Terry Francona might be my favorite manager ever.
As a big personality and as a controller of big personalities, few are as entertaining and effective as the lovable Tito has been in his time with the Boston Red Sox and Cleveland Indians. He rides his bright red scooter all over town, eats a lot of ice cream, and is generally a very likable manager. And for a while, it worked.
Francona and the Indians have been blessed with two generational talents on offense and a constant stream of All-Star caliber pitchers. Together, they turned that talent into six consecutive winning seams (2013-2018), three consecutive AL Central Division victories (2016-2018), and they came within spitting distance of winning it all in 2016. The Indians have never had a losing season under Terry Francona. There has never been a major public spat in the locker room under Terry Francona. Things have generally gone pretty smoothly under Terry Francona.
But maybe it’s time for the Indians to move on.
While the Indians were ripping off three-straight division wins in recent years, the competition in the AL Central just wasn’t there. Thus, Francona and the Indians could get by making questionable roster decisions and lineup sets. With no other team challenging your reign, who cares if Jason Kipnis can’t hit anymore and you bat him second? Who cares if you sit Yandy Diaz on the bench instead of letting him use his hard-hitting ability to help your quietly aging offense? Who cares if young offensive players are constantly stifled by middling veteran replacements like Mike Aviles and Michael Martinez (it’s not like he’ll come up for the last out of the World Series anyway, right?)? None of that matters when your closest competition is the Twins, and they can’t even pitch their way out of a an upside-down paper bag with eye holes cut out of it.
But what happens when the Twins catch up? What happens when, suddenly, the Indians are in trouble with injuries and all those veteran lottery tickets you’ve relied on recent years don’t come through? You can’t just bulldoze your division anymore, and you need to get smarter. Fast.
The solution could have been easy for the 2019 Indians — let young players like Oscar Mercado and Bobby Bradley get their shots as every day players. Let them run wild on the bases and/or rip apart major-league pitching like they always have in the minors. Put together a consistent lineup that puts your best players up front and stashes away the older guys at the bottom that you are forced to pay because you’re paying them anyway. Move on from the inexpensive vets that aren’t helping you in 2019 and certainly aren’t going to help you down the road. And for the love of god, stop bunting.
Maybe it’s not a perfect solution, but it’s at least a few steps in the right direction. Best of all, none of it is that hard to visualize and put into action.
Instead, here the Indians are, at .500 more than a quarter way through the season giving Leonys Martin everyday at-bats and batting Jason Kipnis and his 47 wRC+ on the season either second or fourth in the lineup 26 times. Forget that Giovanny Urshela and Yandy Diaz are finding success elsewhere — and could have provided the Indians with a reason to keep José Ramírez and his elite second-base defense where it belongs. Those decisions are in the past and done with. Instead, focus on the fact that Oscar Mercado continues to have to prove himself against Martin and Tyler Naquin instead of getting the everyday playing time he deserves based on pure ability.
Remember when Diaz, who is now blossoming into a power hitter with the Rays, grew frustrated with his manager to the point that he had to have Francisco Lindor broker a meeting between them?
A couple quotes that ran on The Athletic last August, when Diaz was still part of the Indians and struggling to get consistent playing time, paint a pretty rough picture:
“At the beginning, it was hard,” Díaz said through team interpreter Will Clements. “Maybe you feel a little frustrated and you might not have the motivation to play baseball. But, as the days go on and time keeps passing, I’ve learned to keep a positive mindset about it and just take it day by day. And my time will come.”
So, Díaz approached Lindor, who encouraged his teammate to vent to him. Lindor consulted with Michael Brantley about the most prudent course of action, and the locker mates ultimately paid Francona a visit.
That’s ... not great. And it’s even less great now that a proven forward-thinking team in the Rays saw the opportunity and snatched him up.
Despite saying he would see what the young guys have earlier in the season, the same thing seems to be happening again with Oscar Mercado — and history suggests it will happen whenever Bobby Bradley gets his shot.
