Buck Showalter has a career record of 916-856 as a manager - a .517 winning percentage. That's certainly nothing to sneeze (I'd gladly take 84 wins from the O's this year), but it's not outstanding by any stretch. And yet, many Orioles' fans (and non-fans actually) think Buck will have a significant positive impact on the club's record. As far as I can tell, this has very little to do with playing time allocation or in-game decisions or whatnot, and much more to do with his leadership and other intangibles. He's supposed to get the most out of the players he has*.
* Which begs the question, why were we cheering for these guys all these years who apparently weren't even trying to be that good?
Commenter Bret* said recently that Buck "has a history of getting position players to play to (or above) their potential". But does he?
* I've argued extensively with Bret in the past, but (almost) always appreciate his input. My hunch is that he's not correct in this case, but it's nice to actually get something (theoretically somewhat) verifiable from someone. Please feel free to leave comments people, and I apologize in advance if I offend anyone (it's rarely my intention, but I sometimes (too) strenuously defend my point of view). I'm certainly wrong all the time too.
Showalter's career had, up until the end of last season, come in three blocks; four years with New York, three with Arizona, and three with Texas.
Buck took over a 71 win team, and took them to 76 wins in his first year before jumping up to 88, 70 (in 113 games - 100 in a full season), and 79 (in 145 games - 88 in a full season).
There were 12 position players carried over from the 1991 team to the 1992 team. They improved by a total of 2.7 brWAR. A lot of that minus was Jesse Barfield getting worse over his last two seasons. Roberto Kelly saw his slugging percentage drop 60 points before it picked back up some the following year (in Cincinnati).
The largest improvements were from Mel Hall (who hit worse in '92 than '91, but had horrendous fielding numbers the latter year) and Hensley Meulens (who went from getting a fair amount of playing time while being terrible to almost never playing). Also better were Bernie Williams, moving from his first to his second partial season, and Randy Velarde, who was an above average hitter in one of his first four major league seasons (all in limited time) before becoming a generally above average hitter starting in '92. If Buck was responsible for Velarde's improvement though, it must have stuck for a long time - weighting his wRC+ by plate appearances for each season, we get 109 for '92-'95 and 107 thereafter (and an even 109 on both sides if we take out his final 155 PA, 83 wRC+ year before he retired). Take out Meulens and it's more or less a wash from returning Yankees.
Danny Tartabull led the 1992 team in brWAR (amongst position players) at 4.0, but he was worse than he had been the previous year in Kansas City (4.6 brWAR). He hit well in New York, but not more so than he had (though he did walk more) and his career was trending downwards.
Don Mattingly picked things up a bit for Buck's time in New York after a down '90-'91, but he wasn't the same player he was as recently as 1989. Give Showalter a tiny bit of credit for helping a formally great player hang on, or consider 1990 (-0.6 brWAR) a fluke largely due to his .256 BABIP.
Andy Stankiewicz was decent (2.0 brWAR) in his first major league season (451 PA), at the age of 27. He never got more than 155 plate appearances again - which happened in 1998... in Arizona... for Buck Showalter... where he accumulated a -0.9 brWAR.
Overall, the Yankees position players improved from 7.8 brWAR to 19.5 brWAR largely by bringing in a few new players (Tartabull, Charlie Hayes, Mike Stanley*) and cutting a bunch of chaff (they went from having 10 guys below replacement level totaling -6 brWAR to only 2 guys totaling -1.6 brWAR).
* Stanley legitimately seemed to start hitting for power once he joined New York in 1992, having hit just 16 career home runs in 6 seasons for Texas. Like Velarde though, he remained a similarly valuable hitter even after leaving the Yankees.
In 1993, Wade Boggs and Paul O'Neill joined the club. Boggs had a great year in '94 and a good year in '95 under Buck; '93 and '96-'97 were all similarly decent offensively (former with Showalter and latter without him). Just wanted to note that his last year in Boston ('92), Boggs had a .261 BABIP. O'Neill was much better in New York than he had been in Cincinnati, more or less from the word go. There were hints of it coming around his last couple years for the Reds when he started walking more, but his BABIP numbers jumped as soon as he came over to the AL. Mikes Stanley and Gallego both had great years as well; though the latter had his best season the year before coming to the Yankees.
In 1994, Boggs, O'Neill, Stanley, and Gallego were once again among the team's top position players (plus Bernie Williams*). 1995 was similar.
* I'm not counting Williams since his early career stats don't seem too out of line with his minor league numbers, and he had his best seasons after Buck left.
The evidence of Buck Showalter making the New York players better, as opposed to New York getting better players, is mixed (at best, I would say). You've got Randy Velarde (maybe), Mike Stanley, and Paul O'Neill.
