Relief, Blame, and Where We Go From Here: On Manny Acta and the Next Tribe Manager

acta mad

I remember when the Indians first hired Manny Acta I felt something between relief and outright happiness.

The relief was mostly a product of Acta’s primary competition for the job. I have not been, nor am I currently, a fan of the stylings of Robert Valentine. He strikes me as pedantic and ill-informed, wrapped in a patina of unearned self-satisfaction. In short, I find him to be unpleasant in nearly every regard, and was relieved upon learning of Acta’s hiring that I’d not be subjected to years of Valentine’s inane nonsense.1

But, if you’ll recall, I was also happy about the Acta hiring in a vacuum. It wasn’t just that he managed successfully not to be Bobby Valentine, but he was saying all the right things when it came to in-game strategy. I wrote a whole piece about it way back when2 praising Acta’s strategy—or at least the strategy he claimed he’d manage by.

Here’s a snippet of what I wrote (and yeah, the “takes his job seriously” was a veiled jab at Valentine, if you couldn’t tell):

Refreshing, isn’t it? It’s nice to know that our manager takes his job seriously. He sounds like he’ll keep an open mind. When the numbers are there, he’ll use them. When they’re not, he has 20 years of real-world, baseball experience to rely on. He doesn’t seem to accept the false choice between statistical analyses on the one hand, and experiential knowledge that only “old school” baseball men have on the other. This seems like a good sign to me. And if all else fails, at least there won’t be any more grinding.

And to be completely fair, I think most of that piece still stands just fine. For the most part, I found Manny to be a fairly smart and efficient in-game decision maker. He leveraged his lineups properly for the most part. He bunted sparingly and ran only when his chances of success were good. Despite (or, more likely because) a lineup composed of primarily left-handed hitters, he managed his platoon splits as well as any manager in baseball. From a recent piece on Baseball Prospectus:

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.

Trust me that most of the things in that paragraph are meant to make Acta sound good, even if the rest of the piece is not. The point being that—as a simple tactician—Acta managed the game about as well as a savvy fan could hope.

Yet we know that by and large Acta failed in his mission to make his players better and put them in the best position to succeed. Especially during the 2012 season, the Indians underperformed to such a significant degree that no amount of in-game tactics could overcome the slide that sunk the team and eventually cost Manny his job.3

In short (and maybe you should read that last footnote), it might be fair to say that while Acta was able to get the most out of any given game-situation, he was not able to get the most out his individual players. And that probably ended up costing him his job.

Back to that BP article cited above:

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.

And this snippet from Anthony Castrovice sure makes you wonder if Acta hadn’t lost the clubhouse quite a while back:

It’s not exactly fair, but the current crop of players seemed to sour on Acta. They didn’t feel he stuck up for them enough on blown or controversial calls. They didn’t feel he associated with them enough in the clubhouse.

Indeed, it’s telling that, several hours after the news of his dismissal had gone public, Acta had only heard from one of his players offering condolences.

What’s the point of all this name-calling and backstabbing and second-guessing? I’m not completely sure, but the more I think about this, the more certain I am that in-game tactics might be among the least important attributes of a good manager. As much as I’ll slap my forehead if Terry Francona or Sandy Alomar calls for a first inning bunt or silly stolen base attempt,4 the most important job of the next manager is going to be squeezing every bit of talent out of the players afforded him—not choosing between the bunt and hit and run (or neither—please god, let it be neither). Can the next manager unlock Michael Brantley’s batting eye that seems to have stayed behind in Columbus? Can he straighten out Carlos Santana’s power, or solve Lonnie’s platoon splits, or straighten out Masterson’s mechanics, or—dear GOD—do something about the festering pile of Ubaldo? If so, he can bunt all he wants and nobody’ll give him any grief—least of all me.

Along these lines, no matter what you believe about Manny Acta, you’ll probably agree that under his managerial tenure quite a few players underperformed their abilities. How much of that you want to put on him is up to you, but it seems pretty evident that it ended up costing him his job.

I would hope, then, that it goes without saying what the front office should be looking for to fill the fedora-shaped vacancy left behind by Acta. They need someone who will command respect and deference. They need someone eager to work with young ballplayers. They need someone eager to take on the many challenges that accompany small-market teams. Perhaps that means a track record of success is in order? Perhaps someone with a history with the franchise? No matter what, it seems that we already have two good candidates in Alomar and Francona. I’m sure we’ll write about both sometime soon, but when I think on each, I see good things—things I didn’t even think to look for three years ago.

A few final words on Acta before we leave him in the Wedgian graveyard. Kirk and TD both gave their thoughts on the firing, and by and large, they seemed in agreement that Acta was unfairly made to pay for the sins of the front office (and that whoever comes next could likely pay a similar price). This is certainly true, and I wouldn’t begin to disagree with it. Acta was scapegoated: cast out bearing the guilt of the front office so that the rest of us could start over. I feel, necessarily, bad for him. Especially when he continues to appear to be such a decent man in the midst of what must be a terribly humbling and embarrassing ordeal.

But—and I hope this doesn’t sound nonsensical—he had to be fired. He had to be fired because results matter, and at the beginning of this season more people than not thought this team had the talent to be above .500. He had to be fired because it would’ve been a PR nightmare to bring him back. He had to be fired to show the players that seasons like this have consequences and that performances like these won’t be tolerated. He had to be fired because somebody had to bear the brunt of this season, and the front office can’t exactly fire itself.

So while it makes me sad that a seemingly good and smart man got scapegoated, I’m pretty sure that this was the only way for this season to shake out.

Acta’s departure from Cleveland doesn’t arouse in me the happiness that his arrival did. Departures tend not to inspire those sorts of feelings, especially ones that are precipitated by such unfettered failure.

