Q&A: Buck Showalter, Baltimore Orioles Manager

The Baltimore Orioles are about to win the American League East and Buck Showalter, in all likelihood, will be named Manager of the Year. The latter is quite an accomplishment for someone who refers to himself as a slapdick with a limited shelf life.

Showalter’s track record isn’t that of a slapdick. As for the self-deprecation, the 58-year-old skipper’s way with words matches his ingenuity, which lies somewhere between fox and far-sighted facilitator. In an interview four years ago – three months before he was hired to manage the Orioles – he told me, “You always have to keep your eye on the end game.” To the surprise of most prognosticators, Showalter may be on his way to leading his team to its first World Series title in over 30 years.


Showalter on the Orioles’ identity: “As an organization, one of the most important things you can do is know who you are, and who you’re not. When I first came here, we talked about that a lot: ‘Who are we and how are we going to do this?’ You can’t confuse your fans. We look within first and spend a lot of time – like every other club does – preffing [sic] six-year free agents. We look like we have a 75-man roster, because it’s going to come out of Norfolk, Bowie and here. When you have a game like [September 7], where 20-something guys make a contribution, there’s a great morale that comes out of that.

“We’re not paupers. Our ownership has been very supportive financially. We’ve got more than enough payroll. There are a lot of things you may not be able to do, but we can out-opportunity some teams for guys like Steve Pearce. We can give them an opportunity to be more than how the industry may perceive them.

“This thing is so fleeting, and this time of year, things snowball. They snowball good and they snowball bad. September is an eternity. When you’re trying to close out a good season, it’s tough. It tests your mettle. That’s why you challenge your players to stay together, stay together. There are so few people who live in the reality of what they do, and what the challenge is. People try to get into that, but they can’t. Until you’ve been through this and understand what the day-to-day stuff is really like… seasons are really about shortening the bad times and elongating the good times. Everybody is going to have them – as a pitcher individually, as a hitter individually, as a team. You’re going to have that, so you try to shorten the curves.”

On a life lesson and learning to adjust: “My dad, years ago… we’d get up at 5 o’clock in the morning and drive to Tuscaloosa in his school truck – he was a principal – and we’d go in the faculty section of Alabama. He’d have me watch the sidelines and coach [Bear] Bryant. I used to love how Alabama would go out in the first series against podunk – a team they were supposed to beat – and go three and out. I’d ask, ‘Dad, what’s wrong?’ He’d go, ‘Watch the sideline.’ Coach Bryant would walk over to the linemen to talk about this new defense this other team had put on the field, a 5-3 stack or something crazy. My dad would say, ‘OK, watch the next series’ and it would be like a knife going through butter.

“You have to make adjustments along the way. And you have to be able to explain why you want to do it a certain way, whether it’s a bunt defense or a relay. You want the players to feel like they have a say in it, and a stake in it. Heck, I’ll get a good suggestion from a J.J. Hardy or a Matt Wieters, a Nick Markakis or an Adam Jones. They’re the ones playing the game. I’ll put something out there and then it’s ‘What do you guys think?’ The biggest problem a lot of coaches and managers have is that they forget about how hard the game is to play, and how bad they were – we use to call it horseshit – on a given night. These are the best players the world has to offer and there’s such a fine line between success and… are the Red Sox that much different from last year? If you bring back the people they traded, are they that much different?

“There’s a fine line with managers between sympathy and empathy. You’re sympathetic but you’re not empathetic. I tell them, ‘What’s the definition of insanity?’ It’s doing the same thing over and over again and expecting a different result. OK? If we’re getting a consistent result that we don’t like, let’s change something. That’s what we’re going to do. We expect to get better at this.”

On projections and predictability; “I don’t know what [our run differential] is and I’m not looking. What is it about our sports world, and society in general, that wants to know about something before it happens? I’m OK knowing about it when it happens. Our curiosity is going to be satisfied about this season. We’re going to play 162. And there’s no greater exposure of your strengths and weaknesses than a Major League Baseball season. I’m not talking about just physical either. There are no Cinderellas in our sport. You don’t get hot for a certain amount of time and have the football bounce a certain way one day. We have too round of a ball and too round of a bat. You can’t hide a bad defender. That white rat is going to find you.

“Sooner or later, the baseball gods will get you if you’re not being true to the game. But if you’re true to certain things, if you try to be brilliant to the basics… sometimes we try to over-complicate things. It’s not for the weak of heart. You have to be consistent with it. It’s tough, man. This is hard. Closing out a game in the American League East on the road with a one-run lead is hard. Getting a guy in from third with one out and the infield in is hard. It’s not as easy as it looks out there. I wish everybody could stand in there and try to hit a 96-mph fastball, followed by a slider. It’s hard.

