Wednesday, April 22, 2009

Manny on the Hot Seat

With the team off to a horrendous start (and public enemy #1 Jim Bowden out of the picture), Manny Acta has very suddenly found himself on a very, very hot seat. A year ago at this time, you almost never heard anything about Manny getting the axe. Now, you're hearing it all the time.

So should Manny go? My answer is: not yet, but it’s moving in that direction.

First of all, condemning any manager with the kind of talent he's been stuck with over the last 3 seasons isn't fair. This team could be managed by a super-manager hybrid of Earl Weaver, Vince Lombardi, and Erwin Rommel, and they'd still stink.

That doesn't mean Manny should be immune from criticism, but it's part of the equation. And he's done enough to raise real questions about whether he's the best man for the job.

First, there are the slow starts. In 2007, they were 9-17 in April. In 2008, 11-17. And this year it's even worse. Year after year, his teams just aren't ready when the bell rings. That's a major, major problem.

The second big complaint I have is that Manny’s bullpen usage has been horrendous. He has always had one of the fastest hooks in baseball, regardless of whether it makes sense or not. He's overly committed to assigning specific bullpen "roles" based on inning instead of looking at match-ups and leverage as the game evolves. He shows far too much loyalty to "favorites," even when they're clearly not on (see: Ayala, Luis; Rivera, Saul).

In 2007, Manny earned effusive praise for his aggressive bullpen usage. It was the year of the Speigner-Bascik-Simontacchi-Bowie-Traber-Jerome Williams carousel of crapitude in the starting rotation, and the bullpen was excellent. The league average threw 524 innings with an ERA of 4.08, while the Nationals' pen, led by Chad Cordero, Jon Rauch, Saul Rivera, and Jesus Colome, threw 590 with an ERA of 3.81. Manny's bullpen usage was a big part of why we beat our Pythagorean record by 3 wins that year.

But it's become clear that Manny's quick hook was less a function of playing to his team's strengths and more just his way. In 2008, the bullpen ERA was a slightly below average 4.18, and he still had them throw 553.1 innings. Which in itself isn't so bad, but he used a quick hook even with his solid veterans. Odalis Perez, for instance, averaged just 90 pitches per start and was never once allowed to throw more than 107, despite a very effective 4.34 ERA. Tim Redding averaged 95 pitches per start, with a max of 114.

This year, the questionable has become ridiculous:
  • Example one: April 13, top of the seventh, Phillies and Nationals are tied, 4-4. Due up: switch-hitter Shane Victorino, lefty Chase Utley, and lefty Ryan Howard. Everyone from here to Bucks County knows that Charlie Manuel does the opposing manager a favor every time he bats Utley and Howard back to back. Howard in particular is a Michael Bourn-like out machine against lefties, posting a .294 OBP against them last year. Manny has two lefties available, Joe Beimel and Wil Ledezma. He inexplicably goes to Saul Rivera, who hits Victorino and Utley before giving up a long ball to Howard. Nationals go on to lose 9-8.
  • #2: April 18, top of the 8th, Nationals lead 6-3. Both Beimel and Joel Hanrahan have pitched 2 days in a row, so based on one of Manny's "rules," neither will be available on the 19th if they are used. Now, I know it's hard to remember with this team, but a 6-3 lead in the 8th inning is a pretty easy game to close out. You have a 95% chance of winning at that point. Even a pitcher with an ERA of 9.00 will give up fewer than 3 runs in 2 innings more often than not. Come to think of it, we had a pitcher with a 9.00 ERA cruising along having allowed only 1 run in 5 innings. The starter, Scott Olsen, had thrown just 102 pitches, a number he'd exceeded 8 times last year, a season that saw him go over 120 pitches twice. But Manny pulls the plug, uses his two "ace" relievers to get through the 9th. Of course Hanrahan coughed up the 3-run lead, and they lost anyway.
  • #3: The next day, having burned up his two "best" relievers the day before, and with Julian Tavarez basically unavailable after he'd thrown 32 pitches in extra innings the day before, he faced the prospect of getting through 9 innings with Daniel Cabrera, Steven Shell, Mike Hinckley, Wil Ledezma, and Saul Rivera. Mercifully, Cabrera pitches well. By the top of the sixth, the Nationals are leading 3-1. Cabrera, who went 1-2-3 in the fifth, allows a lead-off double to Hanley Ramirez and then issues a walk to Ross Gload. Manny decides he's seen enough. Nevermind that Cabrera's only thrown 92 pitches, that he averaged 101 pitches per start last year, or that he's groundball pitcher with a far better shot at getting the double play than a flyball pitcher like Shell. Manny places his bet on the proposition that four guys, three of whom had ERAs of 6.75, 8.53, and 9.64, will get him through 4 innings with a one-run lead. Nationals miraculously made it to the ninth with a lead when the guy with the 8.53 ERA came in to raise it to 12.27 and lose the game.
  • #4: On Monday, Jordan Zimmermann had thrown 72 pitches through 6 innings, holding the Braves to 2 runs on 6 hits and 1 walk. The Nationals lead 3-2. With 2 outs in the bottom of the 6th, Manny yanks the cruising Zimmermann for pinch hitter Alex Cintron, the automatic-est automatic out on the roster (the second time in two game that Cintron was called upon to pinch hit in a key situation, by the way, the first time with Willingham rotting on the bench and the last night with Kearns watching). Cintron flied out, and somehow the plan to let Kip Wells, Joe Beimel, and Joel Hanrahan hold a one-run lead for 3 innings held up. That doesn't mean Manny made the right decision.
I have other gripes. He insists on putting his lowest OBP hitters in the lead-off spot. Putting Cristian Guzman and Lastings Milledge up top is questionable, but leading off Anderson Hernandez, he of the .288 career OBP, is totally inexplicable.

