The obsession with Manny Acta

Jason Miller

Who will be the Dodgers' next bench coach? Does Acta, the former Nationals and Indians manager, fit the profile?

Baseball is full of constant reminders that there is so much about the game that we simply don't know. The Dodgers' search for a bench coach seems to be one of those cases, with much speculation and not much information.

Since declining the 2014 option of Trey Hillman on Tuesday, the Dodgers haven't really tipped their hand at the identity of their next bench coach, or the candidates. But judging by the comments here and from general internet sentiment, the name that keeps coming up is Manny Acta.

As best I can tell, Acta is more known to us because of a pair of interviews he gave to Baseball Prospectus in 2010 and FanGraphs in 2012. Acta had several thoughtful ideas in those and other interviews, so it's understandable that he is popular among online commenters.

Jay Jaffe brought up a couple of good points in Acta's favor at Sports Illustrated:

The sabermetrically-minded Manny Acta, who didn’t find much success as a manager in Washington or Cleveland, appears to be an ideal choice if the Cubs don’t hire him to manage. Last year, on the topic of lineup construction, Acta told FanGraphs, "The main thing is scoring runs, so you need to stack up your best hitters up front. You forget about trying to put a guy in the second spot just because he can hit-and-run and bunt," which is music to the ears of Mattingly’s critics.

Acta would also guarantee a bilingual presence on the Dodgers’ staff, bolstering communication with the contingent of Latino players that include Hanley Ramirez and Yasiel Puig (whose handling may have been a source of tension between Mattingly and the brass). Assistant hitting coach John Valentin, whom the team intends to retain but has yet to re-sign for 2014, is the only coach on the staff who speaks Spanish.

For all of Acta's strengths, his teams have been terrible. He has managed six years in the big leagues, three each in Washington and Cleveland, and was fired in the third season in each job. His winning percentage as a manager is .418, and both the Indians and Nationals improved after he left.

Though in fairness to Acta, Stephen Strasburg, Bryce Harper, and improvement from a terrible Indians pitching staff had more to do with the improvement of those teams than did the change in manager.

Joe Torre had a .472 winning percentage in 14 years as a manager before joining the Yankees, and he'll end up in Cooperstown. Casey Stengel had a .439 winning percentage in nine years before joining the Yankees, and he's already in the Hall of Fame. Maybe it just takes time, or joining the Yankees, to find your groove.

But the fact is, having success as a manager isn't a prerequisite for being a bench coach. Trey Hillman won in Japan, but had a .423 winning percentage in three years in Kansas City, essentially the same as Acta's six-year mark.

But what does it take to be a good bench coach? It seems that communication is key, with a dash of strategy and tactical help mixed in. But again, this is something we don't really know.

Looking at bench coaches around the league, one thing they have in common is a major league playing career. Most of them weren't nearly as long as Alan Trammell (bench coach in Arizona) or Chris Speier (bench coach in Cincinnati) or Larry Bowa (bench coach in Philadelphia for a man he was once traded for), but nearly all of them tasted the show.

In all, 24 of the 28 current bench coaches - the Dodgers and Angels are in search of a bench coach; former Halo coach Rob Picciolo played in the majors, while Hillman did not - played in the major leagues, and the other four played in the minors.

Hillman was a rarity among bench coaches in that he didn't play in the minors but he did manage for 20 years - 12 in the minors, five in Japan, and three more in the majors.

Of the 28 current bench coaches, 11 have major league managing experience.

Acta played five years in the minors - he was an infielder in the Astros' system from 1987-1991 - and managed eight more seasons in the minors before graduating to the big leagues as a coach, then manager.

When Acta was hired as manager in Washington in 2006, then president Stan Kasten said, "I knew within 30 minutes that this could be the next manager, that he had the right stuff."

Ignoring for a moment that Kasten was still the Nationals president when Acta was fired in 2009, will those two be reunited again in Los Angeles? Or will the Dodgers hire somebody we hardly know outside of possibly appearing on a 1992 Topps baseball card?

I can't say that I know. And the unknown can be scary. Which is why Acta, who we think we know a little more than most, keeps getting brought up.

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