Commentary

Positive vibe clearly surrounding Orioles

O's looking to keep good times rolling in first full year under manager Buck Showalter

Originally Published: March 11, 2011
By Jayson Stark | ESPN.com

SARASOTA, Fla. -- All these months later, Buck Showalter still can't explain it.

Then again, all these months later, hardly anybody can explain it.

Some things in sports defy simple explanation. And the 2010 Baltimore Orioles might top all of them.

[+] EnlargeBuck Showalter
Derick E. Hingle/US PresswireThe Orioles were 34-23 under Buck Showalter last season after going 32-73 under former managers Dave Trembley and Juan Samuel.

For 105 games -- kind of a long time, wouldn't you say? -- they played like a 114-loss team. They won 32 of those 105 games (a .299 winning percentage). And had they kept that up, they would have gone down in history as one of the three worst teams of the expansion era.

Then Showalter burst through their door.

Whereupon the same team, with essentially the same players, played the final 57 games at the same pace as a 97-win baseball team (i.e., 34-23, a .597 winning percentage). Had the season started that day, they would have finished first in the American League East. Yessir, we said first.

So how'd that happen? Huh?

"I've never seen a guy walk in a room and have so much change so soon," said the Orioles' president of baseball operations, Andy MacPhail, "with nothing else happening other than a different guy walking through the room."

Well, there's a good reason he's never seen it -- because nobody had ever seen it. Not until Showalter did it, anyway.

He was the first manager in the history of baseball, according to the Elias Sports Bureau, to take over a team in August or later and win more games than the same team had won before he showed up.

He also did something that ought to be impossible. He won more games than the two managers who preceded him last season -- Dave Trembley and Juan Samuel -- won combined (32), even though all three managed more than 50 games apiece.

So go right ahead. Explain that.

"I got lucky," the manager said at one point.

"I can't take any credit," he said at another point.

Well, it's cool to be humble. And he did have a couple of key players (Brian Roberts and Jim Johnson) get healthy. But he can't fool the people who watched this happen, or, especially, the people who lived through this happening.

It wasn't just luck. It wasn't just coincidence. And there's no reason he should be dodging credit -- because, when the new manager rolled into town, he changed this team's entire universe.

"It was a breath of fresh air," center fielder Adam Jones said.

"Different attitude," catcher Matt Wieters said.

"The numbers don't lie," pitcher Brian Matusz said.

There are times, of course, when numbers do lie. But do they lie over 57 games? That's a lot of games, right? That's the equivalent of about 3½ NFL seasons, right? So "It was too long," MacPhail said, "to be a flash in the pan."

Now that record in those 57 games doesn't guarantee the Orioles are about to go out and win 97 games this year, obviously -- not even with a $20 million payroll bump, not even with the infusion of offseason upgrades such as Vladimir Guerrero, Derrek Lee, J.J. Hardy and Mark Reynolds.

But there were things that happened in those final 57 games -- things Showalter and his team have tried to build on this spring -- that easily could be sustainable. And we would boil them down to three main areas: (A) pitching, (B) growth of young players and (C) attitude.

The pitching

If you're just breaking down numbers, it isn't hard to figure out why the post-Showalter Orioles were so much better than the pre-Showalter Orioles. Clearly, it wasn't the offense that changed. But the pitching staff somehow transformed itself from the '62 Mets to the '66 Orioles. Take a look:

"The real change, the change that made the biggest difference, was pitching and defense," Wieters said. "You can look at those last two months. I don't think our offense really changed that much. But our staff did a great job at the end of the year of giving us quality outing after quality outing. And that's a great formula for success."

What changed most about that staff, though, wasn't just the results. It was the approach. And by that we mean: These guys suddenly discovered it was actually cool to throw strikes.

Their strikeouts went up more than 11 percent -- from 6.0 per game to 6.7. Their walks went down more than 20 percent -- from 3.5 per game to 2.7. And their percentage of strikes thrown grew significantly -- from 61.8 percent (third worst in the big leagues) to 63.2 percent (10th best in the big leagues).

