The 2023 Mets never really looked like a Buck Showalter team

Aug 1, 2023; Kansas City, Missouri, USA; New York Mets manager Buck Showalter (11) returns to the dugout against the Kansas City Royals after a player injury in the fifth inning at Kauffman Stadium.

It was hard on Sunday watching an emotional Buck Showalter say that he had been forced out as Mets manager. I’ve known and respected him a long time and thought that this opportunity in Queens would lead to a happy ending, with him finally getting the championship that eluded him throughout a distinguished career.

In that sense, it’s sad to see Buck go -- knowing that the odds are against him, at age 67, getting another shot somewhere.

Yet, I really can’t argue with the Mets’ decision here. It may have been inevitable anyway, from the minute David Stearns agreed to become the new president baseball operations, as heavily as he reportedly leans on analytics.

It’s pretty much standard practice for a new front office boss to want to bring in his own manager and -- from afar, at least -- Showalter and Stearns didn’t seem to be a likely match.

That said, Buck in a lot of ways made this an easier decision than maybe it should have been with a season of disappointment that reflected on him in different ways.

In truth, although Showalter surely wasn’t the main reason why the Mets flopped in 2023, I was kind of shocked at some of his decision-making and lack of managerial presence -- if you will -- that I believed contributed to this debacle of a season.

I’ll hit on three primary criticisms:

One, Showalter’s attention to detail that seemed to make the Mets a more-sound, more-disciplined team in 2022 -- often capitalizing on opponents’ mistakes -- was nowhere to be seen this season. Instead, this ball club routinely made mental and physical mistakes that factored in their habit of finding different ways to lose games that they could or should have won.

That’s on the players, mostly. But if Buck gets credit for 2022, he has to take some of the blame for 2023. And he did have opportunities to make a statement of sorts to his team by pulling a player at some point for one of the many dumb base-running mistakes, or at least occasionally saying publicly that he expected better from them instead of protecting them at all costs in his press conferences.

Two, more of a direct criticism would be Buck’s lack of urgency in handling the bullpen when his team was struggling to save the season in June and July. Too often, he managed with the next day in mind -- or even the next inning -- especially in trying to maximize David Robertson’s appearances, rather than trying to win that day’s game.

To be fair, Showalter had precious few good options in his bullpen -- in part, because of Edwin Diaz’s injury and, in part, because GM Billy Eppler didn’t acquire enough good relievers. Yet, there were times where the Mets lost because Buck chose to save Robertson in a specific game, only to not need him for the next couple of days anyway due to the scores of the games.

Or there was the time that Showalter chose not to intentionally walk Vlad Guerrero Jr. in a big spot in the ninth inning when Cavan Biggio was on deck -- at least, partly, because Buck was thinking about the 10th inning and he didn’t want the speedy Biggio being the free runner at second base. Meanwhile, Guerrero got the hit to win the game.

All great managers think ahead, obviously, and it’s probably helped Buck’s teams win a lot of games over the years. But it’s also exactly the type of thinking that cost him that infamous Wild Card game as manager of the Baltimore Orioles, when he lost in extra innings without ever using his best reliever, Zack Britton. Sometimes, smart managers can get a little too cute.

Three, finally, I always had this vision of Showalter as a fighter -- going back to a time when I remember him storming out of the Yankees’ dugout to get in Tony LaRussa’s face and let him know that he and his team weren’t going to be intimidated by the Oakland A’s habit of drilling hitters with pitches, per the manager’s orders.

That’s why I found it so stunning when the Mets never retaliated this season even as they continued to be hit by pitches more than any team in the majors, and especially when Pete Alonso repeatedly was getting drilled.

Buck talked about it a lot and, in his first-ever series with the Mets, he even led the charge out of the dugout to yell at Washington Nationals pitcher Steve Cishek when Francisco Lindor was hit in the face.

Yet, the Mets never took action and it got a point where they looked soft for not backing their star slugger. I thought it mattered because it could lead to some clubhouse division, if Alonso or others thought that the pitchers weren’t willing to take a stand for them.

I even asked Terry Collins about it recently, and he said that such a concern was absolutely warranted. He told a story about, when he was managing the then-Anaheim Angels, a particular opponent was repeatedly knocking Garrett Anderson down until Chuck Finley told Collins and Anderson that he’d take care of it.

“He hit their star player square in the back,” Collins said, “and that was the end of it. They didn’t knock our guy down anymore.”

What Collins didn’t say was that the Angels’ pitchers knew their manager expected someone to take care of business, even if wasn’t communicated directly. Collins thinks the world of Showalter and he’s not about to criticize him, but he admitted he was puzzled by the lack of response from the Mets.

Lindor, meanwhile, even mentioned in a New York Post story exploring the failed season that perhaps a brawl would have galvanized the team, mentioning that he thought their benches-clearing incident in St. Louis in April 2022 had that type of effect.

Whether that’s true or not, who knows? But there’s no disputing that the ’23 Mets didn’t show any real fight, literally or figuratively, as their season was sinking on them, and Showalter has to take some of the hit for that.

So those are what I believe are fair criticisms. I could add the strange insistence on playing Daniel Vogelbach when he was in a massive slump in May and June and the Mets were faltering, rather than giving more at-bats to rookie Mark Vientos.

The Vogelbach saga helped turn the fans against Showalter, as evidenced by the overwhelming sentiment on social media that Buck didn’t want to play the kids called up from the minors. However, I can’t be sure of how much input Eppler and the front office had as to the lineups -- I know there was some -- so I can’t put that all on Buck.

Still, it did create a public perception that maybe he wasn’t the right guy for a team that will be counting on a lot of young players in the coming years.

The bottom line is the ’23 Mets never looked like what I, and many baseball people I spoke to during the season, had come to think of as a Buck Showalter team.

And while you can make a case he didn’t suddenly forget how to manage, the criticisms I detailed would suggest that he had a bad year, and at the worst time for his own sake.

Maybe it wouldn’t have mattered, but Buck’s strange season gave Stearns plenty of latitude to bring in a new manager, knowing it almost certainly wouldn’t be an unpopular decision with the majority of Mets’ fans.

Too bad. I wanted that fairy tale ending for Showalter. But I can’t argue that he got a raw deal.