Tuesday, October 02, 2012

Cleveland Manager Rant

I have considered myself a baseball fan first and a fan of any particular team for over a decade. I can’t pinpoint the exact moment at which this happened, but it’s been a while. I never regret this; college sports offer me plenty of opportunity for simple good v. evil, one team only fanaticism. I consider professional baseball too entertaining of a sport, one too amenable to rational analysis, to tie up much of my interest in a partisan stupor.

Still, I am a fan of the Indians, and I assume I will be until they move to Albuquerque in 2037. And so on Thursday evening, as I learned about Manny Acta’s firing, I vented a little bit on Twitter. The last time I had such a visceral reaction to a piece of Indians news, it was upon learning about the Ubaldo Jimenez trade.

The problem with being a fan first is that it makes one prone to that sort of off-the-cuff emotional reaction, whereas I’d much prefer to think for a while and then react. This is the more refined (albeit still tinted by the irrationality of fandom, poorly written and disjointed) version of that initial screed.

I always liked Manny Acta as the Indians manager. I supported his hiring, and I generally thought that he did a good job as manager from what I could tell. Of course, some of the most important duties of the manager are the things that, as an outsider, I cannot quantify and really can’t even get a good feel for--how he relates to players, how well he works with the front office and how he interacts with them on roster decisions, and the like. It’s certainly possible that Manny Acta is bad at these aspects of the job.

However, I reject the notion pushed by a contingent of Cleveland fans that Acta is a poor tactical manager from a sabermetric tactic. Again, this is an area that’s next to impossible to quantify--it's easy to pick some key categories on which managers have influence (like intentional walks, sacrifice hits, stolen base attempts, pitching changes, lineup construction) and mentally assign the manager a score based on rudimentary criteria (“intentional walks = bad”, “games led off by sub-.330 OBA hitters = bad”, etc.), but it’s difficult to develop a comprehensive evaluation even on these limited criteria. This is all complicated by the fact that some of our sabermetric tools have a margin of error comparable to the theoretical payoffs of alternative strategies, and that the manager always is working with more information than we have regarding the factors that could cause players’ abilities to deviate from our estimate of their true talent.

However, based on my general notion of baseball strategy and ability to process my observations, I have no overarching issues with the tactics employed by Manny Acta. Quite the opposite, in fact--I had less moments of confusion when watching Acta manage than I did with Mike Hargrove, Charlie Manuel, or Eric Wedge. Acta spoke intelligently about strategy in his media appearances and stayed true to his word as much as can be reasonably hoped for from a manager.

Of course, any manager is going to make isolated decisions that are puzzling. If cherry-picking just a few of these instances is enough to call for the skipper’s head, then I can guarantee you that it won’t take much more than a week into his replacement’s regime for a similar emotion to emerge. If you have to point to one specific choice in reliever usage, or one marginal young player that didn’t play enough for your taste, then I humbly suggest you don’t have much of a case. No, it doesn’t make sense to me either that Acta chose to use Vinny Rottino as a leadoff hitter (in one game!), but how many managers would have used Shin-Soo Choo as their leadoff hitters in over half of the team’s games? I’d suggest the latter is a much bigger deviation from the normal practice of managers, and one more amenable to sabermetric orthodoxy than the other is a departure.

In any event, Acta is gone now, making the more important question for Indians fans the matter of what this tells us about the people who run the organization. I don’t think it’s pretty. First, a quote from owner Larry Dolan:

“I fully support Chris' decision to make this change and am confident that he will lead a tireless search to find the right individual to lead the club to our ultimate goal of winning the World Series.”

Of course, this is typical owner-speak and reading into it is pointless. Still, the quote strongly implies that Dolan believes the single individual most responsible for winning the World Series is the manager. If the Indians could just find the right manager, they’d be fine.

