Buck Showalter is in the process of reshaping first-place Mets, one detail at a time

NEW YORK – The morning after the Mets’ home opener, Buck Showalter asked general manager Billy Eppler to meet him at the grave. Showalter had only managed one game at Citi Field, but he had already identified a design flaw. Showalter summoned Eppler to a nook by the stairs closest to the home plate. From this place his favorite position during matches, the manager of the Mets could not see Mets.

The specific problem was the right field. A piece of upholstery prevented Showalter’s view. The lines of sight, pitching coach Jeremy Hefner later said, “were cruel.” Over the previous two seasons, it had annoyed Hefner and former manager Luis Rojas, both newcomers to their jobs. Nothing had been done about it. Showalter had a solution, but it would take time. Until then, he would still see his right fielder.

Eppler climbed up a few steps in the middle of the grave and hung over the railing. He asked Showalter if it could work.

“Billy, how tall are you?” asked Showalter.

“6-3,” Eppler replied.

Showalter, 65, was listed as 5-9 in his playing days, but that was 40 years ago. He reminded Eppler of this. So he had to squint around the padding while the ballpark operating staff mocked forms for the solution: The Mets wanted to build Showalter, Hefner and bench coach Glenn Sherlock a perch.

Thirteen days later, when the team returned to Queens with the best record in baseball, the team looked different. Staff had constructed a three-step slope to rise above the obstacle. Now Showalter could see his group in its entirety. And the rest of the public could see several of the ways in which Showalter, in his 21st season as manager and his first season with the Mets, subtly transforms the club, one detail at a time.

In his four previous stops, in a leadership career that spans four decades of baseball and includes three Manager of the Year awards, Showalter gained a reputation for being demanding, stressful and obsessed, to a point of occasional exhaustion for those around him. He knows his point. “Is that another one of those anal things I’m accused of?” Showalter said when asked about the changes in the excavation. “If I can not watch the match, it’s a little difficult.”

The Mets hired Showalter last December to shepherd a team with championship hopes. The group had underperformed for years. A $ 254.5 million spend in November by owner Steve Cohen sent expectations soaring. In Showalter, Cohen hoped he had found a manager with gravitas, tactical acumen and the relentless daily drive that supports elite clubs.

In the initial weeks of his tenure, through a shortened spring training session and just shy of over two dozen matches, Showalter has met those criteria, his players say. The Mets describe his mind as relentless. He quizzes his players about situations in the game to measure both their knowledge and their willingness to match his zeal. He salted wisdom with his West Florida drawl.

“Everything is interesting,” pitcher Taijuan Walker said. “Everything he says.”

The Mets have learned to listen. A tip about an obscure rule from one of Showalter’s preseason meetings came true during the first home run. He has kept veterans informed of impending roster moves and encouraged them to share knowledge among younger teammates. He has preached the gospel of accountability. He has surprised some with his wit and willingness to laugh at himself. “He has a better sense of humor than I expected,” said Max Scherzer, the $ 130 million jewel from Cohen’s offseason.

If the Mets look different in 2022 – yes, much of it comes from Cohen’s money. But some of it comes from Showalter’s mind. And if the ball field looks a little different, same story. It’s not just the excavation. At Showalter’s request, the team painted the walls of the clubhouse and improved the lighting to brighten up the room. The Mets also converted a closet into a private locker room for support staff. “We’re trying to adjust the baseball functionality of some things,” Showalter said.

Circumstances have forced Showalter to move quickly. He took the job several weeks after the owners locked the players out. He could not contact any Met until the strike ended on March 10. Then there was less than a month to the opening day in Nationals Park.

When the club was gathered in Port St. Lucie, Fla., Showalter introduced herself through individual conversations and group meetings. He posted a series of videos that served as a plan for how he wanted the Mets to play, and as a primer on how he saw the game. The videos, explained the new Chris Bassistt, showed “there is not a detail he does not think about.”

“He loves to point out that other teams are messing around, I have to tell you,” Bassitt said. “That’s all – cuts, cutoffs, relays, everything. He says, ‘Listen, this wins and you lose ball games. That’s how we should do it. We want to do it the right way.’ Not always the easiest way. But he wants you to hit your ass and do everything the right way. “

Before each workout, Showalter dealt with different rules. At one meeting, the team went over a mysterious one that some, like six-year veteran infielder JD Davis, had never considered. Showalter presented the details: Let’s say the opponent was considering an appeal that a runner should leave the bag prematurely. In that situation, if there was a Met at the base, the player would have to try to steal a bag. If the opponent reacted and tried to throw Met out, it would revoke their right to appeal.

It sounded a little impenetrable. “Pretty crazy loophole,” Davis said.

