Examination: The Impact of Acta
By Bob Toth
When a team struggles as badly as the Cleveland Indians have over the last several seasons, someone generally takes the fall. Fans of the Indians have desperately sought someone to blame for the quick collapse of this year’s Tribe, and fingers have pointed in several different directions all at once. Indians’ owner Larry Dolan, team President Mark Shapiro, and General Manager Chris Antonetti have all been blamed for their roles in slamming the window shut on the 2012 season.
Some have even considered Manny Acta and his managerial position and have questioned his ability to lead the Indians. Is he to blame for the woes of a fan base watching another promising team fail like so many before them?
The 43-year-old Acta joined the Indians on October 25, 2009 on a three-year contract, with a club option for 2013. Under his guidance, the young 2010 Indians improved on their 2009 record by just four games. They finished in fourth place in the American League Central, although the team posted a second half record of 35-39, giving them hope moving into the 2011 season. The roster ending the season was the youngest in the major leagues.
The 2011 season started fast and successful for the Tribe, as they rushed out of the gate to a 30-15 record and over a half-dozen game lead onDetroitin the AL Central. Soon, the injury bug bit, and it bit the Indians hard, sending the team into a slump and forcing eleven different rookies to make their major league debuts. Over the course of the season, the team would use the disabled list 22 times for a grand total of 826 player days missed.
The Indians would end the season in second place, 15 games behind front-running Detroit, with a final tally of 80 wins and 82 losses. The team spent 95 days in first place, and the young team showed a lot of promise, as long as they could stay healthy. Acta’s efforts in this turnaround from 2010 were recognized, and he was rewarded by the team, who exercised his 2013 club option on September 29, 2011.
Acta entered the 2012 season as the second youngest manager in all of baseball. Only Mike Matheny of the St. Louis Cardinals, who will turn 42 in September, is younger.
With the Indians in a massive slump and many games below the .500 mark in 2012, should the Indians act on Acta?
There are certainly some cons about Acta in his present role with the Indians. One of the most noticeable and questioned is his fire about in-game happenings and decisions. Many times, he can be seen sitting in the dugout, arms crossed, appearing to be disinterested in what is transpiring before him. Too often, after a debatable call on the field, Acta remains seated on the pine, seemingly unwilling to argue the call or to defend his players. When he does run out onto the field, he will say a few words, show little emotion, appear lackadaisical, and return to the dugout with no harm done.
Acta has been ejected just one time in 2012, following a Jeanmar Gomez pitch that hit Kansas City Royals’ batter Mike Moustakas leading off the bottom of the third inning on April 14th. Acta, along with Gomez and Jack Hannahan, were ejected following the pitch and the fight that ensued as a result of it.
He was ejected just twice in 2011. On May 23rd, he was tossed for arguing a safe call at first base in the top of the eighth inning against the Red Sox, when Justin Masterson appeared to touch first base on a throw from Matt LaPorta. On September 28th, he was ejected for arguing balls and strikes in the top of the first inning against the Tigers.
This lack of intensity from Acta could even be contagious to an extent and extend onto the team’s overall attitude, which at present time, seems to lack a lot of emotion.
Acta never made it to the major leagues as a player, and some could argue that because of that, he may not have a true understanding of big game situations. He played parts of five seasons from 1987 to 1991 in the Houston Astros’ organization, where he made it no higher than Double-A. He was a career .241 hitter who averaged almost two and one-half strikeouts per walk. He had a career total of six home runs. He played first, second, and third bases, shortstop, three games in the outfield, and even pitched an inning as a 19-year-old for Osceola.
Acta has managed for parts of 14 professional seasons, eight in the minor leagues. He has earned a career winning percentage of .458. At the major league level, over six seasons, the number drops to .426.
