I love Manny. If I had my way, Manny would be our manager for the next 10 years or more. He was absolutely robbed of the manager of the year last year, and after Zimmerman he's the most important piece of The First Great Nationals Team currently in place.
So how horrified am I to start see people turn on poor Manny? Watching a team miles away from the talent needed to contend, people are fixating on Wily Mo missing the cutoff man and Felipe not running out ground balls. (Yes, Felipe should run out grounders. Bad, Felipe, bad....). The Manny grumbling seemed to escalate after Boz started blathering about the teams "identity", and yesterday the Natosphere blogger roundtable started wondering when there'd be firemannyacta.com blog. (BTW I hate those sites--that idea is so overdone.)
I can see why people want heads to roll, and I when I started this blog it was in part out of fear that Manny would unfairly take the blame. I doubt very much that the Lerners will blame themselves and their (lack of) spending. I don't think Lenny Harris is a remotely credible fall guy for a mess like this. Stan's not going anywhere. That leaves two choices: Manny and JimBo.
Why the Manny-love? In my view there are two main ways that a manager can help his team: in-game strategy and motivation, and Acta excels at both.
In-game, Manny is on the cutting edge of managers who make good use of the massive amount of baseball data available these days. He knows that steals only help if you are successful 75% of the time or more. He knows that it doesn't make sense to give away outs with sac bunts except late in close games. He knows the limited value of the hit-and-run.
While he's avoided over-managing where it makes sense, he's been extremely aggressive in places where he can help his team. He uses mountains scouting reports to employ the most aggressive defensive shifting of any manager in the league. Last year he led the league in defensive replacements, maximizing the value of defensively limited bats like Dmitri Young as well as defensive specialists like Ryan Langerhans. He blew away the competition in the number of relievers used and bullpen IP, taking advantage of the team's relative strength of a bullpen to hide his shaky rotation.
The data behind these moves are widely available, but in a league loaded with gut-thinking dinosaurs like Dusty Baker and (sorry, it's true) Frank Robinson, he's a revelation.
That's not to say he's perfect, and there are moves he's made that can be criticized. He has reverted to a Robinson-esque overuse of the the intentional walk at times this year, and it's hard not to conclude that this year he's undermined the value of Ayala and Rivera with overwork (though in Manny's defense, it's harder to keep guys rested when your GM is constantly short-handing you). But he learns, and on the whole he's already one of the game's better in-game strategists.
As a motivator, Manny's even-keeled, don't-look-back approach is perfect for a young team. Anyone who watched the Nationals last year had to be impressed at how the team kept focus and poise day in and day out, despite the losing. The development of Dukes, Lannan, and Flores, despite the negativity around them, is more evidence. When a team meeting coincides with the end of a losing streak once, it can be chalked up to luck. When it happens four times in a row, there's something to it.
But Manny would be great managing a contending team as well. I cringe when I see Bowden quotes like this, implying that Acta is a rebuilding manager only: "Lou Piniella has won World Series with a different style. He is better-suited for a team ready to win a championship. He doesn't always have patience for the young players. But Manny is very controlled."
The Red Sox needed Manny-esque control to come back and beat the Yankees in 2004. Phil Jackson has won titles for two decades in Chicago and L.A. Manny-esque unflappability. Torre, of course. That's not to say there aren't other ways to be successful, but to pigeon-hole Manny as a rebuilding manager is insulting to him and could lead him to look elsewhere next time he gets a chance if he thinks he's going to get dumped when the good times finally arrive.
Maybe it's a false choice. Maybe we're going to lose 100 games this year, and no heads will roll. Frankly, that could be the worst outcome of all. So if someone needs to take the fall, I hope for the sake of Nationals fans that it's not Manny.