By Barry Svrluga
Washington Post Staff Writer
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."
Before each series, Acta pores over stats -- matchups between hitters and pitchers, who's hot and who isn't, all the minutiae that will inform how he makes decisions late in a game. But the specific data on a given team, and how Acta will approach them, is supported by bedrock philosophies that don't waver. Like most managers, Acta said he took ideas from every manager with whom he has worked. But he is also an avid reader, both of inspirational books on leadership and of baseball. If he has a baseball bible, it just might be "Mind Game," the book on the 2004 Boston Red Sox produced by the staff of Baseball Prospectus, a group of some of the leading statistical analysts in the game.
Acta's dog-eared copy of the collection of essays -- which used the World Series champions to describe what its writers believe are winning philosophies, all backed up by in-depth stats -- sits in his library at home in St. Cloud, Fla. But it backs up, in numbers and anecdotes, several of Acta's principles, such as why Acta rarely, if ever, uses his middle-of-the-order hitters to sacrifice bunt.
"If it's been proven to me that a guy from first has a better chance to score if you let the guy swing the bat than a guy from second with one out [as would result from a sacrifice bunt] -- and there's a decent hitter at the plate -- then why keep doing it?" Acta said earlier this spring. Robinson would frequently bunt in early innings. Acta never does.
"I bunt the top two guys in the lineup, and I bunt the bottom two guys in the lineup," Acta said. "But the guys that are in the middle of the lineup are there to drive in runs. That's just my philosophy. That's what I do. I do believe in bunting guys from first and second to second and third. I do that -- but again, with what I consider are my bunting guys."
When Acta managed in the Houston Astros system, the parent club wanted its player development people to teach players how to hit and run. So Acta taught the skill, which requires players to be able to hit balls on the ground at will. Acta's Nationals, though, will rarely employ that strategy.
"That's basically asking a guy that can sometimes handle the bat and knows the strike zone to take a swing at a pitch -- wherever it is," he said. "To me, that's kind of like bunting. You got to have the guy, the situation, the count to do that kind of stuff instead of just as soon as somebody gets on, have somebody running, somebody swinging."
Back on the field, Acta reminded his players of different situations at each base. He believes the club improved its base running last season, "but we weren't perfect." So the little lectures -- reminders, Acta called them -- will take place this spring, next spring, as long as Acta is a manager.
"A lot of people, sometimes they're not completely focused on this kind of stuff," he said. "They just go out and play. . . . I don't think I'm any different than probably 95 percent of the guys that are managing."
But 95 percent of the guys that are managing don't spend an hour deep into spring training taking their teams from first base to second and around to third, going over different situations and how to react.
"He's special that way," General Manager Jim Bowden said. "He takes care in every single part of the game, from teaching it here to taking it into a game in the season."
So when the season begins, and the Nationals find themselves with no outs and a runner on first, wait for a hard, low liner to be hit. If the liner is caught, and the runner has already stepped toward second, he could be an easy mark for a double play. But if he handles it as he was taught on a sunny morning in mid-March, he should be leaning back toward the base. The reward of advancing an extra base, in Acta's mind, is not worth the risk of being doubled up, killing a potential rally.
"We want to try to see if we're the only team that wouldn't do it once," Acta said. If the Nationals succeed, it will be a small achievement that fits into a larger philosophy, one that is being stamped on a team by its manager.