May 29, 2009

In Defense of Liberty

Ladies and gentlemen, I'll be brief. The issue here is not whether Nationals Manager Manny Acta is stoic and unresponsive to the point of narcolepsy - he is. But you can't hold a manger responsible for the behavior of a few, sick twisted umpires. For if you do, then shouldn't we blame the whole umpiring system? And if the whole umpiring system is guilty, then isn't this an indictment of Major League Baseball in general? I put it to you - isn't this an indictment of our entire American society? Well, you can do whatever you want to Manny, but I for one am not going to stand here and listen to you badmouth the United States of America!

(With profuse apologies to National Lampoon's Animal House.)

Seriously though, what's the point here? Yes, the team is losing. Yes, theoretically someone ought to be held accountable. (Let's leave aside for the moment the idea that Jim Bowden was preemptively held accountable for this fiasco.) Does Manny bear some responsibility for the current mess? Absolutely. Should he be fired for it? Well, that depends on your definition of "should".

Step back from the situation. The Nats awful record is built on two faulty pillars. Lousy defense and abyssmal relief pitching. Sure the starting pitching has been bad, and the bats have picked a few inopportune times to take a night off; but by and large the starters have been good enough to keep the team in the game and the offense has held up its end. So what can Manny do about the defense and the relievers?

On defense he's been hamstrung by that perennial Nats weakness: they don't have a starting centerfielder worthy of the title. Lastings Milledge wasn't, isn't and won't be it. Elijah Dukes has the bat, but not the glove, Justin Maxwell just the opposite. Willie Harris is probably the best man for the job, but inserting him into the starting lineup exposes the other problem: too many leftfielders. Adam Dunn and even Josh Willingham are outfielders only in the sense that that's where they stand when not batting. Dukes is best suited to a corner spot as well. Austin Kearns has the glove to play anywhere, and the bat to play in AAA.

Here's Manny Acta's dilemma: max out the offense with Willingham, Dukes and Dunn and just hope nothing gets hit out of the infield, or get better defensively with Harris and Kearns in CF and RF, respectively, sacrificing offense while still trotting out a defensive liability (Dunn) in left. Behind Door #3 is a rotation of all 5 of these guys that changes the offensive and defensive profile of your team from night to night. So what's the "right" answer?

Down in the bullpen, Manny's even more constrained. He doesn't sign the relievers, he doesn't coach them, and though I'm sure he has input, he doesn't get to move guys on and off the 25-man roster on a whim. That's GM territory. So if you have an historically bad bullpen, what can you do? Throw everything you've got against the wall and see what sticks. Manny has been criticized in the past for being a "roles" guy, "Saul is my 7th inning pitcher, Beimel's my 8th inning guy, Hinckley's the LOOGY and Joel is the closer." Well, where are they now? Hanrahan, Beimel, Rivera, Julian Tavarez, Kip Wells, Garrett Mock, Jason Bergmann, Logan Kensing, Ron Villone... they've all gotten opportunities, sometimes multiple stints. There's been some improvement of late, but only after sifting through a lot of junk.

The sad truth is, this team can only expect so much improvement given the personnel on hand. Would Manny Acta barking at the umps in Citifield improve Josh Willingham's glove, or Joel Hanrahan's control? For that matter, would it have moved the officials to change either of their ultimate decisions? (If you say yes, you have to show your work.)

If not, then what is all this fuss about? There was no bait-and-switch here. Acta's always been very clear on his philosophy, arguing doesn't help. For a long time, he was lauded for that calmer, more professional, more analytic approach. Except that apparently, when all about you are losing their heads, the correct managerial posture is to lose yours too.

Maybe Manny's not the right manager for this team. But ask yourself: is that Manny's fault, or the team's?


Dave Nichols said...

word of calm, rational wisdom. just like the Mannyger.

Nate said...

Damning with faint praise? :)