Opinion: Buck Showalter and the First-Place Mets Prove Details Matter
*All views expressed in this article reflect the individual author and not of The Drummey Angle*
There are few things more important in baseball than attention to detail. Hitting a cutoff man, taking extra bases, taking advantage of a rule, and remaining fundamentally sound are often the differences between winning and losing. Since taking the reins of the New York Mets in December of 2021, veteran manager Buck Showalter has been rebuilding the organization one detail at a time.
The Mets have garnered the reputation of serial underachievers in recent years. However, following a November spending spree, owner Steve Cohen felt compelled to look in a new direction for his ballclub’s leadership. With three-time Manager of the Year Buck Showalter, Cohen found a manager capable of refining an expensive roster into a championship contender. Across four prior stops, Showalter had earned the reputation of a man obsessed with perfection and fine-tuning the most subtle aspects of an organization. So much so that a common complaint with Showalter is that he became too influential and wore upon his supporters in the front office. Showalter acknowledged this reputation to the New York Post, saying, “I can be a little much, I think. I don’t have an off button.”
Showalter’s commitment to perfection was evident in his first visit to the Spring Training home of the Mets. Joel Sherman of the New York Post detailed Showalter’s first visit with Paul Taglieri, the Mets head of Florida operations. Sherman wrote, “Taglieri was cautioned by a visitor that he will soon see his complex as never before. That it is just in Showalter’s nature to look at every piece of crabgrass, outfield fence cushion and trophy case and wonder how it could be improved or made more efficient. It’s just how the brain of the Mets’ new manager operates.”
“At the end of 50 minutes in which — among other items — Showalter broke away from a small group to test the sponginess of the turf of the Mets’ 10-pack of bullpen mounds, stood in the batter’s box on far-flung Field No. 7 to examine if the batter’s eye in center field was tall and wide enough and checked how many different access points the players have to go from the clubhouse to the spring training practice fields, Taglieri looked at the visitor and said, ‘You had that exactly right,’” Sherman wrote.
This winter’s owner-imposed lockout gave Showalter the perfect opportunity to redefine his new club, saying, “We have been given somewhat of a gift that we have a little extra time. Billy [Eppler] and I would be with the players now. You can’t do that. What are you going to do, sit around and wait? Or are you trying to do something else? There was a quote I heard in college, ‘What are you doing to try to win today?’ Is it the great relationship you started with the trainer you just met? Or maybe you walk the fields and that helps you make a good decision. There’s little battles you can win along the way. You have a unique opportunity to touch some things because you have time you normally wouldn’t. Use the time wisely.”
Once players returned to baseball following the end of the owner-imposed lockout and Spring Training was allowed to begin, one constant for the Mets was a daily rules presentation. One rule was 5.09(b)(5) which states that a runner shall be called out if “He fails to retouch his base after a fair or foul ball is legally caught before he, or his base, is tagged by a fielder. He shall not be called out for failure to retouch his base after the first following pitch, or any play or attempted play.” In this meeting, Showalter instructed his team that should an opponent contemplate an appeal of a Met’s failure to tag up, any Met baserunner should attempt to steal a base in an attempt to draw an attempted play by the defense, thus negating their right to appeal.
Six-year MLB veteran J.D. Davis had never contemplated the situation before and described it as a “pretty crazy loophole.” Ken Rosenthal and Andy McCullough write that this meeting paid off in spades, as the situation arose during the Mets’ first homestand, against the Arizona Diamondbacks. J.D. Davis stood on first base while the Diamondbacks were considering appealing another Mets runner who had scored. Showalter signaled third base coach Joey Cora to order Davis to steal. Upon getting the steal sign from Cora, Davis broke for second and prompted Oliver Perez to step off the mound in an attempt to retire Davis which removed the Diamondbacks’ right to appeal the scored run. J.D Davis said, “Buck, with having so many years under his belt, he’s always trying to look for the edge, or look for loopholes.”
At the plate, the Mets have a newfound commitment to putting the ball in play. Luis Rojas’ 2021 Mets struck out 23.8% of the time, giving them baseball’s eleventh-highest strikeout rate. Showalter’s Mets strike out at a rate of 19.8%, giving them baseball's third-best strikeout rate. The result: the 2022 Mets have scored the third most runs in all of baseball, while the 2021 Mets scored the fourth least.
Defensively, Showalter’s Mets have dramatically improved their fielding percentage. The 2021 Mets ranked 25th, fielding at .983. The 2022 Mets rank seventh in Major League Baseball, fielding at .988. They also rank inside the top 10 in outs above average, a Sabermetric take on fielding quantification.
Steve Cohen’s decision to hire the 65-year-old Showalter was met with mixed reactions around the MLB world. One writer of the 97.5 Fanatic in Philadelphia wrote of the hire, “Showalter is an uninspiring hire. It is worse than a retread. He is a retread who has never had sustained success anywhere he has been. Showalter is a big name, but one whose track record does not live up to its hype. I am sure he is a great guy, and I am sure he knows a lot about Baseball. But in 20 seasons, to have such little success, it doesn’t track with some of the hype the hire is getting. It's a desperate hire by an owner who has only shown he has a big money bag, but not much baseball smarts yet.”
Members of the analytics community, including some of my Drummey Angle co-authors, expressed concerns that an older manager like Showalter would reject some of the Sabermetric ideas that dominate the game today. However, in my opinion, Showalter has expressed perhaps the best possible viewpoint on blending analytics with traditional managerial practices. In 2018, Showalter said, “I want to verify what my gut is telling me. The analytics and the statistics are great. I use ’em. We were using ’em back in 1985 in the Florida State League. They bring things that I can’t bring. I don’t have time, I can’t. And we bring things that they can’t bring.” Furthermore, Showalter has discussed the ineffectiveness of purely numbers-based management, saying, “And players can’t feel like you’re robotically evaluating them with a piece of paper. They need to know that they’re more than just a robotic piece of meat. They’re a human being, and sometimes that’s the separator in this game.”
Showalter’s obsessiveness with doing the little things right has the Mets perched atop the National League East with the league’s second-best record of 70-39. While much of Steve Cohen’s unwavering commitment to winning will be chalked up to his willingness to spend like a winner, the addition of Buck Showalter could end up being the difference maker in the postseason. Why? Because details matter.
"Nationals vs. Mets Opening Night" via All-Pro Reels licensed under CC BY-SA 2.0