But I’d be lying if that other feeling that accompanied Manny’s hiring—relief—hasn’t popped into my mind from time to time in the week since the firing. I’m relieved that these players will hear a new voice. I’m relieved that Terry Francona seems legitimately desirous of the job. I’m relieved to have real reason to believe that next year might be different.

Mostly, I’m relieved that someone will bear this stinking corpse of a season out past the city gates and into the wilderness. Someone needed to take this burden away so that the rest of us could forget it. In the Bible, this beast of burden is sometimes called the Goat of Azazel.

In Cleveland, we’ll just call him Manny.

  1. A few quotes from Valentine’s staged press conference in Cleveland when auditioning for one of the 30 best jobs in the whole baseball world, presented without editorial comments:

    “I don’t know as much about Cleveland as someone interviewing for their manager’s job probably should. I could have crammed for the last six days, read every article and called every friend to get every bit of information just in case one of guys asked me who the starting third baseman is going to be next year. I didn’t do it.”

    “I can tell you that I don’t know about the American League. I don’t know about the Central. I don’t know about the Indians.”

    “I don’t know if it’s exactly what I want to do. I’m not sure. But again, I haven’t been offered the job so I don’t have to decide if this is what I want to do.”

    “That’s what I do for a living. I hope it’s enough.”

    Seriously. Watch this video. I’m not making this up. []

  2. holy moly, I’ve been doing this for too long []
  3. I have seen arguments from Actalytes floating around that because Manny significantly outperformed his pythagorean win expectation during his tenure in Cleveland, he was, by definition, a good manager. Basically, Manny was able to win more games than simple runs scored and allowed would have implied.

    This is, of course, nonsense—or at least most of it is. Sure, it’s possible that Manny’s tactics managed to squeeze an extra win or two out of an otherwise execrable performance. The bigger question is why was the performance so execrable in the first place? The Indians have been outscored by a larger margin than any team in baseball save the Astros. So if we give Manny the credit for squeezing an extra couple of wins per year out of his club by optimal strategy and sequencing, can’t we also ding him considerably for the significant under-performance of most of the players under his tutelage? I would say so. []

  4. We should note here that neither man has a history of such imbecilic moves—just illustrative examples []
  • Ryan F.

    Brantley has been pretty much what I expected. I don’t really see a huge decline from his minor league production.

  • Vindictive_Pat

    Poetry. Truth.

    It’s incredible how long the baseball season really is. I feel like it’s been a long time since the Indians were in contention for the lead in the AL Central. I also feel like they were either in the lead or close to it for a long time this season. I know it’d never happen, but man baseball really needs to shorten its season. The Indians were so far out of contention in September that I couldn’t bring myself to go to the bar to watch a game.

  • The_Real_Shamrock

    The footnotes are nearly as long as the article! The footnotes need footnotes…Actalytes, pythagorean win expectation…c’mon Jon this is Cleveland not Cincinnati! (I couldn’t resist) ;-)

  • Steve

    A big part of what made Brantley so good in the minors was his walk rate, which was around 12% and never was below 10.4% in any season. As a major leaguer though, his walk rate is 7.5%. Brantley has to be getting on base frequently to be a solid major league contributor. Fortunately, his walk rate bounced up this year (and the k-rate went down). Hopefully he continues to develop.

  • WFNY_DP

    A lot of the young guys seem to have left their better hitting habits in Columbus. I know I’ve kicked this possibly-dead horse before for awhile, but what does Mike Sarbaugh have to do to get considered for even the hitting coach job in Cleveland?

    Organizational familiarity? Check. Sarbaugh’s been in the system since 1995.

    Hitting coach chops? Check. Sarbaugh was the hitting coach in Kinston, Columbus (GA), and Akron between 1995 and 2003.

    Experience getting the most out of his (many of who are these) players? Check. Sarbaugh has nine years of minor league managing experience in the system at all levels, and has five championships, including one each in the New York-Penn League, A ball, AA ball, and two in AAA ball. This past season, with almost NOTHING on his roster, he went 75-69 and finished just four games out of the IL Wild Card. He’s never had a losing season in nine years as a minor league manager.

    What does this guy have to do to get a shot in Cleveland in ANY capacity? Personally, I think he’s the perfect candidate to be the hitting coach next year. He’s worked with ALL of our young core hitters, many of whom put up their best stretches working with him in Columbus.

  • mgbode

    would he accept a mere hitting coach job with the Tribe though?

    I think he’s earned an interview for the big chair.

  • I53

    Until roughly mid-season, the Indians probably played as well as the players’ collective abilities would allow. It makes me wonder if the front office’s failure to bring any reinforcements by the trade deadline led to a sense of “uselessness” among some of the players. A front office effort to push them toward the top could have been a very positive event. It is readily acknowledged that the big trade at such a time in 2011 has been anything but successful to date.

  • Steve

    To be fair, Columbus has been a great hitter’s park. But I agree, Sarbaugh should get a shot at the ML level.

  • WFNY_DP

    I don’t care what position they’d let him go for. They need to keep him.

  • WFNY_DP

    True, but he’s worked literally almost everywhere in the Tribe’s organization, and his teams have been good at every level. You don’t win that many championships because you were in a good hitters’ park for three years.

  • Steve

    Like I said, give him a shot. I’m really just responding to “our young core hitters, many of whom put up their best stretches working with him in Columbus”

    This has a lot to do with the park, probably more than Sarbaugh.

  • WFNY_DP

    True, true.

  • mgbode

    I was asking what position “he” would want. Would he think that hitting coach for the Indians is a step up from the main job in AAA? I’m sure some would, some wouldn’t. Do you get the feel he would think that’s a step up?