No one will ever convince me that the return of winning baseball to Baltimore was not significantly aided by Buck Showalter becoming the manager of the Orioles. From almost the moment he arrived, his Orioles teams started overachieving relative to their preseason expectations. From 2012 onward, this trend has continued, even in years where they didn’t make the postseason.
Another thing that’s true about Showalter is that he knows more about the particular ins and outs of this Orioles team, and managing baseball teams in general, than you or I ever will.
With that established, no one is infallible. The wild card game decision that shall not be named remains a monument of proof for that. More immediately, there have been a few times in recent games where Showalter’s usage, or non-usage, of certain players have had a negative impact on the O’s chances of winning a given game.
Specific things come to mind with all of Chris Davis, Chris Tillman, and Zach Britton.
The Chris Davis problem
The at times brutal performance of Davis this season, including a strikeout rate significantly higher than the already-excessive percentages he carried in some of his more successful seasons, appears to have finally prompted Showalter to take some action.
Months of Davis firmly ensconced in either the #4 or #5 spot in the lineup have been interrupted over the last week and a half, with Davis dropping down to #7. Showalter has been so committed to doing this that he even had Davis batting right ahead of fellow lefty Seth Smith. In past years, Showalter has seemed allergic to not staggering his lefty batters.
That decision is a good thing. With the way Davis has been hitting, it just wasn’t good for the team to have him following after the productive trio of Tim Beckham, Manny Machado, and Jonathan Schoop, all of whom have been on fire in August. Showalter may need to do more to mitigate the problems of Davis, though.
The game-ending strikeout by Davis to end the Seattle series last Wednesday was a real problem. With the Orioles having just pulled within one, with the bases loaded, two outs, and Davis due up, the Mariners summoned lefty Marc Rzepczynski, a lefty specialist who exists to get out guys like Davis.
Righties like Adam Jones and Welington Castillo were on the bench. It’s a hard thing to pinch hit for a guy in the second year of a $161 million contract, I’m sure, but leaving in Davis, who struck out on three pitches, the third of which he watched sail almost right down the middle of the strike zone, did no favors to the Orioles either.
The Chris Tillman problem
There are many reasons why the Orioles find themselves four games below .500 as mid-August turns to late August. One of the biggest ones is Tillman, whose complete mess of a season challenges the bounds of polite discourse in order to accurately describe it.
It took until early August to bounce Tillman out of the rotation. Looking to get an extra off day for a guy like Dylan Bundy, Showalter brought Tillman back for a start on Sunday and signaled, even after watching Tillman walk six batters and throw more balls than strikes in 5.1 innings, that Tillman may get another start after this.
Tillman’s past contributions to the Orioles can’t be denied, so much like what to do about Davis, that can’t be an easy thing to figure out. This is one of those things where he surely knows there’s a problem, though his public statements don’t always say as much.
Reporters always seem to be asking Showalter what might be the problem with Tillman. There was an exchange not too long ago where a reporter inquired about Tillman being injured. Showalter responded to the reporter with a question, “What would be the signifier?” He added that Tillman’s velocity is trending upward, which is true.
The big sign of a lingering shoulder problem can be seen in the fact that Tillman’s release point is nearly three inches lower than it has ever been before. On the MASN telecast of an earlier Tillman start, Jim Palmer broke down the problem in carnival terms: “He needs to be a ferris wheel and this year he’s a merry-go-round.”
Darren O’Day made a career out of being a merry-go-round, but that’s not the way Tillman will find success. If I can look up that release point stuff, somebody with the Orioles surely knows it. It doesn’t seem to be a factor in how they view him, though.
At least for me, Tillman has been so bad and appears to show no signs of improvement that I’d rather see anybody but him. It’s not an accident that he hasn’t been the winning pitcher in a game since May 7. Yet Showalter is sticking by the veteran Oriole and it’s going to cost them, barring a miraculous improvement.
The Zach Britton problem
Is there actually a Britton problem? Britton has appeared in just six of the team’s 19 August games, notching only 4.2 innings and recording two saves. That’s not entirely Showalter’s fault, because the Orioles have only had two of their nine August wins where they won by three runs or fewer. One of those was a walkoff. In general, they’ve been winning big or else losing.
What has happened to the Orioles in August, though, is that they have had three losses where a bullpen pitcher gave away the game in the eighth inning. Mychal Givens took the loss on August 4 after allowing the grand slam to Justin Upton, while Brad Brach lost games on August 11 and 20.
Sunday’s loss to the Angels was the exact sort where you might have preferred to see Britton try to hold a game at a tie in the eighth inning than somebody else. He hadn’t pitched since August 16. Surely he could have done the eighth and the ninth if Showalter wanted? But it wasn’t what Showalter wanted, so Britton instead pitched the ninth, after the game-losing run had been surrendered.
If Craig Gentry made a better throw home on the Cameron Maybin pinch-hit single, or if Caleb Joseph had been able to catch that errant throw, this is all a moot point because the run wouldn’t have scored. You can’t blame Showalter for that. Still, there are times where he just needs to use his best reliever even if it’s not the ninth inning.
One other thing to keep in mind, though, is that in wanting Britton to be used more aggressively, there’s kind of an assumption that it’s going to be something like the 2016 version of Britton strolling in from the bullpen. Deploy him and any threat ends. Even after his return from the disabled list, it’s not clear this is the case.
Still, the principle behind that wild card disappointment remains the same. A game might still end up in a loss, but it’d be a whole lot less frustrating if Britton pitched while the outcome had yet to be decided.
If it was up to me, there would be a statue of Showalter out with all the other Orioles legends some day. No series of lineup choices and bullpen decisions for a flawed O’s roster that he’s not responsible for assembling should change that. There do seem to be some things the manager could do that might make the most of the limited chances remaining to the Orioles. Hopefully, Showalter can push those buttons.