Base-stealing has been a problem. Last year they were 29th in baseball with a 65.3% steal rate, costing them about 6 runs over the course of the season, a little more than half a win. They were a stunning 0 for 7 attempting to steal third. My win probability added analysis shows that when you factor in the context, the Nationals actually cost themselves .798 wins trying to steal. Baseball Prospectus's EqBRR stat, which factors in not only stealing but all base-running events, figures they burned a whopping 16 runs on the basepaths. Last night Elijah Dukes got caught trying to steal third base with no outs in the second inning, an absolute red light situation if there ever was one.

And now he seems to be falling in love with one-run strategies like the squeeze bunt (which he called twice last night) and the hit-and-run, which is almost always a terrible play because it forces hitters to swing at bad pitches. Watching him force hitter with excellent plate discipline like Nick Johnson and Elijah Dukes swing at whatever's coming is like taking an exacto knife to the Mona Lisa.

(In fairness, this is a very recent development and a stark reversal from last year. Only the Pittsburgh Pirates' hitters swung the bat with runners in motion fewer times in 2008 than the Nationals. It's impossible to know how often the manager called the hit-and-run and how often the hitter simply chose to swing on a steal, but bottom line the Nationals did it 97 times last year, while the league-leader in this particular brand of over-managing was Lou Piniella at 173 swings with runners in motion. Hopefully, he'll put these new toys away, but still it's bizarre that he's doing this stuff now, just as he finally has some power.)

One thing I still don't agree with, however, is that Manny needs to yell and scream more. Personally, I don't think that's what wins games. Some folks want to see him be more of a disciplinarian with young players, but answer me this: what manager at any level has gotten as much out of Elijah Dukes as Manny has? Milledge maybe should be farther along, but it's not true that he hasn't progressed. Flores has regressed, but is it possible he just isn't that good? And do you doubt that he's getting the best from Lannan? What other young, talented players has had to work with?

Some coaches and managers yell a lot, others don't. Mike Holmgren screams a lot; Tony Dungy doesn't. Both are good coaches.
Jerry Glanville yells; Norv Turner doesn't. Both are bad coaches. Phil Jackson and Bobby Knight are as different as you can be, except they both win. In baseball Joe Torre's been pretty successful with the emotionless stoic approach, while Earl Weaver and Lou Piniella win with temper-tantrums. Lee Elia's famous temper didn't make him a success in Chicago, nor did Dusty Baker's laid back routine.

I realize I'm switching sports, but if anything baseball is less conducive to the high-emotion approach. It's more a game of focus than adrenaline, more like golf than football. Ultimately I think each manager should just be himself. It's when a guy starts trying to be something he's not that you get into trouble.

