Although there hasn’t been much news this offseason, the Yankees’ neighbors across the river have made a good portion of it. Most recently, the hiring of former Yankees (and Diamondbacks, and Rangers, and Orioles) manager Buck Showalter has been a big topic of discussion. Almost every report at the time of the hiring referenced Showalter’s history of guiding the Yankees out of their dark days and into their winning ways. The word “turnaround” was used in many reports as well with the implication being that his history of turning around organizations is what led to the hire.
At a cursory glance, it certainly may appear that Showalter turned the Yankees around but when we take a deeper look, we have to ask “Was he a cause or just a loosely connected correlation?” What we find when we dig a little deeper may disappoint the Mets: which is that the seeds of the Yankees’ turnaround were already planted prior to Buck’s arrival in the Bronx. Furthermore, the team’s gradual ascension into a powerhouse over the next few seasons had far more to do with other factors than the person filling out the lineup card.
In 1990 under Stump Merrill, the Yankees won an AL-worst 67 games. After the season, the Yankees parted ways with Andy Hawkins and his 74 ERA+ and replaced him in the rotation with Scott Sanderson who would make 34 starts in 1991 and post a 109 ERA+ and a 3.44 FIP. In addition to Hawkins, left fielder Óscar Azocar and his 70 OPS+ were sent to the Pacific time zone, and both Jim Leyritz and Bob Geren were given less playing time. Those moves got Mel Hall and Matt Nokes regular playing time (neither of whom were great players, but they certainly could hit) and also got the gloves of rookies Pat Kelly and Bernie Williams on the field — huge defensive upgrades over Leyritz playing outfield or third base.
With those changes, one would expect a modest improvement, which is exactly what happened. The Yankees roster overall still needed plenty of work, but those changes bumped them up to 71 wins and a fifth-place finish in the seven-team AL East. Despite the four-win improvement – exactly what their run differential and Pythagorean record suggested it should be – Stump Merrill lost his job after the 1991 season and was replaced by Showalter.
Manager wasn’t the only position on the team that saw a change, however. The team decided that Tim Leary, Jeff Johnson, and Wade Taylor no longer needed to be members of the starting rotation. In 1991 they combined to start almost 40 percent of the team’s games and posted a collective 6.23 ERA – this was addition by subtraction if ever there was an instance. They were replaced in part by Mélido Pérez who would make 33 starts in 1992 with a 2.37 ERA, 136 ERA+, and 3.05 FIP, and Scott Kamieniecki who although unspectacular, was dependable in 1992.
Additionally, Danny Tartabull was added and responded with a stellar 4.1 WAR, 153 OPS+ season in right field. Mike Stanley joined Nokes to form a problematic platoon at catcher for opposing pitchers, and the skinny, bespectacled Williams was almost two wins better in 1992 than he was in 1991 despite playing fewer games.
Those are all significant upgrades on paper and it showed on the field, as the 1992 team put up a run differential that suggested an 80-82 record, which would have been a nine-game improvement. Yet in reality, the team managed 76 wins, good for fourth place in the seven-team AL East.
Then in 1993 Stanley and Mike Gallego (who had been added in 1992) were given regular playing time and both responded with big seasons, Stanley posting a 150 OPS+ in 491 PA and Galego putting up 4.5 WAR. Perhaps more quietly, the Yankees also were getting an upgrade at the first base position without many people even realizing it. Don Mattingly, due to back pain, could barely swing a bat in 1990 posting an 81 OPS+. Over time, although never returning to the mid-1980s version of Donnie Baseball, Mattingly became a pretty good hitter again raising his OPS+ in three consecutive seasons, posting a 120 OPS+ in 1993. Additionally, prior to the 1993 season, the team would add Wade Boggs, Paul O’Neill, and Jimmy Key — three players whose resumes I don’t need to provide.
As one would expect, the Yankees jumped to 88 wins in 1993, setting high expectations heading into 1994. Although the powers that be decided that there wouldn’t be a full season in 1994, the team certainly met those expectations in the 113 games that they did get to play. Their 70-43 record was good for best in the AL, and given their 6.5 game lead in the AL East at the time, likely would have landed them in the postseason. Interestingly, there were no major roster changes between the 1993-1994 seasons, and the smaller ones didn’t have significant impacts on the season win/loss total. What did happen is that some key players — particularly Williams, Boggs, and O’Neill — went from “good” in 1993 to “very, very good” in 1994, all putting up more WAR in the 113 game season than they had in the full season of 1993.
That AL-best team didn’t sit on its laurels heading into 1995. Jack McDowell was added and he responded by making 30 starts and posting a 118 ERA+ and 4.0 WAR. He was joined in the rotation by rookie phenom Andy Pettitte, then in the summer by David Cone. They were backed by one of the game’s best closers in John Wetteland, who had been acquired in a trade in April.
Yet despite the significant upgrades to the pitching staff, the team finished the shortened 1995 season with a disappointing 79-65-1 record. If you’re wondering how one can label a season in which the team earned a postseason berth as the AL’s first-ever Wild Card “disappointing”, the team’s winning percentage of .549 was a significant drop off from the .619 winning percentage in 1994. If you’re wondering, that’s the equivalent of an 11-game drop-off over 162 games.
Showalter and George Steinbrenner parted ways shortly after the soul-crushing loss in the 1995 ALDS — a loss that contained some highly questionable bullpen management decisions — not the last time that issue would arise in Buck’s career. To what extent Steinbrenner’s temperament played in the decision, we’ll never know, outside of rumors surrounding Steinbrenner wanting him to fire his coaching staff and Buck resigning in protest. Yet — and I say this as a long-time and vocal critic of “the Boss” — it’s hard to defend managing an improved roster to a 70-point drop in winning percentage.
To be clear, I’m fully aware — in fact, I’m usually the one reminding fans of this — there are many things that go on behind the scenes with baseball teams that the manager affects that we never see and of which we have no knowledge. There are certainly cases where leadership and sound decisions can get a team to overachieve or to at least stay afloat when the ship looks like it may be sinking. Yet if we’re being fair, that doesn’t seem to be the case with Showalter and his Yankees tenure. They had already turned in the right direction prior to his hire and the gradual improvements that came after coincided with gradual roster improvements. In fact, you can argue they underperformed in 1992 and 1995 — half the seasons of his tenure.
If you’d like to add, “well all managers will do better with better players”, I’d say that’s something else I don’t need to be reminded of. There are managers, however, whose teams perform better than other managers’ teams with similar talent levels. There are managers, who when they do have talented rosters, don’t have teams underachieve. Neither of those scenarios appears to be the case with Showalter’s tenure with the Yankees.
Lastly, if you’re a Buck fan and you want to say regardless of the above, every one of the organizations he took over improved quickly, I’ll remind you of this: each organization also improved after he left. Sure, Baltimore threw in the towel in Buck’s final season there, but they’ve done the same to Brandon Hyde and yet the team improved by seven games in Hyde’s first season after Buck’s departure. Even with the Double-A rosters Hyde has had, he’s never sunk to the 47 win level that Buck did in 2018. After Buck’s four seasons in Texas, Ron Washington not only won more regular-season games in his first four seasons but reached the World Series. Bob Brenly surpassed Showalter’s regular-season win total from the previous season and won a World Series in Arizona’s first post-Showalter season. I’ll let you ruminate silently on the Yankees’ post-Showalter record.
I can see how Buck has fans as he’s clearly bright, knowledgeable, and personable. Yet when a manager has had four opportunities and the pattern has been more or less the same at each stop, it’s hard to see it ending any differently this time.