’t cause autism”.

I can’t hold him responsible for the inexcusable things the front office does (even though it’s hard to believe he has no influence), but in order to make up for the Britton debacle, he’ll have to do a lot more – a full-day lecture on every stat that exists on this site, maybe?

SucramRenrut
Member
Member
SucramRenrut

You know that a ton of people still don’t believe “climate change exists” and “vaccines don’t cause autism”, right?

Jon
Member
Jon

Of course. But the majority of front offices are now filled with intelligent, analytically-minded people – at least to the extent that Buck’s comments would be expected from just about any manager or front-office person.

In other words, the people who still don’t believe in climate change or think that vaccines cause autism are analogous to the old school “he’s ok but only had 80 RBIs last year so he can’t be that good” types that still exist but are in an extreme minority in the game (at least in positions of power).

LofSkrif
Member
Member
LofSkrif

OTOH, useless counting stats can be meaningful for marketing purposes! (looking at Pujols and the RBI record)

Jon
Member
Jon

Hey, RBI are still cool. Evan Gattis had 5 RBI in back-to-back games, and like a zillion that week. That’s really cool! (no sarcasm intended).

What’s not cool is using RBI as a proxy for how good a player is, and as a predictor of future performance (but we all know that, of course).

RagsandPags
Member
RagsandPags

The day of Buck Showalter’s dismissal was my worst day as a Yankees fan (though it seems to have worked out pretty okay for the Yankees since…). It was clear during his Yankees managerial tenure that Buck didn’t accept so many of the tropes common in baseball. In that regard, he was well ahead of his peers. When he made a decision, I was confident there was sound reasoning behind it. I recall his actually writing the intro to one of the SABR books in the mid-90s.

Jon
Member
Jon

I agree! Well, not my worst day, but I remember him getting firing, the “Clueless Joe” headlines when Torre was hired, and not being happy at all about it.

Funny how that all worked out.

It ended up teaching me two things – 1, don’t jump to conclusions about a baseball move, and 2, the most important things a manager does are done behind closed doors.

Jon
Member
Jon

Downvoters….why?

Jon
Member
Jon

No offense at all intended, but I’m really curious why you’re so impressed with his statements. Are you really surprised that nearly anyone in baseball would make comments like these? Yes, he does seem to “get it”. But did you previously think he didn’t? Do you think that there are a lot of other people in baseball that “don’t get it” to the extent that these comments impress you?

I’m genuinely interested about what you (or any of your upvoters) are so impressed by, and why.

Personally, I would be surprised if more than 1% of mangers and top front-office people in baseball *didn’t* make comments like these.