As a Phillies fan, I vividly remember Terry Francona’s first four years as a manager. He spent them in Philadelphia with a woefully incompetent Phillies team which played in front of an increasingly impatient fan base. He was fired after the 2000 season with the team having gone an aggregate 285-363 (.440) under his watch. That included a 68-94 performance in 1997 and a 65-97 finish in 2000. Oftentimes, a performance that bad prevents a manager from ever getting another shot.
Francona, who enjoyed a 10-year career in the majors from 1981-90 and is the son of former major leaguer Tito Francona, has baseball in his blood. He spent the 2001 season as a special assistant to the GM with the Indians, then moved on to serve as bench coach for the Rangers in 2002 and the Athletics in ’03. The Red Sox hired him as manager in 2004 and the rest, as they say, is history.
In eight seasons under Francona’s leadership from 2004-11, the Red Sox went 744-552 (.574), winning the World Series in 2004 and in ’07. They had six seasons of 90-plus wins. The Red Sox, though, finished in third place in back-to-back seasons in 2010-11 which included a monumental September collapse in ’11, so the Red Sox declined to pick up his option for the next season.
The Indians hired Francona after the 2012 season. The improvement was felt immediately. Having finished 68-94 in 2012, the Indians improved by 24 games, posting a 92-70, second-place record in ’13. They would lose the AL Wild Card game to the Rays in a 4-0 shutout. The Tribe scuffed in the two ensuing seasons, but returned with a vengeance this season.
A lot of the Indians’ success this season can be credited to good scouting, as the club discovered Jose Ramirez and Danny Salazar. They had the eye for Francisco Lindor, Jason Kipnis, and Tyler Naquin in the draft. The front office plucked Trevor Bauer, Carlos Carrasco, Bryan Shaw, and Andrew Miller in trades. That’s a pretty good recipe for success.
But the Indians played the season without All-Star outfielder Michael Brantley and catcher Yan Gomes underperformed before missing a significant amount of time with an injury of his own. With the Indians clawing for entry into the postseason, starters Salazar and Carrasco went down with injuries. The rotation was led by 2014 AL Cy Young Award winner Corey Kluber, but the rest was patchwork. Bauer finished the regular season with a 4.26 ERA and Josh Tomlin compiled a 4.40 ERA. Mike Clevenger and Cody Anderson combined for 19 starts but the results weren’t good. It would have been easy for the Indians to fold at any point, but they never did. That’s a testament to Francona’s ability to manage the personalities in his clubhouse.
All of this is without pointing out that Francona is among the most open-minded managers in the game. Most managers run their teams according to baseball orthodoxy: tried and true methods that might have been good a decade or two ago but no longer apply in today’s game. Part of baseball orthodoxy is ridigly-defined bullpen roles. As we’ve pointed out here quite frequently, Francona has been anything but orthodox. He brought in All-Star reliever Miller into the fifth inning of ALDS Game 1 against the Red Sox and kept him in the game until he got two outs in the seventh. That would prove to be a theme. In Game 5 of the ALCS against the Blue Jays, which sent the Indians to the World Series, Miller got eight outs between the sixth and eighth innings.
Although the in-game rewards are evident, it can be quite risky for a manager to break the mold. If it backfires, he looks like an idiot in front of millions of people and gets second-guessed in the media for days. Players and the front office could lose trust in him. It could hurt his future job prospects. That’s why Joe Maddon — and Francona — have stood out so much in recent years.
Going into the 2016 season, pundits expected the Indians to be competitive. Few had them winning the AL Central. Fewer had them winning a playoff series. Even fewer had them advancing to the World Series. But here they are four wins away from their first championship since 1948, thanks in part to Francona who has a Hall of Fame resume in his 16 years as a manager.