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September 28, 2012

Overthinking It

Mourning Manny Acta

by Ben Lindbergh

Let’s compare a few quotes. Each one is something a general manager said during a press conference to introduce a new manager. I’m not going to tell you who said what until after you’ve read them, and I’ve removed any names to preserve the suspense.

  1. “He’s really well-balanced, all the way around. He really understands teaching, developing, building a young club. He has great people skills, but he knows how to put the hammer down.”
     
  2. “We feel that [redacted] is a very strong and experienced leader who possesses great energy and enthusiasm along with tremendous communication skills and a positive mindset that will command a presence in the dugout, clubhouse and with our fans.”
     
  3. “He’s a natural-born leader. He’s very charismatic… He’s able to connect individually, connect with groups, get the best out of people, and that’s really what we found the most compelling part of his style. He has genuine energy.”

Ready for the big reveal? The quotes are in chronological order. The first quote is Jim Bowden, introducing Manny Acta as the manager of the Washington Nationals in 2006. The second quote is Mark Shapiro, introducing Acta as the manager of the Cleveland Indians in 2009. And the third quote is Jeff Luhnow, introducing Bo Porter as the manager of the Houston Astros yesterday.

Leadership. People skills. Energy. Both Acta and Porter possess those qualities, or were perceived to possess them when they got their gigs. Here’s what R.J. Anderson wrote today about Porter’s hiring by Houston:

Why is Porter, currently the Nationals’ third-base coach, a hot managerial commodity? His communication skills—perhaps the most important attribute for a manager to own—receive plenty of praise. Porter carries himself in a confident manner, yet seems open to new ideas.

A 40-year-old former third-base coach, praised for his interpersonal skills and unorthodox thinking, hired to manage a young team coming off an ugly season. When have we heard that before? Almost three years ago, when the then-40-year-old Acta was hired by the Indians. That hiring didn’t have a happy ending. On the same day that the Astros’ new manager was being introduced to the press, Acta got the ax, a grim reminder of Porter’s possible future.

If Acta’s job security were tied to his tactical skills, Sandy Alomar, Jr. might still be his bench coach instead of his interim replacement. Acta has talked about reading Baseball Prospectus and mentioned Mind Game as his favorite book. He stressed the importance of preserving outs as opposed to sacrifice bunting. He valued efficiency in stealing, and he said strikeouts weren’t so bad. He understood how to properly leverage relievers. He referred to BABIP by its acronym. He was, by all accounts, us, but with a better personality and experience as a professional player and big-league coach.

Many managers pay lip service to saber-savvy strategies just after they’re hired. When they get to the dugout, they go by their gut. But Acta’s teams walk the (unintentional) walk. Nothing annoys the average blogger more than a sacrifice bunt, but Cleveland fans haven't had much cause for complaint. Acta’s Indians have attempted 15 fewer this season than the next-most sac-averse team. They’ve issued the ninth-fewest intentional walks. And while we can’t necessarily attribute the platoon advantage to Acta, Indians batters have faced same-handed pitchers in a lower percentage of their plate appearances than any other team.

If all of that sounds familiar, it might be because you read our comment on Acta from last year’s annual:

Praised for his ability to inspire players and make the most of the talent he is given, Acta is also a very sound tactician and a manager who is extremely open to taking suggestions from advanced analytics. The most widespread crime among major league managers is overmanaging, whereas one of Acta’s greatest strengths as a tactician is what he doesn’t do: he doesn’t overwork his pitching staff, he doesn’t attempt many sacrifices, and he doesn’t offer many free passes.

This isn’t anything new. If you have a copy of Baseball Prospectus 2008 lying around, open it up and flip our love letter to Acta, otherwise known as the Nationals essay. In his rookie season, Acta led the majors in relievers used and defensive substitutions as he tried to make the most of a thin roster. We approved of all the activity, writing, “Where he saw he could have a positive effect—on the pitching staff and the defense—he was active, otherwise, he stayed out of the way.” To call Acta a revelation, we added, “would be an understatement.”