Showalter is still trying to convince folks that the improvement "probably would have happened anyway," no matter who was managing. But in reality, one of the big themes he pounded on quickly after his arrival was: Strikes are good. And pitching ahead in the count is better -- no matter who's in that batter's box.

"It definitely was a different attitude, which I think Buck brought," said Wieters, who was openly encouraged to take charge and challenge more hitters. "He brought the attitude of: 'We're not going to shy away from anybody.'"

Showalter's take is that his young pitchers finally "quit looking at the back of the bubblegum cards" of all the famous hitters they were facing. But that didn't happen by accident, either. It happened because the manager helped convince those pitchers they were giving the hitters way too much credit.

Let's just say it wasn't happenstance that three of his young starters -- Matusz, Brad Bergesen and Chris Tillman -- had ERAs more than three runs lower after Showalter arrived than before. And a fourth starter -- Jake Arrieta -- lowered his ERA by more than a run and a half.

And once things began to turn, "We just kept feeding off each other," Matusz said. "Just everything clicked."

So can they keep on clicking, for a full season? Scouts who have watched them this spring aren't convinced. But it's safe to say the future of this franchise rests on the shoulders of its young starting pitchers. And in the Showalter era, so far, so good.

The young guns

Before Showalter camped out in the manager's office last year, Matusz was 3-11 with a 5.46 ERA. Under the new guy, he was a whole new guy (7-1, 2.18).

Matt Wieters It definitely was a different attitude, which I think Buck brought. He brought the attitude of: 'We're not going to shy away from anybody.'

-- Orioles catcher Matt Wieters
on Buck Showalter's arrival
as Orioles manager last year

But it wasn't just him. Pre-Showalter, Jones hit .272/.306/.434. And after? How about .314/.370/.462.

Bergesen went from 3-9, 6.63 to 5-3, 2.88. Tillman upshifted from a 7.92 ERA to a 4.08. And although Wieters' offensive numbers didn't change a whole lot, he took over that pitching staff -- and has scouts gushing this spring about his comfortable, confident look.

Now, clearly, Buck Showalter didn't just snap his fingers and instantly transform those guys -- all still 25 or younger -- into impact big league players. But it's safe to say he had a little more to do with it than the crab cake vendors.

"I think when Buck came in," Matusz said, "everyone said, 'This is my shot. I'm gonna show Buck what we can do.'"

"I'd never really gone through a managerial change," Jones said. "And then I went through three in one year. But when you bring in somebody from the outside, especially somebody who was all over ESPN, somebody everybody knows, I mean he's got the [ability to] connect. So it was a reality check. You could see it in guys' eyes … I mean, things happen for a reason."

And the reason was that, for the first time in the big league careers of all these players, they were playing for a manager who had been there, done it and seen it all, and, especially, had the contract (through 2013) and clout to make sure they did things right -- or else.

"He sees everything," Jones said with a laugh. "Everything. He notices everything that's going on. It's good to know he's got, like, a second pair of eyes."

Those all-seeing eyeballs were able to induce a new sense of urgency that these players had never experienced. And if you watched the Orioles play those last two months, that urgency hung over everything they did, even though Showalter insists he never had to say a word.

"Basically," he said, "I just told them, 'Your actions speak so loudly, I can't hear a word you're saying. So let's see what happens.'"

He said just enough that they knew he was watching. Always. And he knew they knew. The dynamic, he says, was kind of like "when you were in school, that teacher that would sit in the back of the room and was behind you, as opposed to in front of you."

But Showalter also infused a positivity this group hadn't experienced before. He empowered Wieters to do what he had always done -- lead. He let Jones know how talented everyone in baseball believed he was. And the manager told those young pitchers how much they reminded him of some of the great pitchers in his past.

What matters now, however, isn't how any of them played in those last 57 games. What matters now is where it all leads. And -- hey, this will shock you -- Showalter has been working on that all spring.