It’s more than just roster decisions, though (some of which are probably out of Tito’s hands). Having an absolutely perfect lineup every single day of the season compared to a jumbled mess over a full 162 games only nets you roughly one win, anyway. Baseball is a random sport, and knowing who has it or who doesn’t on any given day is a crap shoot, even for the Francisco Lindors of the world. As far as I’m concerned, if a bad player tells you he feels comfortable hitting third for some mystical, superstitious reasons, let him play there. But not every single day while it’s clearly not working and your injury-plagued roster needs every inch of advantage it can get.
For the Indians, their biggest problems are showing up on the field, not the lineup card. It’s the continual bunting, for one, that points to a dysfunctional strategy, or at the very least, a lack of leadership and someone telling them to stop.
As of this writing, the Indians lead the American League with 16 sacrifice bunts on the season. If you look at the MLB leaderboards, the Indians are sixth overall in sacrifice bunts, and to find the next closest American League team (you know, the league that doesn’t have pitchers hitting), you have to go all the way to 14th where you’ll find the Orioles and their 10 sacrifice bunts.
Since Francona took over in 2013, no team in the entirety of Major League Baseball has sacrifice bunted more than the Indians. They lead all of MLB in that time span, giving up 211 free outs to advance a runner in hopes of scoring a single run. Most of the time, they do so with a runner already in scoring position and no outs. Frequently they do it when they’re trailing by more than a run. It’s mind boggling every time.
This is not a new issue for Tito and his players, either — even back in the glory days of 2016, a spry Francisco Lindor was bunting his brains out despite beginning to emerge as one of the sport’s best hitters. What was Tito’s response?
Indians manager Terry Francona, on Lindor using sacrifice bunts to move runners: pic.twitter.com/baVm30xV1F— Jordan Bastian (@MLBastian) March 15, 2016
“I’ve been reluctant to almost even approach him on it,” is not something you want to hear from your manager in regards to your best player giving away free outs every game. I said it in 2016 and I’ll say it again: It doesn’t matter who wants to bunt, if Tito realizes it shouldn’t be happening, he should be stepping up and stopping it. It’s popping up again this season with Oscar Mercado, one of the few Indians bats constantly working, squaring up to bunt when the Indians were down by three to the rival Minnesota Twins. This should never be happening in a forward-thinking organization like we all thought the Indians were.
The team that leads the AL in bunts also has the third-lowest wRC+ among non-pitcher batters (81) in the entire league. They can least afford to give up free outs, and they’re doing it more than anybody with a manager that refuses to do anything about it.
I’d also argue that the lackluster performance on the field — of just about everybody — extends even beyond Terry Francona. His batting coach is out there giving interviews about not changing anything in seven years while baseball undergoes its biggest swing revolution ever. Again, like so many things this season, it’s not a good look.
Lucas Giolito had no trouble dismantling the Indians offense, and right on cue, he came out after the game made it clear the Indians failed to adjust to the self-imposed limited pitches he was using. It’s a weakness he saw the last time he faced the Tribe, and seemingly nothing changed between starts.
‘‘They weren’t adjusting to it, so we just stuck with that,’’ Giolito said. ‘‘I was like: ‘Why mess around? Let’s go after them with heaters and changeups off of that.’ And it worked out well.’”
Yet again, where do we put the blame here? It’s one thing if it’s one player failing to adjust, but an entire lineup not knowing what to do against a breakout rookie pitcher — to the point that he can eliminate a pitch from his repertoire and still dominate — is extremely troublesome. It’s shades of the 2018 Indians not feeling as prepared as the Astros in the ALDS all over again.
I’m not about to start a rallying cry to fire Francona or even Van Burkleo — and with Tito’s recent extension that’s probably not happening. I guess all I’m trying to get at is I miss those times when I believed the Indians as an organization, from the top all the way down, were a cutting-edge franchise willing to make the difficult, against-the-grain decisions that can get you out of tight spots. It turns out it might have all been an illusion, and that’s a tremendous let down.
Put me back in the Matrix.