At Citizen’s Bank Park last week, before a Mets-Phillies game, I had a conversation with someone I consider one of the smartest baseball people in the industry… Buck Showalter-smart is probably the best way to put it.
And so I was surprised when the first thing this person said to me was, “The Mets are such a win-now team… do they really think Buck is the right guy to manage them? He’s never even won a pennant. And he plays those passive-aggressive games with players. I don’t know.”
I made the case that in a lot of ways Showalter seemed to be the perfect guy for a team that had leadership issues last season, a team that suffered from managerial inexperience for really the last four years, but I could see I wasn’t changing the person’s mind.
It was a reminder that for all the Showalter love floating around Queens right now, especially after his famous attention to detail was highlighted by a smart — and rarely-seen — baserunning play in Sunday’s 5-0 win over the Diamondbacks, there is a fair share of anti-Buck sentiment around the game.
Much of it has to do with personality conflicts related to Showalter’s desire for organizational control in his previous jobs as manager. Such conflicts have been experienced by some and passed on to others, creating a narrative about Buck and his ability to get a team to the top.
There’s a reason, after all, that a manager acclaimed for his baseball acumen didn’t get hired the last four years. Much of it has to do with modern front offices who value collaboration above all else in a manager — case in point being Brodie Van Wagenen refusing to even interview Showalter after the Mickey Callaway debacle.
Meanwhile, there are also plenty of Showalter allies who say those same modern GMs are so insecure and/or process-driven that they were merely afraid to hire a manager who will question anything and everything in the interest of winning.
“They know Buck doesn’t suffer fools,” one person close to Showalter told me. “But neither does Steve Cohen. I think it took someone as smart as Cohen to say, ‘just hire the smart guy.’“
If Cohen likes smart, he surely loved what he saw at Citi Field on Sunday.
For that matter, Showalter is pretty much the toast of the town in New York, so far, with the Mets off to a 7-3 start and his influence seemingly visible in so many ways.
Of course, with five of the Mets’ seven wins against the Nationals and Diamondbacks, it’s hard to gauge just how significant their record is to this point. And certainly we’ll find out more this week as the Giants come to town.
Still, there are obviously great signs, from the Major League-best 1.07 ERA by their starting pitchers to the situational hitting results that are in such contrast to last year’s futility.
And there is what J.D. Davis told reporters after his sneaky stolen base in the sixth inning that negated a potential appeal of Dom Smith tagging up to score on a fly ball to left field, which gave the Mets a 3-0 lead at the time.
“We’re trying to play with a high baseball IQ,” Davis said.
It’s something Showalter has drummed into his players’ heads since spring training, when he surprised them by having them meet almost every day to go over rule-related situations that might come up in games. Judging by their reactions, the players had never been involved in such meetings.
Many might have thought much of what Showalter went over with them would never come into play.
Yet there it was, in the 10th game of the season, exactly the type of appeal play that Showalter had laid out for them, with instructions on how to pull off a distraction that could be vital in saving them a run.
In this case, to appeal whether Smith left too early from third base, Oliver Perez had to step off the rubber and throw to third base before making another pitch.
What Showalter had told his team was that if they had another runner on base, in this case Davis on first, he was to break immediately as if trying to steal second when Perez stepped off the rubber and create a distraction.
As Showalter explained, “Once you disengage from the rubber and move toward the runner (Davis), the appeal is off. Once you don’t go directly toward third, it’s off.”
At the time the Mets hadn’t gotten verification via replay whether Smith had left early. As it turned out, he didn’t, but as Showalter said, he was willing to trade an out for that third run, if necessary.
Yet Davis was able to steal second because Perez became confused, first running toward the Mets’ runner, then deciding to go ahead with the appeal, which was too late at that point.
In the grand scheme of things, it wasn’t a terribly significant play, yet the bit of trickery did cap an inning in which some aggressive baserunning led to the first three runs. And more to the point, it was another example of Showalter’s influence, of which there have been many already.
As Davis said, it was Tomas Nido, who may have been paying closer attention in the appeal-play meeting, yelling at him from the dugout to take off for second. However, Showalter had quickly relayed a sign to his coaches as a reminder, and in any case, Davis seemed thrilled at being able to pull off the play.
“That’s all Buck right there,” Davis said. “He takes great pride in having his players know the rule, and this was kind of a loophole that we talked about in spring training.”
In truth, it’s such an obscure rule I’d bet most managers are unaware of it. Call it a little thing, but the Mets have been doing a lot of little things well so far, unlike recent years.
It’s part of what you get with Showalter. It’s part of what makes him a great in-game manager. As for the can’t-win-it-all narrative, in truth only two of the four teams he has managed over his 30-year career, the Yankees and the Diamondbacks, were championship contenders, so this is his first real shot in 20 years.
It’s a long, long way to October but suffice it to say the new manager is off to a very good start.