I've made no secret that my two favorites for the Cubs job are the first two candidates they've interviewed: Manny Acta and A.J. Hinch. Both have gotten a lot of negative press and in both cases I think it's been unfair. I made my case for Hinch here, but I haven't fully stated my case for Acta, who is widely considered one of the top baseball minds by both scouts and front office types around the league.
First off, he fits the Cubs in several ways:
- He is experienced.
- He is bilingual.
- He is analytics friendly.
- He is media savvy.
- He believes in developing young players, as per the quote from Acta below,
"You want to try and find the other pieces that are going to go along with (your core players), for the long ride here. You still have to try and develop those guys....It's tough because you want to win and I believe we can win, but you don't want to lose the focus of building a [winning] team that is going to be here for years to come. There is a very fine line between winning two or three more games at the end of the year by playing a guy who is probably not going to be here next year [or] playing a guy who is going to be part of the future."
By far, the biggest criticism of Acta is that he hasn't won in two stints with two different organizations. Neither team was set up to win. I've written about how many successful managers didn't win at first -- so the popular reason shifts to Manny Acta losing his clubhouse. For that part of the equation, I'm going to focus on his stint with his 2010-2012 stint with the Cleveland Indians.
I think it's natural for people to look at failed results and then look for reasons afterward. To me that's thinking backwards and it can sometimes lead to incorrect conclusions.
First off, look at the reasons stated why two different managers were fired...
Manager A: A players' manager with a laid-back approach, often was criticized for his failure to motivate the team. The (team) might want a fiery manager who can spark an underachieving club that has a solid core of young, talented players.
Now compare that to a similar criticism of a different manager...
Manager B: "He’s not a very confrontational person, and in this game – we’re men, we can handle it. Sometimes we need a kick in the butt. He did it this year but I think it was a couple of weeks too late. Last year we only had two speeches from him, one on opening day and one on the last day of the year."
Both teams lost plenty of games and both managers were fired.
Now read what is being said about Manager A today:
"Have fun, chill and just enjoy what you're doing. It's a kid's game. He's the biggest kid in here. That's the side we see. He likes to joke around. He likes to be relaxed. When you have a guy like that running the whole thing, it helps with team chemistry."
The difference? Manager A had a winning record with basically the same style -- but better talent. When you're winning, "chill and relaxed" is a good thing.
The irony? Manager A now manages the team that complained that Manager B was too laid back.
If you haven't guessed by now, I'm talking about Terry Francona (Manager A) after getting fired from the Phillies and Manny Acta (Manager B) after getting fired from the Indians. Winning and reputation can go a long way toward fueling perception about a manager's skills in the clubhouse. The player quoted criticizing Acta in the first quote is Indians reliever Chris Perez.
But let's look at that Cleveland team, how bad were they really under Acta?
It's easy to look at Acta's overall record and get discouraged, but let's break it down a bit.
2010: Acta inherited a 65 win team from Eric Wedge and won 69 games. The team finished strong, going 19-16 to end the season, so there was some improvement that continued the next season.
2011: The Indians were 2 games over .500 (80-78) with 4 games to play. The sentiment at the time was that the Indians had no business being that good and in fact they outperformed their Pythagorean record by 5 games despite losing those last 4 games with the team out of the race and looking at young players.
2012: Acta's team started the season strong and was 47-44 on July 18th and just two games out of first place. It was the second consecutive year the team was overachieving. Nobody expected any team to challenge the Tigers. The team then lost 4 straight but righted the ship and was still 50-49 on July 26th, still just 3.5 games back. Then disaster struck. The Indians lost 10 in a row and suddenly were 10.5 games back and essentially out of the race. The organization decided to switch into development mode. Here's what Chris Perez said about the collapse that season,
Perez says it started with a pitching staff that simply tanked going into the month.
“The bad baseball started because of our pitching. Then we started overhauling everything, getting rid of Lowe and Tomlin went down. We started get to the new guys up from Triple-A. It was a vicious cycle,” Perez said.
“It was kind of like a cancer then kind of hit the team. Come to the ballpark expecting to lose. We’ve got a rookie going, great. We’re down four nothing in the first, we’re done. It’s a cancer. It’s hard to get out of that mind-set."
So Perez pretty much admitted that the collapse of the pitching staff and then a front office switch to a more development-oriented outlook toward the end of the season was what led to the downward spiral and the pessimism that developed in the clubhouse-- but in the next breath he says this,
The easiest way is to get rid of the manager, to shake things up, to get a new voice.
The easiest way, indeed. Certainly easier than pointing the finger at themselves and blaming the losses on not getting enough speeches.
The fact is that the Indians were improving, overachieving, and probably a few players away (which they obtained the offseason after he was fired) from being contenders under Acta. After a slow start in 2010 with a team that finished last the previous season, Acta went 146-142 over a span of 288 games between late 2010 and 2012. But then came that horrific losing streak in 2011 -- and a subsequently poor finish due to unfortunate circumstances and a change of direction from the front office. It changed everything.
And just like that losing streak, the reputation of Acta's ineptitude in the clubhouse spread like a cancer. Nobody in the local media has stood up and questioned it. Thankfully, the Cubs front office (and a couple of industry sources I spoke with) have.
To the Cubs front office's credit, they want to find out for themselves about Acta's philosophy of leadership and whether he has learned from his experiences. The word is his interview went very well.
I don't know if the Cubs will hire Manny Acta and perhaps the concerns about his clubhouse leadership are correct, but I'm glad they're taking their time to find out instead of relying on his won-loss record and a few sound bytes to draw that conclusion.
- Baseball Reference: 2009-2012 Cleveland Indians
- CNN Sports Illustrated, 2000, "Phillies fire Francona before season finale"
- Finnan, 2013, The News Herald, "Indians: Players say club has the right man in Francona"
- Loede, 2012 CBS Cleveland, "Chris Perez on Anger Over Season - 'A Lot of That Walked Out The Door Last Week'"
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