Francona the Right Fit Entering Year Eight in Cleveland
Bob Toth | On 21, Oct 2019
Two weeks ago marked the anniversary of the hiring of manager Terry Francona, whose return to the Indians organization was formally announced on October 6, 2012. He took over for interim manager Sandy Alomar Jr., who has remained on his staff throughout Francona’s tenure.
As Francona enters year eight at the helm in Cleveland, he still looks like the right man for the job, even with his flaws and occasional suspect moves on the diamond. Few have had the success that he has in the Cleveland dugout, and few around the game today can claim the resume that he has built over 19 years of big league managerial work. That body of work is why he is one of the longest tenured skippers currently at work.
While teams around the game are giving quick hooks to their managers if not seeing the desired results (and especially during rebuilding periods for the organizations), Francona’s success has kept him off of the hot seat with little realistic heat throughout his time back in Cleveland. He has been able to lead clubs built with strong veteran leadership as well as younger squads like this past season’s team, which had to rely upon the younger arms of Shane Bieber, Mike Clevinger, Zach Plesac, and Aaron Civale while more experienced starters like Corey Kluber, Carlos Carrasco, and Trevor Bauer were either out of action or dealt away at the trade deadline. It has been a testament to Francona’s leadership style, one which was heavily questioned at the end of his reign in Boston, when it was believed he let the clubhouse get out of control after several successful years brought a pair of World Series titles and the end of the “Curse of the Bambino” to the town for the first time since 1918. Francona earned a significant amount of praise for his work in bringing the younger and inexperienced Indians roster back from a sub-.500 record on June 2, when the club sat at 29-30 after dropping three of four in Chicago to the White Sox. They ultimately finished outside of the playoff picture, but they made it a closer race than some expected after the abysmal start to the campaign.
With the retirement of San Francisco’s Bruce Bochy and Kansas City’s Ned Yost at the end of the 2019 season, Francona is now the second-longest tenured manager active among the 30 possible candidates (only Oakland’s Bob Melvin, who was hired by the A’s on June 9, 2011, has been in the dugout for his team longer). Francona’s 19 years of service as a manager are the most of any active manager in the game as he has been in that role for 3,076 games, the 20th-most games managed in Major League Baseball history and just two in back of longtime Los Angeles Angels skipper Mike Scioscia.
Meanwhile, thirteen of the 14 clubs in the American League have shifted directions since Francona’s hire in Cleveland, as well as all 15 National League clubs (with six current vacancies in Chicago, New York, Philadelphia, Pittsburgh, San Diego, and San Fran). The game has generally shifted to a new era of managers, many with limited experience at the helm at the Major League level. Despite that change in collective attitude in the game, the 60-year-old Francona has withstood the test of time.
Some have questioned Francona’s decision making on the field, whether in the sense of sacrifice bunting, challenges, his use of young, unproven prospects, or even the way that he has handled his pitching staff and late inning matchups. He has been criticized for sticking with the experienced veterans too long during times of slumps, often acknowledging that those hitting droughts are hard to bust when not in the lineup. This may have led to some stalled development and missed opportunities to see players considered worthy of big league playing time, like Oscar Mercado, Greg Allen, Bobby Bradley, Yu Chang, and Eric Haase this season, or most notably, Yandy Diaz in recent history. Not all of those decisions were solely on him, but there is no doubt that his voice is heard in those internal discussions during the spring and after. The team as a whole gambled too long on veteran new faces this season in Hanley Ramirez and Carlos Gonzalez and the returning Leonys Martin, and therefore sacrificed chances to see some of the younger bats in action.
In regards to Francona’s reliance on sacrifice bunting, the Indians’ numbers were up slightly in that department in 2019. After using a sacrifice bunt (by a non-pitcher) in 1.3% of opportunities in 2018, that number jumped to 2.0% in 2019. It spelled for a “league adjusted sacrifice bunt rate” of 188, well over average. Regardless of circumstance, only four teams averaged more sacrifices per game than the Indians, and all of those teams resided in the Senior Circuit (Los Angeles, Colorado, Washington, and Pittsburgh). Five of the top 13 sacrifice bunters in the American League came off of the Indians roster – Mercado (7), Roberto Perez (7), Mike Freeman (6), Jason Kipnis (5), and Allen (4). Five other AL teams – Chicago (4), Texas (1), Baltimore (1), Boston (1), and Kansas City (1) – had the remaining eight players, but only Boston posted a winning record among them, indicative of the particular states of those organizations.
Francona won 15 of 27 challenges (55.6%) this season, winning one fewer than the season before while making ten less attempts. His 43.2% rate of successful overturns in 2018 was his worst mark since replay entered the game. Francona was no Yost in 2019 – the Royals’ retiring skipper won 23 of 28 challenge attempts – but he was still the eighth-best among managers to work the whole season.
While there may have been some bullpen decisions that defied expectation or raised some eyebrows, the staff as a whole got the job done at a better-than-league-average rate. The relief corps blew 16 saves (fourth-best in MLB) and converted on 72% of opportunities (second to Toronto’s 77%). The staff allowed just 29% of inherited runners to score (tied for sixth-best in MLB and below the average of 32%). Francona brought in pitchers with runners on base 174 different times, the fourth-most among all teams (the teams above Cleveland on that list – Baltimore and both Chicago clubs – did not have the same overall numbers as compared to the Indians ‘pen), displaying a willingness to get a starting pitcher out of the game without allowing him to make matters worse or to use matchups to the best of his ability. Cleveland’s Adam Cimber (24.4%) and Oliver Perez (31.5%) were both in the top 15 among AL leaders in lowest percentage of inherited runners to score.
The Tribe had 172 instances in which a reliever did not complete a full inning of work in a game, the most of any AL team and the sixth-most in baseball. His relievers averaged the fewest pitches per outing in MLB and averaged the fewest outs per appearance in the league. Francona utilized his bullpen a great deal, but did his part to spare them extensive workloads, regardless the end results. It marked a change from some heavy pitch counts in the past by some of the bullpen’s former workhorses, all no longer with the club.
Questions about Francona’s choices aside, the longtime skipper will have a realistic opportunity at becoming the winningest manager in Cleveland history. With a lifetime Indians record of 638-494, he currently ranks third on the team’s all-time list, behind Lou Boudreau (728 wins) and Mike Hargrove (721 wins). His .564 winning percentage as manager is third-best in franchise history (among those to manage more than a handful of games), trailing Al Lopez’s .617 mark in six seasons and Ossie Vitt’s .570 mark from 1938-1940.
Francona-led clubs have made the playoffs nine times in 19 years. His Boston Red Sox went five times in nine years, winning a pair of World Series championships in 2004 and 2007. The Indians had made three straight appearances and four overall (if counting the team’s Wild Card game in 2013) under Francona’s watch until his 93-win club fell short of the AL Wild Card game this year. Prior to the season, the Indians extended his contract for two more years, locking him up additionally for the 2021 and 2022 campaigns, making it all the more likely that he will surpass Boudreau on the all-time list.
The game of baseball may be in a constant state of flux, but if there has been one constant in Cleveland, it has been the entertainment and leadership brought to the dugout by the beloved Terry Francona. He may be edging towards the end of his time influencing the game between the lines, but the Indians family will undoubtedly benefit from the tutelage and guidance that he will provide in the meantime. He has still been able to get the job done for the organization, even when handcuffed by injuries, inexperienced players, or the restrictions of a cost-conscious front office. Those challenges will continue for Francona moving forward, especially with some significant roster-related decisions looming in the coming years.
Photo: Scott Taetsch/Getty Images