In just four of these professional seasons did an Acta-coached team post a winning record. Coaching short-season Class-A ball for the Astros’ affiliate, Auburn, Acta led the 1994 team to a 45-31 record (.592) as a 25-year-old. In 1995, the team finished 40-34 (.541). He repeated the feat in consecutive years forKissimmee, Houston’s advanced Class-A team, in 1999 and 2000, when his teams finished 71-66 (.518) and 73-66 (.525), respectively.
After the 2000 season, Acta coached for Tony Pena with New Orleans (AAA). He was hired by Frank Robinson in 2002 and made his major league debut as a third base coach for the Expos, holding the position until the end of their final season in Montreal in 2004. He held the same position in 2005 and 2006 for the New York Mets, before being hired on November 14, 2006 as the manager of the Washington Nationals, the franchise that had presented him with his first major league job five seasons earlier.
In Acta’s first season, he took the Nationals to a 73-89 record (.451) and a fourth place finish in the NL East, despite using 14 rookies and 13 different starting pitchers. The following season, an injury-ravaged Nationals’ team won just 59 games (.366), finishing in last place while losing eight of their nine Opening Day starters to injuries and 19 players in total throughout the season while utilizing the disabled list 30 times. By the All-Star break in 2009, Acta was let go, with the team well out of the race with a 26-61 record (.299).
Before making a decision on whether Acta should stay or go, it is important to consider the positive things he has accomplished in his time, too.
Last season, he posted the single best record of his major league managerial career. He did so despite leading a team that was devastated by injuries to its core players yet still was in first place and in playoff contention for well over half of the season. He improved the record of the team by eleven wins, compared to the previous season. Young players like Jason Kipnis, Michael Brantley, Justin Masterson, Vinnie Pestano, and Carlos Santana have shown growth under his leadership, and two players, Asdrubal Cabrera and Chris Perez, have attained the status of two-time All-Stars under his regime.
When he was hired by Cleveland, the organization saw Acta as an enthusiastic manager who had significant experience working with young players throughout his minor league coaching career and with a young Nationals team. His analysis of the game through sabermetrics fit the front office’s views. The team also believed that the native of the Dominican Republic’s communication skills were strong enough to be an essential asset to an organization filled with so many young, Latin American players.
As an alternate perspective to the lack of intensity he may show on the field, Acta may also be seen as instilling patience, teaching a calm and level-headed attitude to the young players on his team. During the 2012 season, the Indians have been ejected just five times, and only three of these were by players. In addition to the trio from the May 14th ejections, Hannahan was again ejected in New York on June 26th for unsportsmanlike conduct after arguing the infamous dropped foul ball by Yankees’ outfielder Dewayne Wise. Third base coach Steve Smith was thrown out on May 11th for arguing an out call at the plate against the Red Sox.
Acta has been dealt what many would consider a roster filled with young, unproven prospects and underqualified journeymen, instead of highly touted, bona fide every day players. Outside of the core up the middle of Brantley, Cabrera, Kipnis, and Santana (the latter whom is just now earning his way back into this consideration), question marks litter the roster. The pitching staff is no more determined, as the veteran starters have failed to meet expectations and the younger players have struggled with little run support when they actually were pitching well.
Acta is not playing the game. He can only coach the roster and the talent within (or lack thereof) that he has been given. He cannot control slumps; he has to rely on the coaches around him to help determine how to fix the problem, if indeed one exists. He cannot avoid their injuries; he can try to rest his players as best as possible with an occasional day off and can make sure that they stay active and in shape, but he surely cannot predict the future. He has alertly made changes, such as moving Brantley out of the leadoff spot and moving Choo into it, finding success for both players involved, but such moves will not always work.
Good managers find ways to win. Acta has squeezed more out of lesser talent than many other managers around him with better options. Even within the AL Central, the payrolls and star power in Chicago and Detroit over the past three seasons have far exceeded that within Cleveland’s roster, and yet the Indians have still competed for over half of each of the last two seasons.
The team has been steadily outscored by the opposition throughout the season, and yet up until one week ago, had consistently hovered at or above the .500 mark. Even in their winning months of April (11-9) and May (16-14), they were still outscored by their opponents (one run in April, 22 in May).
