NEW YORK—Manny Acta is a believer. When it comes to the value of advanced metrics—or the insights that can be gained through the use of sabermetric principles—the manager of the Indians needs no convincing. Take, for instance, his stance on bunting: “Outs are precious. There's 27 of them. You've got to take care of them.”
Or on stealing bases: “You can't be running just because 40,000 people will think you're being aggressive and you're getting thrown out left and right.”
Or on strikeouts: “You only complain about a strikeout when you leave a guy on third base with less than two outs. But there are times where a guy hits into a double play that you're wishing that he struck out.”
Since becoming a big league skipper, first with the Nationals and then with the Indians, Acta has based much of his managerial philosophy on taking advantage of the statistical resources available to him. “We might as well use it,” he said.
Indeed, Acta may need every tool in his arsenal to turn around the Indians. For two months, the Indians have been baseball's most pleasant surprise. But since the calendar has turned over to June, reality has descended upon the Tribe, who for the first time this season have played in line with preseason predictions. Even after a 1-0 victory against the Yankees last night, the Indians are just 3-9 for the month. They enter a big three-game set with the Tigers beginning tonight having been outscored this month 66-35.
Yet, Acta maintains that his team isn't going anywhere. “We'll be back again playing better,” he said. “I guess that's understatement. We can't play any worse right now.”
The June Swoon can seemingly trace its roots back to one fateful day, May 18. That's when an oblique injury sent Travis Hafner to the disabled list. In the 39 games before that, the Indians rolled to a 26-13 mark with an offense that scored 5.3 runs per game. But in the 25 games since Hafner was forced out of the lineup, the Indians have staggered to a 9-16 record with a lineup that has produced just 3.1 runs per game.
“Can't wait,” Acta said of Hafner's return. “It's not easy to replace a guy who's been hitting .345 with a (.409) on-base percentage. His presence alone means a lot to our lineup.”
If all goes well during his minor league rehab, Hafner could be back in the lineup later this week, bringing his team-high .348 True Average back to the middle of the order. But until then, Acta has committed to finding other ways to coax more runs out of the Indians, who start their set with the Tigers tonight in a virtual tie atop the division.
The most drastic steps came yesterday before their four-game series finale against the Yankees, when Acta reshuffled the lineup by moving Michael Brantley and Asdrubal Cabrera to the third and cleanup spots in the order, down from hitting first and second. In their place, Acta moved Grady Sizemore up to leadoff and Carlos Santana into the two hole, where Acta hopes the Indians can take advantage of the .348 on-base percentage he's posted despite struggling otherwise.
“You've got to keep adapting, improvising and adjusting,” he said. “We felt that something had to be done.”
Though he stops short of calling himself a “full sabermetric type guy”— he remains a hold-out when it comes to defensive metrics—Acta said numbers can influence how he adjusts his lineup. This is apparent in his current shuffling.
“I do use the information that I believe in: I like on-base percentage, I like OPS, I like WHIP, I like FIP, all that kind of stuff,” Acta said. “I don't make lineup decisions on an everyday basis based on that, but I could make changes in my lineup on a monthly basis, or make adjustments from series to series due to some of that stuff.”
For Acta, the change accomplishes the simple goal of using who he views as his two most consistent hitters (not named Travis Hafner) over the last two months in the middle of the order. “[I] talked to those guys and [I’m] not expecting any one of them to change their approach at the plate,” Acta said. “Be the hitter you are because you only hit third or fourth one time and that's it. Once the lineup starts rolling over, everybody is just a hitter hitting behind and in front of somebody else.”
In Day 1 of the experiment, the Indians scored just one run, though it came when Brantley (.286 TAv) led off the fourth inning with a triple that glanced off Nick Swisher's glove, then Cabrera (.313) followed with a run-scoring single. It was the Indians' only run though in this case it was enough to win.
“We're going to give it a few days to see if it works,” Acta said. “ I think everything will change once Hafner comes back and this is a way to see and try to get some guys going… For now, we have to try something different.”
Still, Acta expects things to eventually get back to normal, which is perhaps the most important point. It's one that he recently hammered home to his players in a team meeting, and one that will surely surface again as the Indians face off with the Tigers. “We're not a fluke,” Acta said. “You're not a fluke for 2 1/2 months when you're in first place for that long. Still, there's a lot of games left. We've built up that lead at the beginning. That's why right now we're still in a good spot.”
Marc Carig is in his third season as the New York Yankees' beat writer for The Star-Ledger in Newark, N.J. He previously covered the Baltimore Orioles for the Washington Post. A native of the San Francisco Bay Area, Carig once believed Dennis Eckersley to be the greatest closer of all time, though seeing Mariano Rivera every day has forced him to reconsider.