Things didn’t work out for Manny Acta in Cleveland. The saber-savvy skipper was fired after the Indians finished the 2012 season 26 games under .500. In his three years at the helm, the Tribe went 214-266.
I caught up with Acta at this week’s SABR Analytics Conference, in Phoenix. My first question was straight and to the point: How good of a job did you do in Cleveland?
“I feel like I served the purpose,” opined Acta. “I went into a rebuilding job. Basically, we had our core players who were going to be successful for the franchise, and we did our thing to keep them in line and develop them.”
I asked Acta about the team chemistry.
“It was terrific,” said Acta. “A lot of the credit for that goes to the scouting and player development over there. It’s a character-oriented front office, which made my job easy. All I had to do was concentrate on managing the ballgame. I didn’t have many issues in the clubhouse. The Indians get high-character guys and do a pretty good job of weeding out the bad guys as they come up through the system.”
His response demanded a follow-up. In the opinion of some — both inside and outside the organization — Acta’s relationship with certain players was less than ideal. I asked him about that.
“When you don’t win, there is always going to be criticism,” answered Acta. “My second year, when we had that run, instead of criticism I had a lot of people talking me up. You have to take the good with the bad. When you leave a place, there are always going to be people saying things. You have to accept that and move on. I refuse to believe I was the cause of us not winning the division while I was there.”
Another follow-up: Were there issues with some players?
“You can never have 25 Boy Scouts,” said Acta.” But we didn’t have anybody where we couldn’t live through it. Much has been said about Chris Perez, but he made two All-Star teams while I was there. He was manageable.”
Acta is currently serving as an analyst for ESPN. He’d rather be managing in the big leagues. If he gets another opportunity, what will he do differently?
“I’ll probably loosen up a little bit,” said Acta. “I’m a guy who likes to do things right and players sometimes see that as… I just like to respect the game. Respect the way you wear your uniform and how you go about your business. But maybe that’s not a priority for guys anymore. Maybe I’d need to loosen up some of those rules and just let them concentrate on the ballgame.
“I’d possibly stop working so much as a coach,” continued Acta. “I used to spend a lot of time during batting practice hitting ground balls. When I get my next opportunity, I think I’ll let a coach do that. I’ll use that time to go into the outfield to talk to some of my relievers. During the game, you don’t get a chance to talk to them because they’re isolated out in the bullpen. There are little things like that I’d tinker with.”
Things didn’t work out for Chris Perez in Cleveland, either. They did to a certain degree — he logged a lot of saves — but there were implosions along the way. To say Perez was a lightning rod would be an understatement.
The Indians released Perez on Halloween. His outspokenness was likely a contributing factor. Ditto the drugs-and-dog controversy and Jekyll-and-Hyde pitching performances. On Christmas Eve, the Los Angeles Dodgers inked him to a free agent contract.
I asked Perez why he signed with the Dodgers.
“This is a good opportunity for me to re-establish myself,” said Perez. “It also gets me away from some of the negative perception I had in Cleveland. Last year, stuff happened and the reporters kind of piled on. Here, I can just fit in on a good team and do my thing.”
Perez wasn’t surprised to be let go by the Indians. He was somewhat surprised to land where he did.
“The Dodgers were nibbling right from the beginning, but when they signed [Brian] Wilson, I thought that was it,” said Perez. “But they called my agency and said they still wanted me. I was excited about that. There were a couple of teams I could have signed with. When I was in L.A. getting my physical, another National League team actually made an offer. A few American League teams had showed interest as well, one in the East and one in the West.
“Free agency is so fluid,” continued Perez. “One deal goes down and the dynamic changes. You kind of have to wait out the market. There were a ton of guys out there. Six or seven guys who had 20 saves last year were free agents. I was the youngest one, but I also had the most baggage.“
It’s not surprising that Perez owns up to the baggage. The straight-shooting reliever is likewise honest about his up-and-down 2013 season.
“The team was good last year, but I wasn’t good,” admitted Perez. “It sucked that I wasn’t my normal self. I was fighting little injuries the whole year. I got healthy toward the second half — July and August I felt really good — but that was arm-wise. My mechanics had changed to compensate for my injuries. When you’re the closer on a team trying to win for the first time in awhile, you need to take the ball and do your job. I didn’t always do my job.”
The beleaguered closer’s most notable blown save came against the White Sox in late September. He surrendered back-to-back home runs in the ninth inning, only to be bailed out by a Jason Giambi walk-off in the bottom half.
“Oh man, he picked me up big on that one,” said Perez. “It was probably the best atmosphere I’ve been involved in, in the big leagues. Even so, it was lonely. I sat in the dugout, just hoping. I was excited when he went deep, but part of me still felt like crap. It was a huge win, yet I was the a—hole who gave up the home runs that made him have to hit a home run.”
