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.”
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.