ESPN’s Tim Kirkjian once said, speaking of a former colleague, “I thought I knew a lot about baseball, until I watched a game with Buck Showalter.” While it’s hardly breaking news that successful managers see the game far differently than the average person, or even the most knowledgeable fans and media members, Kirkjian’s comment still points to Showalter’s high level of baseball intellect.
Showalter’s recent success with the Baltimore Orioles, who are currently one win away from a spot in the American League Championship Series, has him back in the spotlight as one of baseball’s best managers and a front runner for manager of the year in the American League. But a lot of people may not know much about Showalter’s past success at his previous managerial stops, and unfortunate timing in a couple cases leaving him without a World Series ring.
Showalter had a 313-268 record in four seasons (1992-1995) as manager of the New York Yankees, highlighted by a 70-43 record during the strike-shortened 1994 season. The Yankees earned a wild card spot after going 79-65 in 1995, but Showalter was fired after that season and replaced by Joe Torre. The Yankees would go on to win four World Series from 1996-2000, but Showalter did not get to see a couple of young players from his final season as manager (Derek Jeter, Mariano Rivera) fully mature into Hall of Famers.
Showalter was hired as manager of the expansion Arizona Diamondbacks , and he led a veteran-laden team to 100 wins in the franchise’s second season of existence (1999). A fall back to 85 wins in 2000 prompted Showalter’s firing, and of course Arizona improbably won the World Series in 2001 with Bob Brenly as manager.
Showalter resurfaced in 2003 as manager of the Texas Rangers. The team never made the playoffs in his four seasons at the helm, but Showalter did win American League Manager of the Year for the second time in 2004, when the Rangers went 89-73 and finished third in the American League West.
Showalter worked at ESPN again for a few years, before being hired to replace Juan Samuel as manager of the Orioles midway through the 2010 season. A solid record over the rest of that season (34-23) brought a lot of hope for the future, but a 69-93 campaign in 2011 dampened that some. The Orioles rebounded quickly in 2012, finishing second in the American League East with 93 wins and earning the franchise’s first playoff berth since 1997. A five-game Division Series loss to the Yankees was disappointing to be sure, but the Orioles looked like a team on the rise and a likely playoff contender for years to come. Baltimore missed the playoffs in 2013,with an 85-77 record, but they had the second-most wins in the American League (96) this year and won their first division title since that 1997 season.
The Orioles have battered the bullpen of the Detroit Tigers through two games of their Division Series, but Showalter’s management of his own bullpen has been both adept and under the radar. Most managers of the modern era lock relievers into defined roles, ranging from purely situational based on if a batter is right or left-handed to a pecking order culminating in an anointed closer for the ninth inning. Showalter has bucked that trend (no pun intended) through two postseason games, with terrific results.
Closer Zach Britton picked up a traditional one-inning save in Game 2, but Showalter was willing to use him for four outs in Game 1 before an eight-run explosion in the eight inning changed that plan and Tommy Hunter finished the game. Hunter started the season as Baltimore’s closer, but some early struggles and a groin injury in May took him out of the role. Hunter pitched well during the regular season as a whole (2.97 ERA in 60 appearances), but it’s worth wondering if his confidence would wane with the stakes higher during the postseason. Showalter deserves credit of recognizing that possibility, and Hunter’s chances for success down the road may increase greatly with a successful outing now in his memory bank.
The Orioles will surely need better starting pitching going forward, as Chris Tillman and Wei Yin-Chen have combined for just 8.2 innings in the first two games against the Tigers. But Showalter’s willingness to use his bullpen aggressively, uniquely and wisely stands to give Baltimore an advantage should they advance to the American League Championship Series or, eventually, the World Series.
A lack of identification and long-term success with one franchise hurts Showalter in terms of outside recognition as one of the best managers of the past 20-25 years. But 2014 is his fourth full season as the Orioles’ manager, and barring something unforeseen he’ll be back next season and, at this point, he can probably have the job as long as he wants. Showalter could easily have a few World Series rings on his resume, which would put him in an exclusive class and make him a sure-fire Hall of Famer whenever he chooses to stop managing. Leading the Orioles to the playoffs in two of the last three seasons may be his best managerial job yet, after years of futility and a losing culture.
If the Orioles make their first World Series appearance since 1983 this year, or in the near future, Showalter would surely become close to a legend among the team’s fans. At that point, anyone with any sort of interest would also see that Showalter is the best manager in either league and he has been vastly underrated for far too long.
Brad Berreman is a Columnist at Rant Sports.com. Connect with him on Google +.