“I don’t consider [any of my moves] off the beaten path. It’s just information we get. Heck, we were shifting in the Florida State League off my wife’s graphs in the 1980s. But [shifting] is kind of like why people don’t run the wishbone much anymore. The defenses kind of caught up with it. Now they’re running a modified version. With shifts, little by little, offenses are doing some things to counteract it, and you have to do something to counteract that.”

On buy-in and taking it to the game: “I don’t know how [Houston] is running things, but I do hear people weigh in on it who don’t know. I’m not going to base much on what their perception is. Until you’ve walked a mile in a man’s shoes… we’re all so quick to question the things we don’t understand, or aren’t willing to do ourselves. That’s the easy way out, as opposed to, ‘Let’s talk about this; tell me what you’re doing.’

“One of a manager’s biggest jobs is to create an atmosphere where everybody feels comfortable giving their opinion. If some guy who graduated from Dartmouth has some theory, he should have the same… I want him to feel comfortable around me, John Russell, Wayne Kirby, and Jim Presley. At the same time, [he] needs to have respect for things…. he bring things we can’t bring and we bring things he can’t bring. Dan Duquette can do things I can’t do, and that I don’t want to do. There has to be a healthy respect for both sides. Anybody who says, ‘Down here is the only way,’ or “Up here is the only way,’ or ‘Metrics are the only way,’ loses me at hello. To be successful you need to blend. I can tell you some things about these guys that you’ll never see show up on any type of statistical look.

“Sometimes you have to throw out convention. This guy is pitching tonight, so let’s throw out how we conventionally [position] and go to this. Let’s talk to our pitcher and catcher about how we’re going to pitch this guy. What the charts say won’t necessarily be right. Have the conviction to do something else. I tell our guys all the time, ‘If you feel something, go for it.’ You want to steal third with two outs and our best hitter up? Go for it. If you’re timid and waiting for the perfect time to do everything, you’re not going to do anything. Take it to the game, don’t let the game take it to you.”

On pitching and mental toughness: “There’s a process with pitching that you can’t cheat. If you look at our starting pitchers, a lot of them have something in common. With the exception of [Kevin] Gausman, they’re 27 to 30, and tell me, how many pitchers came out of the minor leagues and were solid from Day One? There’s a process with starting pitching, especially in the American League with the DH being a prevailing factor – especially in the East where you have four hitter-friendly ballparks. Other than Tampa, they’re hitter-friendly.

“You can’t cheat the process. It’s not so much they learned to pitch, it’s the toughness you need to get, pitching in these ballparks. Our guys have moved forward in that, whether it’s Miguel [Gonzalez], whether it’s [Chris] Tillman or [Bud] Norris, whether it’s [Wei-Yin] Chen or Gausman. A high percentage of a team’s consistency is how consistently good the starting pitching is. The mentality of a team, the morale of a team – a team going on the field knowing, ‘How much is enough?’ When you can make runs matter, when you can make a tack-on run matter, the mentality of a team… our starting pitching is what’s a little different this year.

“But there’s such a fine line. We were so close to having this in place last year. Our players have taken their game to a little higher level. It’s as simple as that. I trust them, and hopefully they trust me. I tell them every spring: ‘Your actions will speak so loudly that I can’t hear a word you say.’ We don’t talk about it, show me. Every game is a revealer.”

On knowing his place as a manager: “A lot of people don’t watch the game within the game. The game paints you a picture every night, and a lot of that is off the ball and in between innings. Character is revealed every play, every game, if you just look. I want my players to hold themselves to a high standard. If they’re out there saying to each other, ‘This isn’t good enough,’ we’re doing it right.

“Here it is in a nutshell: I understand where I, and the coaches, rank in this process. We are ships passing in the night. It’s the players’ game. It’s about them. They have to want to please each other. They have to want to accomplish something together as a group. Once they get to that point, it doesn’t matter if you manage them or if I manage them. I get the shelf life of managers. I understand it. When my voice gets tired and old, and they don’t want to hear it anymore, I’m gone. Get another slapdick in here behind me.

Billy Martin told me, ‘Buck, they’ll mourn you for about five minutes and then they’re going to wonder who the next prick is coming in behind you.’ And that’s OK. You have to learn that, through time and testing. Keep in mind your sense of importance. If you think you have it all figured out – if you think you’re that smart — this game will knock you to your knees.”

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 December 2006-May 2011 before being claimed off waivers by FanGraphs. He can be followed on Twitter @DavidLaurilaQA.

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Jim S.
9 years ago

Great stuff.