Going by Numbers, Nats' Acta Crafts Cautious Running Game
Sunday, March 23, 2008
VIERA, Fla. -- Spring training had long since grown old, and most of the Washington Nationals were ready to depart this collection of strip malls at the side of Interstate 95 to begin the grind of a major league season. But with the sun still rising over Space Coast Stadium one morning last week, Manny Acta gathered all of his position players in a huddle around first base. He spoke loudly, projecting his voice as a teacher from a lectern. He waved his hands.
"I want to be the one team," he said, "that doesn't get doubled up on a line drive with no outs. That should never happen."
During his first season as the Nationals manager in 2007, Acta was asked frequently about his background growing up in the small Dominican sugarcane town of Consuelo, about his status as the youngest manager in the majors, about the energy that he displayed in spring training and the apparent calm he showed in the dugout. But Acta would not have been named to his current position on charisma alone, because charisma doesn't know what to do with one out, two men on, down by a run with its eighth-place hitter at the plate.
From his first interview for the job, Acta showed a sound sense of baseball strategy, developed over eight years as a minor league manager, polished in five more as a major league third base coach, installed with the Nationals last year. It is based not solely on statistics, not grounded completely on gut instinct. It is a combination of the two, and he is trying to make sure it is reflected in his team.
"Throughout the years, I just have had the courage to not be able to change my way of thinking," Acta said.
This drill on a calm morning, hours before an exhibition game, wasn't so Acta could hear himself talk or impress team owner Mark Lerner, who was visiting for the weekend, and it wasn't a reaction to the way the Nationals had been running the bases in the spring. It was planned weeks in advance by Acta and third base coach Tim Tolman, the man who organizes spring training's complex logistics, as a way to impart Acta's philosophies after camp had been cut from 76 players in mid-February down to 40 or so, a more workable number. The message was clear.
"In a nutshell," Tolman said, "it's: Don't give away outs."
That might sound simple enough, yet staggering to Acta is the number of managers and players and teams who don't adhere to that philosophy. Frank Robinson -- Acta's predecessor as Nationals manager, a Hall of Famer for whom Acta holds enormous respect -- all but ran the Nationals ragged in his two years in Washington. Robinson often talked about managing by feel, by what he had learned over 50 years in the game. Acta, too, has instincts. They do not, however, completely control his strategy.
Take the running game. The 2006 Nationals had outfielder Alfonso Soriano, a threat on the base paths every time he reached. Soriano stole 41 bases that season, and he became just the fourth player to hit 40 homers and steal 40 bags in the same year -- an achievement that was widely lauded.
But that season, Soriano was also thrown out 17 times, the most in his career. Ryan Zimmerman, a rookie not known for his speed, stole 11 bases but was caught eight times. That helped the Nationals set an ignominious standard; they were thrown out stealing 62 times, most in baseball. That's 62 outs -- more than two games worth -- given away.
"I'm not the biggest stolen base fan in the world," Acta said. So in his first season, he adjusted the Nationals' approach. The club went from attempting 185 steals in Robinson's final year to almost exactly half that (92) in Acta's first season. Zimmerman ran only five times, reaching safely four of them. And Washington's percentage rose from 66.5 percent in 2006 to 75 percent last year. The Nationals were caught 23 times -- fewest in baseball.
"Before I got this job, I went over every one of those stats," Acta said, "and I came in and tried to see what we had to fix over here."