Monday, October 26, 2009

Acting on Acta

As the Manny Acta Era begins in Cleveland, I have a confession to make:

When word reached the media that the Indians had whittled their managerial search down to four names, I wanted the biggest name of the bunch. I wanted Bobby Valentine.

I wanted Valentine because he has loads of experience, he's been managing pretty much nonstop since 1996, and above all, he's the ultimate anti-Mark Shapiro guy.

Valentine is an old-school manager like Mike Hargrove, but with an eccentric personality that I thought would be a breath of fresh air in an Indians organization that had become bogged down with Moneyball-style analysis and process worship. I wanted Valentine to come in on the first day of spring training wearing Groucho Marx glasses and slinging shaving cream like Trot Nixon. Anything to make baseball fun again for the Tribe's now-youthful roster.

Then, Valentine came to town for the in-person portion of his interview. No one knows what went on behind closed doors, but when Valentine met with the media, he gave a series of rambling responses to questions, ultimately admitting that he did very little research on the Indians or the American League in preparation for his meeting with Team Shapiro.

That in and of itself shouldn't have excluded Valentine from consideration. There will be time to memorize every name on the 40-man roster. I'd be more concerned with his coaching philosophies than whether he can rattle off every pitcher who toed the rubber for the Indians this past season. But what it did show was a lack of preparedness, which could be indicative of Valentine not taking the job opportunity seriously enough.

After that interview, Valentine was all but excluded from consideration. That left Acta, Dodgers bench coach Don Mattingly and Columbus Clippers manager Torey Lovullo.

Of those, the Indians wanted Acta by far the most. He was the lone remaining candidate with Major League managerial experience, a progressive thinker who values the baseball numbers game and a virtual walking encyclopedia of Major League Baseball rosters.

In short: Acta is a Shapiro guy. Like Wedge was a Shapiro guy. But maybe even more so. When the Indians officially hired Acta as the franchise's 40th manager on Sunday, you'd have to think Shapiro was walking on air.

The hire came as something of a surprise, considering that the Astros -- a team with significantly deeper pockets than the Indians and an aggressive owner in Drayton McLane -- had also offered Acta their vacant manager's position. But when Acta and the Astros reportedly had trouble coming to terms on money, the door slid open and Shapiro got his man.

So what did the Indians get in Acta? And how, exactly, is a guy with so many philosophical similarities to Shapiro going to clean out the cobwebs of the Wedge Era?

He can start by relating to players better than Wedge was relating to them by the end of his tenure.

Wedge was decidedly new-school in some ways, but in terms of handling players, he was a modern-era John McGraw tough guy. I'm convinced that Wedge saw himself as something like a spaghetti western Clint Eastwood, and expected the same from his players. Be the strong, silent type. If you're hurt and you can still move, shut your yap and play through the pain. Complaining equals whining equals weakness.

Of course, we all know that a clubhouse of 25 guys is going to contain many different types of personalities. Some can play the role of the lone cowboy, as Wedge idealized. Some are a little more high-maintenance than that. Those are the guys Acta will have to do a better job of connecting with.

Acta will also need to develop a rapport with, and teach, some of the Latin American players that floundered under Wedge. This is a critical connection, because Acta shares a common broad background with the Tribe's foriegn-born Latino players. Born in the Dominican Republic, Acta is the first native Latin American manager in Tribe history. Al Lopez, Dave Garcia and Pat Corrales -- Acta's former Nationals assistant coach -- were all Tribe managers of Latin American descent, but all were born in the U.S.

Players from Latin American baseball factories such as the Dominican Republic, Puerto Rico and Venezuela are, in many cases, taught the game differently than the far-more-structured upbringing that governs the maturation of American-born baseball players. In the U.S., players move from Little League to travel teams to AAU ball, high school ball, advanced summer leagues and maybe college before ever playing a single pitch of pro ball. By then, a U.S.-born player could be 22 or 23.

Acta followed the route that so many young Caribbean players take. He was signed by the Astros as a 17-year-old and was in Double-A ball by 20. He had to learn American baseball on the fly while still a teenager.

Maybe Acta can turn Fausto Carmona and Rafael Perez around, or maybe he can't. But it's an important element to his new job. Carmona represents the front of Acta's rotation next year, and Perez a key member of the back of his bullpen. If his background as a young Latino player can help him reach the young Latino players on the roster, that would be a huge asset for Acta.

One thing you shouldn't hold against Acta is his won-loss record in two-plus seasons as manager of the Nationals. Nor should you assume that just because he was fired by the worst team in baseball midseason, he must be no good.

John Lannan, he of the 9-13 record and 3.88 ERA, was Washington's best starting pitcher last season. He made 33 starts. The Nationals' rotation also included Jordan Zimmerman (3-5, 4.63), Garrett Mock (3-10, 5.62, 28 starts), Shairon Martis (5-3, 5.25) and Craig Stammen (4-7, 5.11). Washington's lineup was topped by Ryan Zimmerman (.295, 33 HR, 106 RBI), Adam Dunn (.267, 38 HR, 105 RBI) and Josh Willingham (.260, 24 HR, 61 RBI). Beyond that, no one cracked 60 RBI or even double digits in home runs.

In short, the Nats' struggles had a lot more to do with the experience level and talent on their roster than anything Acta did or did not do. And when teams lose, managers tend to get fired, deserved or not.

So aren't the Indians in the same boat with the experience/talent question? Quite possibly. But apparently Acta developed an interest in building young teams, or he wouldn't have taken the Indians job.

It's that interest that makes him an intriguing choice to take the reins on this lastest Tribe rebuild.

If Acta is a Shapiro type of guy, that's not entirely a bad thing. It means he's organized, understands the value of making sound administrative decisions and won't make those decisions without the data to back them up.

The fact that Acta is a Shapiro-type guy who believes in Shapiro's organizational principles, yet isn't a product of the Indians organization, might mean that we could have the best of both worlds: a forward-thinking manager who isn't institutionalized by the Indians Way. A guy on the same philosophical page as the front office, but with enough outside influence to bring some different perspectives to the table.

There will be time for the big picture to become clearer. For now, he has to get down to business with his players, which he'll start doing this week. Those are the relationships that will, in the end, determine if Acta's tenure in Cleveland is a success, and whether Acta falls closer to Wedge or Hargrove in the pantheon of Cleveland managers.

No comments: