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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.

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lmarighi
9/28
Thanks Ben, this article was basically what I've been thinking since I heard about Acta's firing, especially the last sentence.
EricMeeker
9/28
I presume you mean the second to last sentence which reads, "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." That sums it up in a nutshell. This organization needs a new direction, and it needs to start in upper management. They've got Carlos Santana to build around. Everything else should be for sale.
lmarighi
9/29
Oops, yes, definitely second to last sentence, thanks.
timber
9/28
"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." Is "deserved" the operative word here? Perhaps he didn't "deserve" to be fired so much as the Indians *needed* to fire him. Sometimes it's just best to start fresh with a different voice, and it's no reflection on Acta.
bornyank1
9/28
I see what you mean, but I don't know--I'd like to think that the only reason the Indians would need to fire him would be because of some failing on his part. Otherwise, you're just talking about change for the sake of change, right? That's sort of what Bill Veeck warned about in the quote I included in the "On Decision-Making" section here. I I don't know that "Well, we're not winning with Manager X" is a good reason to fire Manager X unless you think you're not winning because of Manager X.
davescottofakron
9/28
Warren Spahn on Stengel: "I'm probably the only guy who worked for Stengel before and after he was a genius." I think Acta skipped the Yankees segement of his career and wend directly from the Boston Braves to the New York Mets.
bornyank1
9/28
Well, maybe Acta going from Washington to Cleveland was like Stengel going from the Dodgers to the Bees/Braves. In which case his next stop should be the one where he wins seven World Series.
radickey
9/28
and by the way, the team finished 4 games ahead of its pythagorean projection so far this year. Managerial excellence? who knows, but no evidence he underperformed.
bornyank1
9/28
I'm not a believer that either Pythagorean under- or overperformance reveals much of anything about a manager.
jlong82
9/30
I saw that proposed on "Clubhouse Confidential" one time so I looked into it and found that there is very little consistency in most managers pyth win % over/under actual record which probably means they have nothing to do with it, seems more like luck is the explanation.
tomterp
9/28
I saw Manny plenty as a Nats fan, and it was clear to me that he failed to inspire passion. His calm, inward demeanor simply doesn't permit him to push the right buttons to motivate players to give maximum effort. And if the other team is playing harder than your team, you have an uphill climb.
bornyank1
9/28
Could be, though if that's the case, you have to wonder how the Indians failed to pick up on that before they hired him.
Scartore
9/30
Meh, I watched every Cincinnati game this year (on tv) and if you didn't know his reputation I think you would assume that Dusty Baker had a 'calm, inward demeanor. You rarely see him shout at umpires or yell at his players, but they would run through fire for him. I don't think you can tell how good a motivator a manager is from the dugout.
cnote66
9/28
What was Joe Torre's record, taking out his sucess with the NYY?
kasgard
9/28
Interesting to see the reference to Torre right after Tomterp's reference to Acta's calm demeanor. Torre embodied the calm, confident, always-in-control of his emotions skipper. Which of course is an asset when you're winning but gets associated with "failed to inspire passion" when you don't
bornyank1
9/29
Agreed. Torre's Yankees/non-Yankees split wasn't quite as dramatic: .605 in 12 years with the Yankees (12 playoff appearances, two pennants, four World Series), .484 in 18 years (a few of them partial) with other teams (three playoff appearances, no pennants, no World Series).
Oleoay
9/30
Note though that Torre's first job with the Mets had a winning percentage around .400. In the grand scheme of things, people really still don't know how much a manager factors into their team success. I still have the hunch that basically any Joe Schmoe who knew a little bit about baseball could manage a baseball team.
rgbauer
9/29
I agree. People see what they want to see. Ozzie Guillen's fire inspired the team until it didn't. Unless you are in the clubhouse (or have reliable information from someone who is), you have no way of knowing how the manager's demeanor affects the players. Moreover, passion may be critical in football, but it's overrated in baseball. Players who get too emotional about the game swing at bad pitches, rush throws and overthrow and flatten their fastballs. Baseball players are at their best when they stay calmly but intensely focused, a difficult balance to attain.
Scartore
9/30
Exactly. That's confirmation bias showing its ugly head. It's the same with team chemistry.
BillJohnson
9/29
Okay, let me summarize this article in 25 words or less: "Acta hewed to the principles of sabermetric orthodoxy. Those principles cannot be wrong. Therefore his problem was something else. Of course, it had to be."
bornyank1
9/29
You disagree?
Lespaul1
9/29
Didn't the Nats have a pretty sucky lineup during his tenure? Acta should have inspired his players to be Stephen Strasburg and Bryce Harper, that would've probably helped more than the "passion" thing.
mhmosher
9/29
The baseball media loves Acta, probably because he's a SABR-minded guy. That is good - I'd want my manager to believe in sabermetrics too. But somehow he has to get more out of the players than he does. I know Cleveland's roster is thin, but they quit on him too. He's a bright baseball guy, but something seems to be missing, besides better players.
Scartore
9/30
When has Acta had anything close to "better players"?
mhmosher
9/30
At some point, he's not a sabr guy that would be a great manager, he's a sabr guy that can't manage.
NeauxBrainers
10/01
Manny Acta was one of the best managers and leaders of men I have observed in my six decades of faithfully watching Indians baseball. There were many times this season when I wanted to scream at him for his daily lineup of mostly minor league quality players. Then, I reminded myself that he didn't choose the players, the Indians minor league system could not provide him anything better, and the owners did not buy anything better. Heads should have rolled at the end of 2012. But not his.