Team president (and former GM, for the majority of Dolan’s ownership) Mark Shapiro tweeted:

“One of only levers u can pull w potential for broader change is the manager. Not easy but decision should indicate our desire to improve”

Left unsaid is what those levers are. And those levels have never been pulled. Since Dolan bought the team, the Indians have hired and fired three full-time managers: Charlie Manuel, Eric Wedge, and Manny Acta. They have fired zero general managers: Shapiro was promoted to president and his lieutenant Chris Antonetti took over after the 2010 season.

Manuel’s firing was a little different than those of Wedge and Acta--it came mid-season in the Indians first transition year between perennial contender and rebuilding. Manuel was not seen as a fit for the new paradigm, and so his attempt to force the issue by requesting an extension led to his dismissal.

Shapiro displayed a tremendous amount of loyalty to Wedge. It would have been easy to fire him after the failed attempt at contention in 2006, or the letdown on 2008 on the heels of 2007’s near pennant. But Shapiro stood by Wedge until after 2009, when a team that fancied itself a contender crashed and burned to 65-97.

The Indians’ fundamental problems, however, remain the same in 2012 when Acta was canned as they were in 2009 when Wedge was canned. The Indians possess a number of solid hitters at tough positions (Carlos Santana at catcher, Jason Kipnis at second, Asdrubal Cabrera at short), but gaping holes at the easiest positions (only Shin-Soo Choo was a good producer in the corners, and Travis Hafner’s perennial injuries have also held back the DHs). This is not a temporary problem--the Indians’ farm system has not produced a major league caliber 1B/LF since--Luke Scott? Sean Casey?

The Indians of 2009 and 2012 were also both woefully short on starting pitching. In 2009, the team had just traded CC Sabathia and Cliff Lee, so it was somewhat understandable. In 2012, though, those departures could not be blamed. The Indians ventured into 2012 with a rotation consisting of one pitcher who’d both pitched well and had good peripherals in the prior season (Justin Masterson). They had an enigmatic pitcher acquired at the cost of the organization’s top two pitching prospects (Ubaldo Jimenez); a veteran coming off a lousy season in the NL (Derek Lowe); a finesse righty who was below average in 2011 despite a league-leading 1.1 W/9 (Josh Tomlin); and a sinkerballer with an unremarkable minor league track record (Jeanmar Gomez).

The 2011 Indians started the season 30-15, which was a lot of fun at the time, even for those of us who suspected it was but a mirage. But those 45 games have ultimately proved to be a disaster for the franchise. They transformed what was supposed to be a rebuilding season into an increasingly desperate attempt to cling to the lead in the AL Central. They goaded the front office into trading its two best pitching prospects for Ubaldo Jimenez. And even after the team stumbled to 80-82, those 45 games influenced the team’s expectations heading into 2012: they were contenders.

Regardless of intention, the Indians were either unwilling or unable to acquire additional talent to fill out the roster, and insisted that there was sufficient talent to contend, leaving Acta as the fall guy if the purported contender failed to contend.

The Shapiro regime has controlled the Indians for eleven seasons, and in that time they have managed to make the playoffs just once while playing in one of MLB’s weaker divisions. Assuming that they should have a 20% chance of winning and seasons are independent, there’s a 26% chance that could happen by chance, so it’s not inherently damning.

When I tweeted something to that effect (minus the binomial probability), I got a reply that simply said “Process != Results”. I was unfamiliar with the tweeter, so I’m not sure if it was serious or facetious. I’m inclined to think it’s the latter, as it sounds very much like the kind of sentiment that is often offered by what could be called the Cameron school of sabermetrics.

There is of course a great deal of truth in the statement; a process can be valid and yet produce poor results through decisions made on the basis of incomplete information, unforeseen events, chance, and other factors. But that doesn’t mean that actual results can be ignored, particularly as the sample becomes larger.

