Showalter, Duquette engineering another turnaround with Orioles
"Buck and the Duke" has a nice ring to it for a burgeoning business team, marketed as the folksy turnaround specialists.
Like consultants in the business world, manager Buck Showalter and general manager Dan Duquette have made a living by righting companies that were lost. Their trade is in baseball, and their most recent project is the surprising Baltimore Orioles, who might be baseball's best underdog story in a season full of them. After 14 years of losing seasons, including four straight last-place finishes in the super-division that is the AL East, the O's have won 79 games this year and are tied for first place with the Yankees.
"I knew there were some good guys over here and they were putting some pieces in place," said starting pitcher Jason Hammel, who previously pitched for playoff teams in '08 with the Rays and '09 with the Rockies, before his trade to Baltimore this winter. "When I actually got to join the team in spring training, I saw that there was a confidence I had seen before with other winning teams, like the ones in '08 and '09 when I had been to the playoffs.
"That's the first thing to being a winning team, is having confidence and self-confidence. Buck's done a great job of keeping our heads about us and keeping our feet on the ground."
Showalter is the Mississippi State alum and former Yankee minor leaguer with the dry wit and Southern charm. Duquette is the Massachusetts native who went to Amherst College and worked his way up in baseball on the scouting and front office tracks, whom the Orioles players have called "very approachable" and a "cool dude."
And both have shown an uncanny knack for turning around moribund franchises.
Showalter became the Yankees manager in 1992, when they won 76 games. In '93, his second full season, they won 88.
He became the Diamondbacks' manager prior to their inaugural season of 1998, when they won 65 games. In 1999 they won 100 and the NL West.
In 2003 Showalter moved to Texas, where the Rangers won 71 games in his first season. In '04 they won 89.
He took over in Baltimore for the final two months in 2010, leading a previously 32-73 club (.305 winning percentage) to a 34-23 (.596) finish. Last year, in Showalter's first full season, the Orioles won just 69 games, but they eclipsed that mark in late August and are on pace for 91 wins this year.
That's four turnarounds in his second full season on the job, with win improvements of 12, 35, 18 and a projected 22 this year -- on average a 22-win increase.
"You can't cheat the process," Showalter said in an extended conversation back in May. "You've got to do what's right for the long haul. What we're trying to do here is build something that stands the test of time. We can do things if we hold ourselves to a standard."
This year's Orioles club is a statistical marvel for the way they share first place despite a -22 run differential and hold the best record in one-run games in baseball history at 25-7. Studies have shown that a club's record in one-run games typically evens out close to .500; given that, it stands to reason that it's probably easier to lose such games by playing tight or reckless, but Showalter has kept his team focused.
"[Showalter] does a great job of letting us be ourselves," Hammel said. "Being a professional is taking your job seriously, and he lets us do that on our own without him looking over our shoulder. We've shown we appreciate that by coming out and winning. We feel comfortable with each other. He lays the path and we just follow it."
Said Duquette, "Buck does a good job getting everyone involved, getting the players in the right spots where they can help, looking at the matchups where the players can succeed. He's a good judge of talent. He gives players a lot of confidence because he gives them opportunities to play."
Duquette, meanwhile, took over the Expos prior to the 1992 season, inheriting a 71-win team that improved to 87 wins in his first season on the job and 94 the year after that.
He moved to Boston before the 1994 season, and while that club was under .500 at the time the strike killed that season, the Red Sox won the division in 1995 with their best winning percentage in 17 years.
The Orioles won 69 games last season before he took the GM job in November and are on that pace for 91 wins. His clubs' improvements in winning percentage have been .096 in his first year in Montreal, .103 from the '93 Red Sox to their next completed season in '95 and now .134 so far with the Orioles.
Duquette understands that he inherited a strong core group of position players, led by centerfielder Adam Jones, catcher Matt Wieters, rightfielder Nick Markakis, shortstop J.J. Hardy and infielder Mark Reynolds. The franchise also already had two of the game's top-10 prospects in shortstop Manny Machado and pitcher Dylan Bundy.
But Baltimore's two best starters this year, Hammel and Wei-Yin Chen, were new acquisitions, as was fellow starter Miguel Gonzalez, who has impressed in his 11 outings.
"I knew if we could upgrade our pitching, we'd be much more competitive," Duquette said. "We emphasized the groundball because of the ballpark."
There are some commonalities among his teams' turnarounds. Just as the Orioles have increased their groundball rate from 54 percent to 57 percent and lowered their walk rate from 3.3 per nine innings to 3.0, so too did his Expos and Red Sox teams show similar improvements in those areas.
And, of course, Duquette has engineered the season's perpetually-changing roster, in which they've used 51 different players, the second-most in club history behind only the 1955 edition that used 54.
That tinkering has led to unearthing unexpected contributors such as outfielders Lew Ford and Nate McLouth, veteran pitcher acquisitions Joe Saunders and Randy Wolf and homegrown righthander Steve Johnson.
Duquette hasn't been afraid to promote prospects aggressively, either, giving the 20-year-old Machado a shot at third base in the big leagues despite only having played two minor league games there. The seed of that move was planted in the spring: Machado, though not a recipient of an official big league camp invite, was summoned for a handful of Grapefruit League games where he could watch the veterans and Showalter could watch him.
"That helped me out a lot for this year, seeing how these guys went about their business to get ready for the year," Machado said, "and just to be a part of the team. It made easier for me when I got called up because I know these guys from spring training."
Management's confidence has been rewarded: Machado has played strong defense at third base while hitting four home runs with a .765 OPS.
"The everyday players appreciate it when you set a standard for the club and, when the other players don't meet that standard, you give the opportunity to somebody else," Duquette said. "I think that's part of setting the tone. 'Look, guys, we have a good team, and we're going to make a run at it.'"
They have done so this year despite an offense that has scored roughly the same amount as last year: 4.34 runs per game, compared to 2011's 4.37. The Orioles' average, on-base percentage and strikeout rate are all worse, but their home-run rate is up.
"Ideally, we would rather have better on-base capability," Duquette said. "We're stressing that and looking to add that to our team. When you do have power, you can drive yourself home. We have a half-dozen players who can hit 20 home runs, which is a good thing."
Baltimore's team defense has improved dramatically, too. It is ranked 10th in both defensive efficiency and park-adjusted efficiency, according to Baseball Prospectus, after ranking 28th and 23rd in those categories last year.
The important transactions weren't limited to on-field personnel, either. The Orioles hired Rick Peterson to be their director of pitching development. In that role he has introduced biomechanical study to their in-house analysis, and he has received credit for helping Chris Tillman and Zach Britton with their mechanics.
Neither Duquette nor Showalter has been with their turned-around clubs long enough to enjoy World Series success, both famously just missing. Showalter left both the Yankees and Diamondbacks a year before each won a World Series, and the Rangers won their two AL pennants four years after he left Texas. Duquette, meanwhile, had just moved to Boston when the Expos had their great, albeit strike-interrupted 1994 campaign, and then he left the Red Sox two years before their title in 2004.
For now thoughts are only on the here and now, a tie in the AL East and a two-game lead on a wild-card spot, putting a playoff berth nearly in their grasp.
"Twenty-something games is an eternity in the major leagues," Showalter said. "September crawls when you're in it."
For Buck and the Duke, however, turning around a big league club can happen in a flash.