Buck was the first manager in the team's history, so he can't really be blamed for their 65-97 inaugural season.
Andy Fox was OK as a 27 year-old in '98 (though a fair chunk of his OBP came from 18 HBPs, which he never approached again*); was worse in '99; worse in 2000; and didn't do much thereafter.
* Maybe Buck told him to take a few for the team!
Jay Bell had a crazy offensive season in 1999 (though it was only his third best brWAR year), hitting 38 home runs, but he was only average-ish in Arizona otherwise.
Matt Williams similarly was great in '99 and just alright at best for the Diamondbacks in other years.
Devon White was only in Arizona for the one season ('98), but that was his best offensive season from 1994 to 1999 (if only marginally - a 105 wRC+, compared to a 104, a 100, and some years in the mid to higher 90s).
Tony Batista hit pretty well in in 318 PA in '98 (not out of line with his minor league numbers in '96-97); fell off some in Arizona to start '99; picked it back up after going to Toronto that year; as OK for a couple seasons after that; and then settled in as Tony Bautista.
For the 1999 season, the team added Luis Gonzalez (who had started to see his power numbers tick up in Detroit, but obviously had his best seasons in Arizona) and Steve Finley (who hit well for the Diamondbacks, as he had for the Padres and the Astros). Plus Randy Johnson, who started his run of four consecutive Cy Young wins. The team won 100 games, mostly due to the additions and the great seasons from guys who also played under Buck in 1998*.
* Maybe he needed a year to get his bearings out West?
In 2000, the team fell off to 85-77 with many of the same players*.
* Maybe Buck got complacent about motivating them after winning 100 games?
Overall, I find less evidence in Arizona than in New York. There's Luis Gonzalez and Jay Bell in the Paul O'Neill/Mike Stanley roles maybe.
Not much going on the first year, as Buck took them from 72 wins to 71 (pythags went 78 to 69). The team lost Ivan Rodriguez, but gained young Hank Blalock and Mark Teixeira (the latter turned into one of the game's best hitters, while the former regressed every season under Buck).
2003 was Michael Young's third major league season, and the first of a string of years where he batted .300.
Alfonso Soriano hit worse in Texas than he did in New York or would in Washington or (initially) Chicago.
David Dellucci made a second appearance under Buck (he in Arizona from 1998 into 2003), and had a career year in 2005 (but not so much in 2004, and he hit almost as well in Philadelphia in 2006).
Kevin Mench was OK for a couple years in there, but was already starting to fall off by 2005 before being traded in 2006.
Gary Matthews Jr. had that decent stretch in Texas (especially the last season) which earned him that ridiculous contract from the Angels. 2004-2006 was pretty clearly his peak, and that corresponds to his time with Buck.
Mark DeRosa also got his first full season playing for Showalter, and had his best offensive year up to that point in his career in 2006 (he was better in Chicago).
Adrian Gonzalez didn't get much of a chance, but he didn't exactly flourish under Buck in Texas (though he did immediately after going to San Diego in 2006). And Brad Wilkerson was worse in Texas than he had been in Montreal.
Overall, Texas might be worse than Arizona.
As I've noted previously, the team hit marginally better under Buck than Dave Trembley and Juan Samuel (partially because of Brian Roberts' return, though Adam Jones also had a good final two months).
Real quick; the Yankees had a 4.37 ERA during his run with a 4.44 FIP; for Arizona it was 4.25 ERA and 4.41 FIP; and for Texas it was 4.95 ERA and 4.59 FIP. A wash at best overall. This isn't the same kind of thing as the above, but it's just in case the O's staff starts off by out-pitching their peripherals and people think it'll continue due to the manager.
So perhaps Buck made the difference for a few guys (O'Neill, Stanley, Velarde, Gonzalez, and Bell namely*), but I don't see a strong overall trend of "team hires Showalter-> existing players step up their games";. Maybe he tried extra hard in 1999 with Arizona and that's where those few good/great seasons came from, but how come the surrounding years weren't like that (and does the effect sometimes linger for years afterwards*)? Regardless of your existing opinion, this probably contains something to support it.
* Just wanted to point out that these are pretty much all guys in their early 30s. Maybe Michael Young is a "talented young player who struggled until Buck came along" to hold onto.
It's not crazy to think that players could play harder (that is, better) for one manager than for another. Maybe it's safest to say that, basically, sometimes Buck makes a player better for one of the years he's there but not others; sometimes he affects the player permanently; and sometimes he doesn't affect him at all (or does so negatively). That covers all our bases, is certainly true, and fits in with the sparse evidence, more or less. I don't think that's very useful, or strong enough to expect a significant impact on the 2011 Orioles, but that's just me (and I am moving more in the direction of accepting it a little, if slowly).
Stats: ERA, FIP, wRC+, WAR