Of course, it’s easier to rationalize poor results when the process is in line with one’s ideological leanings (this is true for me as well, of course). It wasn’t long ago that Chris Antonetti was the darling of the organizational rankings crowd.
Some people believe that they possess enough insight about front offices to make ordinal rankings of their quality. I am not one of them--all I can do is lay out the facts as I see them:

* The Indians can generally be classified in the upper tier of publically open to sabermetrics organizations, which is certainly a plus from where I sit

* Shapiro’s Indians have drafted poorly. The most recent Indians first rounder to establish a solid major league career is Jeremy Guthrie (2002). The most recent to have one with the Indians is CC Sabathia (1998). The jury is still out on several recent picks, although if Alex White or Drew Pomeranz is productive, it will be with another organization.

* The Indians have done a great job of trading for players either in the minors or very early in their major league careers. Cliff Lee, Grady Sizemore, Asdrubal Cabrera, Travis Hafner, Carlos Santana, Shin-Soo Choo, Michael Brantley, Chris Perez, Coco Crisp, and Justin Masterson are examples. But it’s much harder to find contributors drafted or signed by the Indians--Jhonny Peralta, Fausto Carmona, Jason Kipnis, Rafael Betancourt, Rafael Perez, Vinny Pestano? (Neither of these lists is comprehensive by any means, but I think thye are representative of the whole).

I don’t think that questioning the efficacy of the current organization at developing talent based on an eleven year fallow is excessively “results-oriented”.

With respect to the next managerial hire, I tend to think it won’t matter much. The organization will not win until it can develop more players, regardless of who is managing them. I’m hoping that Terry Francona’s interest is real and not simply a courtesy to Shapiro, but I doubt that is the case. While I don’t think Francona would be a silver bullet, his tenure in Boston doesn’t raise any obvious red flags. But Francona figures to be the default #1 candidate for any openings, and it’s difficult for me to believe that he would choose Cleveland over other options.

Sandy Alomar appears to have the inside track otherwise, and there’s very little evidence as to what type of manager he would be. There is plenty of evidence that Indians fans will welcome him as 90s nostalgia grows more powerful, and while that may be a plus from a PR perspective, it can be obnoxious for someone who was never a particular fan of Alomar the player. And heaven forbid the fans start talking about Omar Vizquel.


  1. "And heaven forbid the fans start talking about Omar Vizquel"

    Why, what do you have against Omar?

  2. Vizquel is one of the most overrated players of our time. In Cleveland, this is exacerbated. There's no evidence (other than his name) to suggest that he is qualified to be a major league manager.

    Some additional comments that I wrote on Tango's blog:

    I probably did a very poor job of expressing this in the piece, but I’m not necessarily calling for a front office housecleaning. What I am suggesting is that the front office should have been the first target, rather than the manager. And the way the front office has acted starting with the Jimenez trade has poisoned me against them, with Acta’s firing the last straw.

    That said, I disagree with Lewie’s characterization of Lowe, Sizemore, and Ubaldo as bad luck. Lowe had some intriguing peripherals to be sure, but he was a 39 year old pitcher imported from the lesser league coming off a horrific season. A worthwhile gamble at $5MM? Absolutely. The #3 starter for a supposed playoff contender? No way.

    I was all for bringing Sizemore back at his price as well, but his last 5 years games played were 162, 157, 106, 33, 71. Counting on something resembling a full season was a stretch.

    Ubaldo could not have been expected to go into the tank, but I always thought that they overpayed for him, and made the trade because of 30-15. It was a desperate move to remain relevant in the 2011 race, and it blew up in their face. Thankfully for them, they had Acta lined up to take the fall.

    1. Absolute nonsense about him being so highly over-rated, and no player has evidence to suggest that he will be a good or bad manager until they get some experience.

      Most likely the reason you believe he's over-rated is that you are looking only at offensive numbers and ignoring his defense. And don't start citing defensive WAR numbers, those are highly flawed and everyone knows it.

      By your own admission, success at managing requires a number of skills that don't show up in the statistics, and whether Omar has those is not known by you.

  3. This guy is the perfect example of why Vizquel as Indians manager would be unbearable. The typical Indians fan thinks the guy walks on water.


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