A few weeks later, during a game against Arizona, Showalter’s vision unfolded. Davis stood first when the Diamondbacks discussed appealing to a victim fly. Showalter signaled third base coach Joey Cora. Davis caught Cora’s message and broke for second. Arizona veteran Oliver Perez stepped out of the mound, taking the potential appeal before throwing to third, which did not produce an out. The race stopped. “Buck, having so many years under his belt, he always tries to look for the edge or look for loopholes,” Davis said.

Through Cora and first-base coach Wayne Kirby, who trained with Showalter in Baltimore, the Mets have instilled a newfound aggression on the bases. The group participated in Sunday’s matches in fourth place in the sport, according to the FanGraphs’ base-running metric. (They were ranked 27th in 2021.) The attitude has also helped Showalter find common ground with its highest-paid player. On the team’s first road trip, Showalter thanked Francisco Lindor for his busyness in hitting a double play ball. Lindor asked the manager to tear him down if he ever broke.

The manager and shortstop created a connection at the spring training session when they discovered that their visions were in line with Lindor’s 2022 season. Lindor appreciated when Showalter jumped to his defense after being hit in the face with a pitch in Washington. The devotion is visible when Showalter makes pitching changes, often greeted by small pranks from Lindor and teammate Eduardo Escobar. Lindor can jerk the zipper on Showalter’s jacket or fiddle with his ears. Escobar can dust off the skipper’s shoulders.

“He’s so serious,” Lindor said, “you have to play with him.”

In Lindor, Showalter has found a superstar who can match his enthusiasm for the subject. The two debate and discuss the details of relays, bag coverage, situational decisions. At times, Lindor leaves Showalter at a loss. “It’s like ‘Stump the Manager,'” Showalter said. He added: “He’s one of those guys you say ‘Any questions?’ And he says, ‘Oh, I have one.’ And you go, oh, shoot. “

Far more often, Showalter takes on the Socratic role. He asks questions to keep his players engaged. He also asks questions to make time go by. One day recently, Showalter approached new outfielder Mark Canha. Showalter asked what Canha thought about the concept of a team error, a way of denoting an error when no single person was responsible, as when a pop-up fell on the inner court. Canha considered a performance he had never considered before.

“I was just like that, ‘Oh. Yes. You’re right, “Canha said.

Added Eppler, “For the guy it was on ‘Seinfeld’ he has a lot of Seinfeld-like revelations. ‘What do you think they’re doing it for? What do you think their thinking was behind it? ‘”

On a recent road trip, when young pitcher David Peterson finished a strong outing, Showalter found Bassitt and Scherzer in dugout. Showalter told them Peterson would soon be demoted to the minors to make room for an extra replacement. He wanted his clubhouse managers to understand his reasoning, knowing that they could advise Peterson on how to accept it. “Buck,” Bassitt said, “is incredible at just keeping everyone in the loop.”

Those are, of course, qualities that Showalter showed with the Yankees and Diamondbacks and Rangers and Orioles. These management periods ended the way management periods tend to end. But these qualities can also make Showalter, as one Mets official put it, “the perfect man for the job”, following Roja’s inexperience and Mickey Callaway’s horny incompetence.

The changes initiated by Showalter are already visible. During his first home run, he spoke with vice president of ball field operations Sue Lucchi, CEO of ball field operations Peter Cassano and CEO of field operations Bill Deacon about the excavation. The perch was in place when the team returned from the road. It gave Showalter a clear view of history on Friday night. Faced with the powerful Phillies offense, the Mets wrote a combined no-hitter, a five-man effort in which only one, closer to Edwin Díaz, realized the effort.

Showalter was about to end his press conference after the match when Díaz and the other pitchers entered the room. Showalter pushed his chair back and got up. The Mets intended to have all five pitchers, plus catcher James McCann, perform a joint press.

“Do we have enough chairs for them?” said Showalter as Díaz, Seth Lugo, Joely Rodriguez and Drew Smith walked onto the stage. “It’s like Jackson 5 here. Earth, wind and fire.”

Showalter helped arrange the seating. Relievers were waiting for McCann and starting pitcher Tylor Megill. The leader was behind them. “How to get a cheap Christmas card right here, boys,” Showalter said.

Harold Kaufman, Met’s PR director, asked questions.

“Won’t you wait for Tylor?” said Showalter.

“Well,” said Kaufman, “will we wait? Let’s wait. Let’s wait and get all six guys up there now.”

There was a brief discussion about the nature of deadliness. It was over 11 p.m. After a beat, McCann and Megill arrived. A few photographers fixed their lenses. Showalter could not be found in the frame. “I have to get out of here,” he said. He was already about to leave the room, his work for the night done, his mind running towards tomorrow, his influence clear.

(Photo: Daniel Shirey / MLB Photos via Getty Images)

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