Which brings me to probably the most important reason why it might make sense to break ties with Manny at the end of the day. It seems clear at this point that Rizzo wants more of a drill sergeant. That's not Manny. Forcing a marriage of two guys with starkly different approaches isn't a recipe for success. It's a continuation of the #1 reason the Nationals are a failing franchise (a bigger reason that Jim, if you can believe it), which is that no one hired the people who work for them. Kasten was stuck with Jim. Jim was stuck with Manny. Jim hired Manny's coaches. Stan forced Rizzo on Jim, and Jim inherited Dana Brown from the Expos.

Now, Rizzo's still laboring under the "acting" title, and I wonder, could he fire Manny if he wanted to? Probably not, so he's forced to try to make Manny yell more, which is a role Manny plays poorly. For once and for all, Mark Lerner need to tell Stan to hire a full-time GM, give him full authority to hire his own manager, scouting director, and player development team, and get out of the way. If that means Rizzo fires Manny and hires the baseball version of Tom Coughlin, so be it. It's not necessarily what I would want, but I'm not the GM.


JayB said...


This was well reasoned. While I tend to agree with the Rizzo school and you the Marxist are right....this organization needs to pick on leader and let him do his job.

John O'Connor said...

I doubt we really know enough about the most important quality in a manager, particularly the manager of a team that isn't goinhg to contend for the division: whatever the style, having the guys as ready to play as they can be.

Tactically, I agree with most of your criticisms. The overuse of the bullpen (though I was heartened that he let Zimmermann go 6 in his first start abnd let a couiple of guys go into the 7th over the weekend), and the complate lack of understanding when to doube switch (with the related issue of being way too content to burn his best players by taking them out of the game when not necessary).

The tactical things may be fixable. The "Joe Torre" quality of having the guys in a good mindframe to succeed, that you either have it or you don't.

Jon said...


I can give you another reason Lerner needs to either hire Rizzo full time or hire another GM, IMMEDIATELY: Stephen Strasburg.

Right now, there is not a baseball man in America who actually does NOT want to be the Nats GM. They all see Strasburg sitting there and want to be the guy to draft and sign him. We have our pick of the litter, so to speak. Conversely, Rizzo might not have the balls to pick Strasburg if he's afraid he won't sign him... which could lead to him not getting the full time gig. Either way, a decision needs to be made, NOW.

Time to act on this.

phil dunton said...

The fact that Rizzo was not made GM but still has the "acting" title is not a vote of confidence from upper management. My guess is that both Rizzo and Acta will be gone by next season. Kasten will bring in a seasoned and proven GM and an experienced manager. Maybe Pat Gillick will come out of retirement again.

ckstevenson said...

I have no factual basis for this theory, and I don't really buy into it, but - Any chance Manny is a bit racist? Or has some bias against young black guys? Milledge has gotten a number of opportunities, but is on an oddly short leash (or there's other stuff going on we don't know about). And Dukes is yanked around more than a yo-yo. His favorites that you listed are all hispanic guys. Maybe there's something going on there? Maybe even subconciously? I hope not.

Interestingly, I only caught 3 minutes of the Nats game last night. I saw the double to LC that Dukes missed on the ground, and then non-chalantly picked up. He fired a laser to the cutoff who threw out ATL's rookie CF.

I also always assume there is a lot more going on behind the scenes than we know about. I'm sure there is a lot of debate about all the OF's, how to demonstrate value in some of them for a possible trade, etc. In some ways it reminds me of the Skins. Danny Boy or Vinny make draft picks or sign free agents that the coach du jour doesn't want. But the coach gets forced to play them because the higher ups say to do so. Danny/Vinny draft a punter early in the draft, and Zorn is forced to take the kid. Sadly he gets cut because he wasn't that good.

Elan said...

you're "leave the pitcher in longer" strategy failed the braves last night, who would have won if they had pulled their starter after 75 pitches, as zimmermann was. pitch counts are kept pretty strictly in april, so I wouldnt use this month as a measurement of acta's use of the hook. as you said it worked in 07, didnt work in 08 and so far its just april.

Steve Shoup said...

I didn't have that big of a problem pulling zimmermann (though I had a big problem with Cintron as the pinch hitter). To me between the delayed start and the bad weather it made sense to get him out a little early. I think with the new bullpen arms and the fact that the overuse of Zimmermann is my biggest worry this season I think Acta made the right call there.