Seattle Mariners general manager Jack Zduriencik was a panelist at this week’s SABR Analytics Conference. Before he took the stage I asked him if he could share a story from his days as a scout. Here is what Zduriencik had to say:
“Back when I was a young scout with the Mets, I scouted the College World Series. Joe Magrane had been pitching and I was very impressed. This was right before the draft. I was in a bar after the game with Mike Roberts, a scout with the Cardinals. Hub Kittle walked in. Everyone knew Hub, with his big, raspy voice. I asked him, ‘Hub, what did you think of that big lefthander? He was pretty good, wasn’t he?’ Hub growled, ‘That big old donkey? Bah. You can have him.’ A day later, the St. Louis Cardinals took Joe Magrane in the first round. Hub was a big deal with the Cardinals, had been with them for years, and wasn’t giving away any scouting tips. I learned a lesson right there.”
The Arizona Diamondbacks and Los Angeles Dodgers will play in Sydney, Australia later this week. They’ll traverse numerous time zones and the international date line to do so. Needless to say, traveling halfway across the world will present a jet-lag challenge for both teams.
According to Dodgers catcher Tim Federowicz, the acclimation process is already under way.
“We had a meeting the other day about getting on Australia time as quickly as possible,” Federowicz told me on Thursday. “Starting today, we’re supposed to go to bed 30 minutes later. Tomorrow, 30 minutes later than that. Next day, another 30 minutes. When we get on the plane at midnight it will be 6 p.m. Australia time. We’re going to work out right after we land, so we don’t just go to sleep.”
Major League Baseball players are used to travel, but this is a whole new animal. Flying to Sydney isn’t like hopping on a plane in Los Angeles and waking up in New York.
“The farthest I’ve flown is to Hawaii,” said Federowicz. “That was from North Carolina and I think it was about nine hours. I had a middle seat, in a middle row, so it felt like a long flight.”
What is he expecting once the team reaches Australia?
“We’re playing at the cricket grounds, so I’m sure all the cricket fans will come watch us,” said Federowicz. “We’re playing Team Australia one game and then the Diamondbacks, so I’m assuming it will be sold out. It will be quite the experience.”
Kevin Kiermaier’s big league debut was unique among first games. The Tampa Bay Rays outfielder entered as a defensive replacement in the ninth inning of last year’s wild card tiebreaker, in Texas.
Forty-eight hours before taking the field, the 23-year-old had no idea it could happen. And he wasn’t a happy camper.
“It was crazy,” said Kiermaier. “I was down in Port Charlotte at a hitting camp. I’d had a good offensive year, so I was like ‘Why are they sending me to this hitting camp?’ I was pretty bitter about it, to be honest. Little did I know they had a plan the whole time. They wanted to keep me baseball ready, just in case.
“I got a call on Sunday night, around 11:30,” continued Kiermaier. “They put me on a plane to Texas the next morning. Once I got to the clubhouse, I talked to Joe Maddon and Andrew Friedman. They said, ‘Hey, we don’t know if we’re going to activate you or not, but give us about 30 minutes and we’ll call you back in. Sure enough, they called me back in and said I was going to be activated that night. They said whenever we get a lead, be ready.”
Game 163, ninth inning, the season on the line. The youngster was unfazed.
“We were up by three runs, so all the pressure was on them,” Kiermaier told me earlier this month. “I thought I was going to be nervous, but I honestly wasn’t. I’m confident in my abilities and felt like I belonged out there. [David] Price got them 1-2-3. I was hoping something would be hit my way, but the way he’d been throwing all night, it didn’t surprise me that nothing was.”
Given his defensive excellence and solid hitting skills, Kiermaier should have plenty of opportunities to make plays in the future. How many come as a defensive replacement remains to see seen. As for the games themselves, the stakes won’t be any higher.
You won’t find many pitchers with a higher leg kick than Bronson Arroyo. The Arizona Diamondbacks right-hander told me the story behind it yesterday at Salt River Fields at Talking Stick.
“The leg kick came when I was about nine years old,” explained Arroyo. “It came out of trying to emulate Dwight Gooden. He was an absolute stud at the time, and my brain processed his big leg kick. He had a stiff leg that he kind of wrapped around, and this came out of that.”
After demonstrating Gooden’s delivery, Arroyo compared himself to A.J. Pierzynski.
“I was pretty much the same then as I am now,” said Arroyo. “I had a good feel for the game and would drop my arm angle. I would throw curveballs and do things with my delivery. It’s funny, I played against A.J. Pierzynski when I was 10, 11 and 12, and with him when I was 13. He was exactly the same way he is now. He was competitive as hell and wasn’t fun to play against. He talked a lot of s___. We‘re both pretty much the same as we were in Little League.”
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