The minor league stats above indicate that Acta would not be providing the power and offense that this team needs himself if he were actually in the lineup. Is it his lack of offensive production that is to blame for the team’s record of 13-40 (.245) when scoring three runs or less?
He has established a back end of the bullpen as good, if not better, than any other team around. When the starting pitching has been able to keep the opposition at three runs or fewer and has handed the ball off to the trio of Joe Smith, Vinnie Pestano, and Chris Perez, the team has won.
The numbers do nothing more than prove it. In games this season when the Indians have allowed three runs or fewer, they are 37-6 (.860). Games of two runs or less provide an even better result – a 25-2 record (.926). Acta and his squad find ways to win almost every close game.
Even though Acta pitched an inning of one walk, one strikeout ball in his minor league career, he certainly cannot help this team on the field from the mound. He can coach up the guys he has and hope that they perform to the level that the city demands.
People have said it is time to fire Manny Acta and suggest Sandy Alomar, Jr., seated nightly on the bench next to Acta, as his heir apparent. Surely, Santosis a fan favorite to all Indians fans, both diehards and bandwagoners alike, due to his success during the Indians’ revival during the 1990’s. But before Cleveland gets all up in arms to anoint Alomar as its next manager, take into consideration a few things.
Alomar has no managerial experience. None. On any professional level. He interviewed for manager positions with Toronto after the 2010 season and with bothBostonand the Chicago Cubs after the 2011 season, but was not granted any of the three positions.
Alomar has coached. He is in his first season as bench coach of the Indians. He spent the previous two years coaching first base on Acta’s staff, beginning in the 2010 season. He has been a catching instructor and mentor with Cleveland and previously with the New York Mets from 2008 to 2009.
Alomar played the game for a long time, ending his big league career in 2007. He caught for 20 big league seasons, eleven in Cleveland from 1990 to 2000. He was the 1990 Rookie of the Year after batting .290 with nine home runs and 66 RBI. He also won his lone Gold Glove Award that season, in addition to being named to the first of his six All-Star games, all as an Indian. In the best season of his career in 1997, he batted .324 with 21 home runs, 83 runs batted in, made the All-Star team, won the All-Star Most Valuable Player Award after breaking a 1-1 tie in the bottom of the seventh in Cleveland with a two-run home run off of Shawn Estes, hit a game-tying home run off of Mariano Rivera with two outs in the bottom of the eighth of the ALDS while trailing the Yankees two games to one (a game the Indians would ultimately win), and hit five home runs and 19 RBI in the postseason.
His father was a coach. Sandy Alomar, Sr. managed in Puerto Rico and in four years in the minor leagues in the Cubs and Mets organizations. He held various coaching duties at the major league level with the Cubs, Rockies, and Padres, and was a bench coach, first base coach, and third base coach for the Mets, all after his 15-year big league career ended.
Catchers in general have translated well into managers over the years due to calling the game as the field general of sorts and having all of the action in front of them at all times. Eleven of the 30 big league managers had substantial time behind the plate in their careers, and that does not include Bobby Valentine’s one inning of work for the 1979 Seattle Mariners.
Alomar is beloved in Cleveland for his efforts on the field during their glory days that saw the team fall just short of a championship on several occasions. He may have the potential, one day, to become a manager, but he has not had the opportunity to showcase those skills at any level so far. At least with Acta, there are years of evidence to show the experience he has gained throughout his opportunities to coach or manage at multiple levels.
Acta may be part of the same management and leadership that Clevelanders assign the blame of another disappointing season to, but his job is to coach the talent on the roster and on the field. He does not do the drafting. He does not sign the players. He does not sign the checks. His job is to get the maximum effort possible out of each of his available players at all times. Given this roster, composed of fresh-faced 20-somethings and castaways from the Island of Misfit Baseball Players, how can anyone hold Acta accountable?
Manny Acta is not the problem.
Photo: Getty Images