Browse enough Indians blogs, and you’ll come across the standard second-guessing: an unhealthy attachment to Jose Lopez, an occasional odd-looking lineup, a questionable call to the bullpen. But no manager ever entirely escapes the fans’ ire. If Acta wasn’t an asset as a tactician, it seems safe to say he was at least something less than a liability.

But tactical skills mean only so much, and all of Acta's moves couldn't do for the Nats what the team's subsequent influx of talent did. Here's how we ended his comment in ’08: “If Acta could be this effective with the 2007 Nats, one wonders what he might be capable of when he actually has a genuinely good team to manage.”

One still has to wonder. Five seasons later, we haven’t seen Acta as the skipper of a successful team. And that brings us to the numbers Acta probably doesn’t like to look at: 372 and 518. Those are his teams’ combined wins and losses, respectively. That’s not just bad, it’s historically bad, and there’s no way to avoid it. It’s right there in the first paragraph of his Wikipedia page: “Only two managers in Major League Baseball history have managed more games than Acta and had a lower winning percentage than Acta’s .418 mark.”

Clearly, Acta has failed to turn poor teams into contenders. He inherited a Nationals team that had just finished 71-91 and he was fired three years later after finishing 59-103. He inherited an Indians team that had just finished 65-97 and was dumped after the same number of seasons by one that went 65-91. If you think turning poor teams into contenders is a skill possessed by good managers, then the only possible conclusion is that Acta is an utter failure. But it’s quite a stretch to think that. It’s just too easy to find examples that say otherwise.

Here’s an obvious one: in 12 seasons with Casey Stengel as skipper, the Yankees’ winning percentage was .623. They won seven World Series and missed the playoffs just twice (once when they won 103 games). But in 13 seasons with other teams—both before and after his stint in New York—Stengel’s winning percentage was .397, worse than Acta’s is so far. None of his non-Yankees teams ever came close to a pennant. He finished with a career record just a shade over .500. And he’s in the Hall of Fame. If a good team ever gives Acta a chance, he has plenty of time to turn his record around.

So did Acta deserve any blame for his firing? There were whispers that the Indians’ level of effort dropped off during their disastrous second half. Maybe Acta wasn’t much of a motivator. Or maybe going 5-24 in August—the worst month in franchise history—would have sucked the life out of any team. The Indians recovered to go 10-14 in September—about the best one could have expected—but it wasn’t enough to save Acta. Yet again, a vote of confidence proved to be anything but.

There is one area in which Acta may have fallen flat. When he was hired, the Plain Dealer reported that the Indians liked “Acta’s multicultural background and his ability to relate to their Latin American players.” But some sources say that some of the Indians’ American players resented him and believed that he favored the Latinos on the team. Acta was certainly aware of that danger—when asked about the difference between Latino and American-born players in his 2010 interview at BP, he said, “from day one you have to get your point across that everyone is going to be treated the same.” Maybe he failed to convey that point. Still, after his firing, Acta insisted that he hadn’t lost his clubhouse, and some players were quick to absolve him of blame. Bobby Valentine, another dead manager walking, has created more controversy in a single radio spot than Acta has all season.

In order to believe that Acta deserved to be canned, we’d have to believe that someone else could have willed the Indians to win. We’d have to believe that Shapiro, and all the sources Shapiro consulted, were wrong about Acta’s ballyhooed ability to connect with his players. We’d have to believe that the same guy who finished fourth in last year’s Manager of the Year voting—and first among managers of non-playoff teams—became incompetent over the offseason. From the outside, it’s easier to believe that the Indians needed a fall guy, and that Shapiro and Chris Antonetti—who locked up Travis Hafner, traded for Ubaldo Jimenez, re-signed Grady Sizemore, and expected Johnny Damon and Casey Kotchman to contribute—preferred not to fire themselves.

For Porter, the latest promising managerial prospect to take over a losing team, that should be the scariest scenario.

Ben Lindbergh is an author of Baseball Prospectus. 
Click here to see Ben's other articles. You can contact Ben by clicking here

Related Content:  Sabermetrics,  Managers,  Indians,  Manny Acta,  Bo Porter

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