“Awesome! The O’s came back against Mo Rivera…oh, snap. Let’s talk about something else.”
Since the highlight of this weekend’s Yankee series wound up being Friday night’s rainout, let’s take a step back and talk some Buck Showalter.
Coming into the still-young season, the Orioles’ surprising 34-23 record under Buck Showalter over the last couple of months of the 2010 season has a lot of people excited about what the team might do in 2011. As Buck channels his inner Lane Kiffin, spouting off one inflammatory diatribe after another, let’s take a look at what he’s historically done in the inaugural seasons—and thereafter—of his previous managerial stints. Reviewing what Buck’s done in his other managerial efforts might shed some light on whether the team’s strong play under him is a mirage or an indicator of what’s to come. Or at least give me a chance to take a trip down the memory lane of 1990s baseball.
Buck’s first big-league managing job was with the New York Yankees from 1992-95. They improved by 5 games in his first season and were in first place when the strike hit in 1994, scoring the American League Manager of the Year Award for Buck. New York made the playoffs (as the first-ever A.L. wild card) the following year, capping what was then the most successful run for the Yankees since the late 1970s. So, naturally, Buck was promptly sacked by the late George Steinbrenner. We all remember what happened next: Joe Torre took over, Mariano Rivera emerged as the best ever at what he does, and the Yankees won 5 of the next 6 World Series titles.
After being let go in New York, Buck quickly signed on in November 1995 as manager of the Arizona Diamondbacks, an expansion club not scheduled to begin play until 1998. After losing 97 games in their first year, the Snakes supplemented themselves with a group of talented mercenaries (most notably Randy Johnson) that offseason, won 100 games in 1999 and made the playoffs in their 2nd year of existence – a record for an expansion franchise – only to be promptly eliminated by a hot Mets team and an unlikely homer by backup catcher Todd Pratt. Despite this success, Buck apparently wore out his welcome quickly, as he was sent packing after the 2000 season. We all remember what happened next: Bob Brenly took over, Curt Schilling and Johnson put the team on their backs, Luis Gonzalez got a cheap hit off The Great Rivera, and the Diamondbacks won an epic World Series over Torre’s Yankees in 2001 that, in retrospect, was pretty much the death knell of the latest Yankee dynasty.
Buck took over the Texas Rangers in 2003, the last year of their A-Rod era. The team had essentially the same pedestrian record as they posted the previous year under Jerry Narron, but Buck was celebrated around the Metroplex in 2004 (at least before the Cowboys mini-camp opened and folks quit paying attention) for the Rangers’ 89-73 record, their best since the late 1990s playoff runs (each of which ended with quick elimination by the Joe Torre Yankees). Buck won his second American League Manager of the Year award for his efforts, but after a pair of consecutive near-.500 finishes, the club sent Buck back to The Worldwide Leader’s talking head circuit after the 2006 season, where he remained until taking over the O’s in August 2010.
So what’s the takeaway? In three previous managerial stops, Buck’s teams have improved significantly within a couple of years. Some of this, particularly the D-Backs’ experience, can be attributed to new personnel (read: a bloody ton of elite free agents) being brought in during Buck’s time as Manager. On the other hand, the 2004 Rangers, for example, traded away Alex Rodriguez before their best performance under Buck. By all accounts he did a good job integrating young talent (particularly Bernie Williams) into the Yankees’ typical stable of mercenaries, competent and otherwise.
It’s also the case that Buck has not had a long shelf life at any of his stops, and that his teams have not played any appreciably worse, at least in the short term, under the managers (Torre in New York, Brenly in Arizona, Ron Washington in Texas) who succeeded him, and in some cases did far better.
How does the Orioles’ strong 2010 finish reconcile with this? I think it’s fair to give Buck some credit for reenergizing the players, changing the tone in the clubhouse, etc. I think it’s also fair to attribute a great deal of it to simple regression to the mean – the O’s had played so appallingly bad in the first four months of the season that they honestly had nowhere to go but up. The club wasn’t any good, but we weren’t talking about the ’62 Mets or ’03 Tigers (or 2011 Pirates?) here. On paper or in practice, they weren’t anywhere near the conversation for all-time futility, so a rebound over the final 57 games is neither surprising nor unprecedented.
Buck’s Birds will almost certainly win more games than the 2010 club did. Some of it will have something to do with the wannabe blowhard in the dugout. A lot more of it, I suspect, will hinge on the health of the Brians (Roberts and Matusz), and of imports Vlad Guerrero, Derrek Lee, and Mark Reynolds, to say nothing of how the young pitching pans out. The necessity of good health to success is not novel to the Orioles, of course; it’s true for all 30 teams. This team could do very well in a tough division if the pitching staff takes a step forward to complement what looks to be a much-improved and talented offense.
But if not, at least Buck’s newfound love of the inflammatory sound bite will make this an entertaining season. Here’s hoping he gets on Twitter sometime soon and gets into it with his old pal/social media Jedi, Ozzie Guillen.