Managers occasionally make an immediate impact, but rarely has a managerial change made such a stark difference as when Buck Showalter took over the floundering Orioles on Aug. 3 and quickly turned them into a viable spoiler, and maybe much more. "He's exactly what they needed,'' one AL exec said.
Showalter brought extra discipline, tough love and a track record to a job that had seen two good men fail to bring results for the historic franchise -- first Dave Trembley to start the season and then interim Juan Samuel. Showalter has long been known as a turn-around expert, and he's performing his magic with the O's, as they suddenly turned into a real threat almost the moment he took over. Since Showalter arrived, the Orioles are 21-14, tied for the third-best record in baseball with, among other teams, the Yankees, whom they just beat two out of three in the Bronx earlier this week. Not bad for a team that was 32-73 BS (before Showalter). The Orioles would have to go 11-59 in their next 71 games to tie the record Showalter inherited, which isn't about to happen under his watch.
Showalter is a very good baseball man who commands respect, especially from a young team. The drawback is, he tends to eventually wear out his welcome with his manner that is perceived to be overbearing and seemingly over-politicized, which explains why such a great baseball mind took so long to find a fourth job (Showalter last managed in the majors in 2006). In his previous three managerial jobs -- with the Yankees from 1992-95, the Diamondbacks from 1998-2000 and the Rangers from 2003-06 -- he made a quick impact before eventually being fired. He came to Baltimore with a reputation as someone willing to clean house, and that mindset serves as a great motivator for the players. With only a couple exceptions, the players now know they are working for jobs on the 2011 squad. It also doesn't hurt that they know Showalter is there for the foreseeable future.
Showalter's impact is inarguable, though he is also benefiting some from the return of team sparkplug Brian Roberts and the natural maturation of some of their young players, including right-handed pitcher Jake Arrieta and catcher Matt Wieters. Plus, the Orioles have always been better and more talented than they looked the first four months of the season, so a bit of their turnaround is a natural progression toward the mean.
Showalter deserves a lot of the credit, though. He said right up-front in his interview for the position that he felt big changes were needed, according to a source, and credit goes to owner Peter Angelos, too, for hiring a strong personality when it looks like that's exactly what was needed. Once he took over, Showalter made clear in the clubhouse that the talented Wieters will henceforth be a big leader of the team, changing the tenor of a rudderless clubhouse in which Wieters was previously treated with respect accorded nondescript kids.
Showalter hasn't been around long enough to be considered for my ranking of the season's best performances by a manager, but in just a few short weeks on the job he has done as well as anyone possibly could have in such a short period of time. With more games, he'd probably rank pretty high.
Here's my list of the top 10 Best Managing Jobs of 2010.
1. Bud Black, Padres
Nobody thought the Padres would be in first place this late, except maybe Black. He drilled into the Pads this spring that they were not a bunch of anonymous nobodies with no chance, as everyone was claiming, but the same team that finished 2009 strong, and perhaps even a bit better with the addition of some speed and veteran pitcher Jon Garland plus extra seasoning for their young players. Black looks prescient now, despite a recent 10-game losing streak that has threatened their position atop the NL West, which they still hold by a single game. "Everyone knows they have overachieved,'' one scout said. "And he righted them through the storm.''
2. Ron Gardenhire, Twins
He's done an "outstanding'' job and "puts guys in position to succeed,'' one scout said. The Twins lost star closer Joe Nathan in spring training and slugging first baseman Justin Morneau to concussions during the season, and $180-million superstar Joe Mauer has hit one home run at the team's new park yet they are atop the AL Central with a 6-game lead. The Mets would love to hire him, but of course at this rate, he'll never become available.
