TORONTO: The Indians need another hitter (really two, maybe even three) and an additional starter, a consistent No. 3 guy who can get them into the seventh inning with a chance to win.
That’s the bad news for the fans. The good news — and here’s hoping they know it — is that the Tribe does not need a different manager. In fact, the Indians probably are fortunate to have Manny Acta, who could have returned to the Houston Astros, the franchise that nurtured him as a minor-league player.
Managers are the first to take a hit when a club goes bad, but it usually takes awhile for them to receive credit if the team is performing to its capabilities, whatever level that happens to be. That time is now, because Acta and his coaching staff are entitled to significant praise for keeping the Indians in the hunt for a Central Division championship.
It’s difficult to quantify the value of a manager. You can’t do it with statistics. Wins and losses don’t really tell the story either, because those belong to the team in its entirety. It’s almost impossible to point out a game that was either won or lost because of the manager.
The way a manager runs a game — that is, the moves he makes, the way he sets his lineup and maneuvers his pitchers — doesn’t vary much no matter who is calling the shots. With few exceptions, virtually all managers do things the same way.
Offensively, they put their speed and on-base guys at the top of the lineup, the home run and RBI producers in the middle then try to make the bottom third of the order productive in some way. With the personnel Acta has had to work this season, the latter objective has been particularly trying.
Managers try to alternate left-handed and right-handed batters in the lineup as much as is practical to force opposing skippers to use up more of their bullpens.
With the Tribe’s extreme left-leaning lineup, that is almost impossible without resorting to using bench players with far lesser credentials than the regulars.
On the pitching side, the manager’s job is to keep the entire staff on a program that allows them to perform customary roles. Much as some fans don’t approve, that means if the starter gets through the sixth or seventh inning with a lead and has thrown enough pitches to be suspect if he remains in the game, a designated reliever takes over in the seventh or eighth and the closer finishes it off in the ninth.
The advantage to this system: Everyone can become comfortable because of the predictability of their jobs; they know when to get ready and what is expected of them. And like most managers, that’s the way Acta likes to operate.
But he has been handicapped by a bullpen that has proved to have only three reliable pitchers: closer Chris Perez, setup man Vinnie Pestano and seventh-inning specialist Joe Smith.
A manager needs a minimum of four relievers he can count on, or he risks running out of fresh arms. So far, despite the fact that Rafael Perez has been hurt virtually the entire season and that Tony Sipp only recently began to climb out of a deep hole, Acta has been able to keep his Big Three from suffering terminal fatigue.
Fans love it when managers bunt, use the hit-and-run, steal bases every inning and incorporate trick plays (Acta actually knows several but wisely almost never uses them) into the offense. But these elements of the game are relatively unimportant.
Acta knows this and doesn’t micromanage every pitch on either side of the ball. What makes him so smart in directing the action on the field? He is a serious student of the sport, and he enjoys delving into the esoterica of the sophisticated statistics that are stuffed into the computers of every self-respecting sabermatrician in the nation.
But Acta’s strength is that he declines to follow the numbers blindly. There are statistics he values, others that he questions and still others that he thinks are worthless.
Manipulating players from the first through the ninth inning is what the fans see managers do. But it is not their most important function. Managers really earn their money because of what happens in the clubhouse, away from the fans and media.
Because the regular season lasts for six months and encompasses 162 games, there are all sorts of ways to sabotage a club’s winning attitude and ruin the so-called chemistry of the clubhouse. Throw 25 young men in a relatively confined area for 180 days, men who are competing with one another for playing time and attention, and you have a recipe for discord, tension, even physical hostility.
It’s the manager’s job not only to keep players from punching each other but also to focus their collective attention on the goal of winning and working together. Acta has done that for 2½ seasons with admirable success.
How do I know? His teams play hard from the first day to the last. That is partly because of the type of players acquired by General Manager Chris Antonetti and Mark Shapiro before him. The other part is Acta.
To their credit, there has been little carping among the fans about Acta. Most of the negative comments I hear are that he doesn’t get thrown out of enough games.
If that’s what a manager has to do to get the respect of his players, he needs to look elsewhere for employment, because players know the difference between honestly disputing an umpire’s call and grandstanding, either for their benefit or for the television cameras.
The Indians exercised the 2013 option in Acta’s contract last year. That’s not good enough. Before the end of the season or shortly thereafter, Acta deserves a multiyear extension. He already has earned it.
Sheldon Ocker can be reached at email@example.com. Read the Indians blog at http://www.ohio.com/indians. Follow him on Twitter at http://www.twitter.com/SheldonOckerABJ and on Facebook at http://www.facebook.com/sports.abj.