Attitude is everything

On the first day of spring training, managers give speeches. Well, most managers.

Showalter, on the other hand, took his team to the movies.

He led his entourage to a movie theater in Sarasota where the feature attraction was, well, them. They were there to watch a film Showalter had asked his video people to produce. And it got their hearts pumping better than his words ever could.

They saw great Orioles moments of yesteryear. They saw Camden Yards, packed and pulsating. They saw their own greatest highlight snippets from the final two months of 2010. And they saw clips that made the new guys on the roster -- Vlad and Lee, Hardy and Reynolds -- look like Clemente and Aaron, Ripken and Brooksie.

"I think everyone got the chills in that movie," Matusz said. "I think everyone walked out feeling totally amped up. I know I left with Chris Tillman, and we talked about it the whole car ride home. It was just that inspirational, motivational movie that really opened our eyes and made me think, 'Wow. We really do have something special.' I wanted to get out there on the field at that moment."

And Showalter has pushed that upbeat vibe all spring. Every drill has had a purpose. Nothing has been just for show. And for a man who had a reputation as a drill sergeant, the manager has surprised his troops by being laid-back, gregarious and player-friendly -- to the point that he was able to get the Orioles to relax their longstanding rules against facial hair to accommodate Guerrero and Lee.

"I thought, coming here, it might be more of an uptight situation," said another of the veteran players the O's have imported, pitcher Justin Duchscherer. "I didn't know Buck Showalter at all. And the impression I always got was, he was a hard-ass. And he is. But he does it the right way. … He knows how to say things, and how to motivate guys in a positive manner and keep our attitude upbeat."

Duchscherer was shocked, for instance, that Buck Showalter, of all people, had no interest in requiring a pitcher coming off three hip surgeries to shag flies in batting practice.

"In my past camps," he said, "I've had to stand out there in BP for an hour and a half and shag balls, with a bad back and bad hips. And I've always felt like, 'What purpose is this serving?' But it was kind of a rah-rah, do-it-for-the-team thing. If your teammates have to do it, you have to do it, too. … But every player is different. To me, if a guy is 23 years old and can run like a deer and his body feels great, that's different than a guy like me who's had three hip surgeries. Not that I want any special treatment. But there are certain things that can help me get out on the field. And I feel like he can differentiate between those things."

[+] EnlargeBrian Matusz
Joy R. Absalon/US PresswireBrian Matusz, 24, was 7-3 with a 3.63 ERA in 14 starts after the All-Star break last season.

Meanwhile, the players who were part of the miraculous late-season transformation of the 2010 Orioles now find themselves buzzing over the most positive spring training feeling to envelop this team in this millennium.

Much like the 2009 Padres, who used a big finish as the springboard for a 90-win season last year, there's an aura surrounding the 2011 Orioles that suggests the same thing could happen here.

"That's something that is going to happen," Matusz said, assuredly. "I think we all believe that. I think we all know we have the talent in this clubhouse now, between the guys returning from last year and throw in all the new guys we got, those familiar faces that we all know, that we all get excited about seeing in this clubhouse. We got those pieces we didn't have last year. And now we're confident in here we can compete. We don't think it anymore. We all know it."

The manager, of course, isn't making those pronouncements. He has managed in the AL East before. He's been around too long. He knows what he's trying to mold here. But he also knows that when a 114-loss kind of team magically morphs into a 97-win kind of team in midseason, it can be hard to distinguish reality from illusion. And sorting out that distinction is what this season will be all about.

So which, he was asked, is the real Orioles squad -- that team of the first four months or that team he managed the last two months?

"Well," said Showalter, "we're going to find out."

Jayson Stark is a senior writer for ESPN.com. His latest book, "Worth The Wait: Tales of the 2008 Phillies," was published by Triumph Books and is available in bookstores and online. Click here to order a copy.

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Senior Writer, ESPN.com