The Cleveland Indians have been playing miserable baseball for two months straight. They’re 15-43 since the All-Star Break, and they’ve gone 9-35 since July 26, 5-22 since August 13, and 4-13 since August 25. What looked like a promising season has devolved into a struggle to stay out of last place, and the promised window of opportunity this team was supposed to enjoy over the next several years seems to have closed. The fans want heads to roll, and it looks like the man in the hottest seat is manager Manny Acta.
The official party line from the front office is that Acta’s job is safe. Chris Antonetti has said it, and he declared this week that he “do[es]n’t feel any differently” even after the team’s abject struggles have continued. Paul Dolan has said it, and he’s affirmed that neither Antonetti nor Mark Shapiro have approached him about dismissing Acta. ”As painful as this has been,” Dolan has said, “I don’t want to get into some knee-jerk reactions.”
Dolan’s sentiment might not be what Cleveland fans want to hear, but it’s a healthy attitude for a team to have. Popular manager evaluations are almost always prone to the fallacy of post hoc, ergo propter hoc (“after it, therefore because of it”). Acta surely played some role in the team’s midsummer slide, but the intangible effect a manager has on his players’ on-field performance is generally overstated. Whatever harm he’s done to this team is far less than the damage caused by poor play from guys like Ubaldo Jimenez and Derek Lowe. And if the Indians were on pace to win 90 games, fans would be calling Acta a genius now—just as they were in the middle of 2011.
But that doesn’t mean Acta’s job should be safe. Though it feels callous to call for a person to be fired, there’s a very good case to be made that his job should be in jeopardy based not on how the season has turned out but what happened along the way. This year has been a story of questionable managerial decisions—not just bad decisions, but ones that are so mind-bogglingly confusing that they cast doubt on whether he is fit to be a Major League manager.
The most frequent example of a baffling Acta move was his great affinity for Jose Lopez. Signed to a minor-league contract this winter, Lopez made the team out of spring training as a utility infielder and posted an unimpressive .249/.272/.366 triple-slash before the Indians designated him for assignment last month. (This was the best batting line Lopez had posted since 2009.)
But somewhere along the way, Lopez found a believer in his manager. He started 47 of the 76 games the Indians played between his being recalled after a trip to the minors and his getting cut, and he appeared in 61 of them. Acta pencilled him in as the cleanup hitter 18 times, and Lopez started a total of 26 games hitting in the heart of the order. Not to mention that Lopez became Acta’s go-to guy whenever he needed a right-handed hitter off the bench despite the fact that he was OBPing well under .300.
We’ve already covered this in greater detail, but it bears repeating: Every single meaningful statistic from this year showed that Shelley Duncan was a better hitter than Jose Lopez. There was nothing to be seen from their track records that suggested otherwise, nor would a scouting-based comparison of the two have yielded any sort of advantage for Lopez. Even Matt LaPorta‘s 2011 performance, the one that cost him his starting job and seems to have ruined his future in the organization (more on that in a moment), blew Lopez’ 2012 numbers out of the water. Yet Acta had no qualms about sticking him in the lineup as frequently as possible.
Everyone evaluates players differently, and I don’t mean to sound as though my opinions of players’ skills are infallible. But this isn’t just a question of seeing things differently. I don’t mind that Acta liked Lopez, but I find it troubling that I can’t think of any possible basis for it. Either Acta is basing his decisions on the wrong information (Lopez did have a higher batting average than Duncan) or his decision-making process in this respect was totally subjective. Either way, a Major League manager should know better than that.
This brings us to another player who has been handled oddly under Acta’s tenure: Matt LaPorta. At the beginning of June, the Indians called LaPorta up from Triple-A Columbus, where he had been raking to the tune of a near-1.000 OPS; with the weak-hitting Casey Kotchman manning first base and the Tribe gearing up for a run at the division title, adding his bat seemed like just what the doctor ordered.
LaPorta went on to make three appearances, then sat on the bench for a week. Literally. He made his last appearance of that cup of coffee on June 6 and didn’t see another second of game action until after he was sent back to Columbus on June 13. That stretch included five interleague games in National League parks, yet LaPorta didn’t even get a chance to hit for the pitcher.
What possible explanation is there for letting a red-hot player at a position of need who’d just been called up from the minors sit out for a whole week? For that matter, what possible explanation is there for letting a player who’d just been called up from the minors sit out for a whole week? Heck, what possible explanation is there for letting any player sit out for a whole week?
The situation seems to suggest a power struggle between the front office and field manager (i.e., Acta simply refused to play LaPorta), in which case we’ve got a whole different and even worse issue on our hands. But even forgetting about that possibility, the idea of leaving a position player out of game action for an entire week—especially a right-handed hitter with power who played a position where the Indians needed to upgrade—is indefensible.
But the best example of the questionable decision-making process that we’ve seen from Acta this year came on the night of May 5 in a game against the Texas Rangers. It was a 2-2 tie in the top of the 11th inning and Joe Smith was on the mound for his second inning of work. Three batters into the inning, Smith found himself with the go-ahead run on second and two outs as Mitch Moreland stepped up to the plate. (Keep in mind that this was in the extra innings of a game against one of the best teams in baseball, and it took place back when the Indians still thought they could contend this year.)
It was then that Acta called for Smith to intentionally walk Moreland to face Adrian Beltre, who is quite simply a much better hitter. This went about as well as you might expect—Beltre ripped Smith’s 1-0 pitch over the fence for a three-run homer and the Rangers went on to win 5-2. But even before Beltre stepped to the plate, my jaw had fallen to the floor at the idea of giving Mitch Moreland a free pass to face Adrian Beltre.
Why did Acta prefer to face Mitch Moreland with one runner on than Adrian Beltre with two runners on, you ask? Because Beltre entered the game 0-for-5 lifetime against Smith.
Forget about the fact that past batter/pitcher matchups have no predictive power, which an MLB manager should know. Forget also that Moreland had never faced Smith before, and as long as we’re analyzing matchups at this level it’s generally thought that pitchers have the advantage the first time they face a hitter. Even if you put those out of your mind, we’re talking about only five at-bats.
Anything can happen in five at-bats. Should five at-bats be considered a significant sample size for anything? Let alone for deciding that facing Adrian Beltre with an additional runner on would be better than pitching to Mitch Moreland? Anyone who answers “yes” to that question does not understand the game well enough to manage an MLB team.
The problem here isn’t just that it was a bad decision (the game didn’t end up meaning anything, so it’s not like a Grady Little situation) nor is it that he refused to admit his mistake after the game (“I made the decision. I don’t second-guess myself.”). It’s that the decision was based on misunderstandings about how the game works, and that shouldn’t be the case for any manager in the most prestigious baseball league in the world.
I don’t expect to agree with the manager all the time. I don’t expect all his decisions to work out. I don’t expect him to be immune to human mistakes. But I do expect him to have a sound understanding of how the game works and a knowledge of what information he should use to make his decisions. Those should be basic prerequisites for any Major League manager, and based on instances like these it doesn’t seem like Acta has them.
I feel uncomfortable advocating for a man to lose his job, and unless the Indians really believe their second-half collapse is his fault (only those on the inside can truly assess how much he is to blame) then the Tribe’s disappointing 2012 isn’t a good enough reason to fire Acta. However, en route to this disappointing finish Acta has displayed questionable player evaluation skills, a refusal to use every man on his roster, and some basic understandings about what’s important in a baseball game. After a season full of such bafflers and head-scratchers, perhaps Cleveland would be better off parting ways with Manny Acta.