3. Joe Maddon, Rays
He lost excellent setup man J.P. Howell in spring training to a torn labrum but has gotten an immense year from Joaquin Benoit and closer Rafael Soriano. He also handled the B.J. Upton situation well, when teammates questioned the hustle of their center fielder, and helped avoid contractual distractions in a year when key contributors like Carl Crawford, Carlos Pena and Soriano can become free agents. Maddon likes to mix and match, and it's paying off, with the Rays leading the wild card chase by six and a half games. He gets high marks for "creativity'' from baseball insiders (for instance, he's used starters James Shields and Matt Garza to close out games, and he's given up the DH at least eight times this year). Also, his vocabulary isn't bad.
4. Dusty Baker, Reds
The Reds, who lead the NL Central by five games, are maybe the second biggest surprise after the Padres, but perhaps they shouldn't be. They do have talent. But Baker, who's already won three Manager of the Year awards, is doing some of his best work this year. The Reds lead the majors with a .989 fielding percentage. They are third in the majors with 39 come-from-behind wins. They also have been among baseball's most consistent teams, posting winning records in each of the season's first five months for the first time since 1979. The Reds have some magic going -- and their magic number of 19 to win their division is the lowest of any NL team.
5. Ron Washington, Rangers
He's bounced back from a revelation during spring training that he failed a cocaine test in 2009 to lead his players, who indeed had his back, just as star infielder Michael Young said they did, to first place in the AL West. Washington's personality has been infectious. GM Jon Daniels said, "He's always upbeat, always positive, always high energy. And the players feed of that. We could give him an A-ball team, and he'd expect to win with them.'' Washington trusts guys, and they reward him. They've also bought into the team offense concept in a big way, and young leadoff man Elvis Andrus has become much more patient, increasing his bases on balls fro 40 a year ago to 58 with still more than three weeks to go. In leading the Rangers to a likely playoff berth for the first time since 1999, Washington has even outshined the great Angels manager Mike Scioscia this year, no easy trick.
6. Terry Francona, Red Sox
Nineteen different players have made 24 disabled list stays totaling more than 900 days and yet Francona has weathered the storm to keep the Red Sox viable, interesting and on the periphery of the pennant race. They've used 50 players, many of those less than marquee names. He was also right about David Ortiz not being done when most others were ready to give up on him after his early season struggles.
7. Bruce Bochy, Giants
He got one over on the Dodgers (and maybe the umpires) when he complained about Don Mattingly's trip to the mound, forcing the removal of closer Jonathan Broxton and helping the Giants beat the Dodgers during a game back in July. And that's big in San Francisco. Beyond that, he's kept the Giants in the thick of the race despite some fundamental flaws. He has a "poor offensive club,'' one scout said. He also has five new starting players since Opening Day, among them castoffs from other clubs like Jose Guillen and Pat Burrell, and he's worked them in seamlessly. Same for the pen, which has changed drastically from the start of the season. They have a 23-year-old starting catcher in Buster Posey and a 21-year-old starting pitcher in Madison Bumgarner and they're still right in the race, trailing the Padres by one game in the West and the Braves by one game in the wild card.
8. Charlie Manuel, Phillies
Despite all their injuries to key players (they've had 17 players on the D.L., including Ryan Howard, Chase Utley and Jimmy Rollins), some distraction over Jayson Werth's free agency and bullpen issues, the Phillies have climbed back into first place in the NL East and now have the best record in the NL. They also are 25-14 in one-run games.
9. Joe Girardi, Yankees
He may not be Mr. Personality, and he may have an excellent $200-million payroll at his disposal, but he has the first-place Yankees operating like a machine through good times and bad. One scout cited him for guiding them through "weaknesses in their pitching." Girardi showed he's not afraid to make the tough call when he took the eighth inning away from Joba Chamberlain. Some have questioned why Derek Jeter's still batting leadoff, but Jeter's slump isn't prolonged enough to consider a demotion and all that comes with such a decision. Keeping the captain atop the lineup the right thing for this team.
10. Bobby Cox, Braves
The players love him, and he is clearly the sentimental choice (everywhere but South Florida maybe). As always, he gets a lot out of his players, but they are not great on fundamentals and are just 20-21 in one-run games, which is part of the reason they've fallen out of the lead in the NL East, though they are still atop the wild card standings.