It's all but certain that Tigers manager Brad Ausmus will not be back to manage the team in 2016. It is also a near certainty that owner Mike Ilitch will insist on replacing Ausmus with a manager who has more experience. That, combined with the fact that new GM Al Avila has already been quite outspoken about his preference for advanced metrics, opens the door for the very real possibility that the next manager of the Detroit Tigers will be former MLB manager and ESPN analyst Manny Acta.
When Acta was managing the Indians in 2012, assistant general manager Mike Chernoff said in an interview with Fangraphs, "It's Manny's job to make out the lineup ... but he does seek input from us. He reaches out to our analytics department to ask questions about the best lineup construction in certain situations, or maybe to see how a change he's thinking about might help our team."
Compare that to what Al Avila said to Tony Paul of the Detroit News a few weeks ago: "The [analytics] information is funneled to the manager and to the staff ... they use it to their discretion, as much as they need it. I don't turn in the lineup card to our manager; I never have and never will."
Sounds like a perfect fit to me.
The trouble with Manny Acta, on the surface at least, is that his track record stinks on paper. In three years with the Washington Nationals (2007-2009) he posted a combined win percentage of .385, and while his combined win percentage of .446 with the Indians (2010-2012) is slightly better, it's nothing to get terribly excited about.
However, there is some hope to be found in the statistical facts. Acta's worst year with the Nationals was in 2008, when they finished 59-102, good for a .366 win percentage. In that season, however, the Nationals had a league-worst OPS, fourth-worst batting average, third-worst team ERA, second-worst FIP, and an overall league-worst WAR. When your team can't hit or pitch, you lose 100 games.
Acta's worst year with the Indians was in 2010, posting a .426 win percentage and a record of 69-93. As you might imagine, this slightly better record than the 2008 Nationals is reflected in only just slightly better team numbers: the Indians had the second-worst OPS in the league, third-worst ERA/ERA+ and FIP, fourth-worst batting average, and the third-worst WAR in the league.
As Baseball Prospectus wrote at the end of 2007, "one wonders what he might be capable of when he actually has a genuinely good team to manage."
There are still some things that can be gleaned, I think, even from a manager's worst seasons. Given the lack of talent on the roster, how did Acta work with the hand(s) he was dealt? I chose the 2010 season with the Indians as a simple case study, and here is what I found.
In terms of how Acta built his 2010 lineup, a fairly clear pattern emerges. Michael Brantley, Tevor Crowe, and Asdrubal Cabrera got the majority of plate appearances in the leadoff spot (with Cabrera seeing most of his appearances in the two-slot), and while none of them slugged above .350, only Cabrera had an on-base percentage under .300, and that, only by four points. Shin-Soo Choo and Travis Hafner batted third and clean-up, respectively, and both of them posted an OPS over .800 for the season. After that, the fifth-through-ninth spots show an orderly decrease in OPS and batting average, with Lou Marson at the bottom of the order and owning a .195/.274/.286 slashline.
What's all that supposed to mean? That Manny Acta likes to put high on-base percentage guys in his first two spots, puts his best hitters in the three and four spots, and then works his way down the line until his worst hitter is batting ninth. And he has a pretty solid reason for this strategy, as he told Fangraphs in that same interview: "I've never been a big believer in the idea of having a second leadoff hitter. I don't like putting a guy in the nine-hole who should be hitting in the seven- or eight-hole. To me, you have to maximize at bats. Your better hitters should have a shot at getting that extra at bat."
Reminder: Jose Iglesias ended the first half of 2015 with a .314 batting average and a .364 (!) on-base percentage, yet was only given 12 plate appearances (three games) in the number two spot, while he spent 70 games and 265 plate appearances in the eighth or ninth spot. Why? I don't know, but I feel fairly safe saying that this wouldn't have happened if Acta had been managing the team.
The other bit of information that can be gleaned from Acta's management of the 2010 Indians is that he's not shy about moving his bullpen pieces around based on performance. While it's true that he did seem to be stuck in the "ninth inning equals closer" mentality, and typically didn't use his relief ace for more than one inning, his usage -- and then non-usage -- of Chris Perez as the closer is somewhat telling.
Perez was used regularly in save situations through the middle of May in 2010, until he blew his third save of the season. After that, Perez mostly pitched in a set-up role in the eighth inning, while Kerry Wood was given the ball in the ninth inning of winning games for the next month-and-a-half. Wood pitched just shy of 16 innings in that period, but blew three saves of his own, and after the All Star break, Perez was reinstated as the closer, and posted a sparkling 0.63 ERA in the second half, holding opposing hitters to a slashline of .158/.245/.200.
This is quite a different approach than what Tigers fans have become used to seeing. Even Jim Leyland continued to robotically push the "Jose Valverde" button in the ninth during the 2013 season, just as Ausmus pushed the "Joe Nathan" button in the ninth during the 2014 season, despite what the numbers suggested. Leyland quit using Valverde only after Papa Grande was DFA'd, and Ausmus quit using Nathan only after Nathan suffered a season-ending injury. In Detroit, it seems, the rule is to use the Anointed Closer in the ninth no matter what. It would be refreshing to see a manager like Manny Acta who isn't afraid to jettison the labels and use a more Earl Weaver-style approach to the bullpen, i.e., whoever is pitching the best gets the job.
Perhaps the most refreshing thing to hear about a Tigers manager, however, would be to hear Al Avila say what Indians GM Mark Shapiro said of Manny Acta in 2010: "... [Acta having an understanding of statistical analysis] does make it easier to have a more thorough discussion with him about our decision-making process. I think that the first time it struck us was when we were talking about one of our relievers and Manny said, 'Did you see his batting average on balls in play last year?' He not only said that, he used the acronym and we're not used to hearing that come from someone in a uniform."
Neither are we, Mark. But I think we'd enjoy it.