Tito Francona is the best Indians manager I have ever seen.
The first manager I remember is Al Lopez, who was a fine manager. And some other good managers followed him: the names of Pat Corrales, Dave Garcia, and Mike Hargrove particularly come to mind. But measuring him against the situations with which he has had to contend – the depleted talent base of the major-league team when he arrived, payroll limitations, critical injuries to critical players at critical junctures, the largely untried players he was often required to rely on as a consequence, and the winning record he has produced – I think Francona stands out as the best.
This season his managerial ability has really been put to the test. He started the season without Lindor, soon lost Kluber, Clevinger, and Carrasco, and continued to watch as José Ramirez, a player everyone had counted on, remained mired in a deep slump. To stay in contention, the team, which was favored largely because of the quality of the three pitchers I mentioned above, plus Lindor and Jose, but lacked any obvious abundance of talent in other areas, had to keep its nerve and reach deep. Under Tito’s tutelage, it has done so. And I think he deserves a lot of credit for this.
Aware as I am that this view of Tito will meet with some skepticism on LGT, I am going to explain my thinking.
I think is the most important job of a manager is to instill a feeling of confidence in themselves in players – particularly young players – and then to help them maintain it or to recapture it if it has been lost. And it is to re-instill confidence in older players – particularly relievers – who other organizations seem to have lost confidence in.
Confidence allows a player, indeed a human being, to make the most of that person’s innate skills. Confidence is what gives you the ability to use your ability. And some people are good at making you feel confident and some others aren’t.
But being confident is one of the most essential qualities a baseball player can have. He has to take it into the batter’s box with him or onto the mound with him, or he cannot do his job.
We all understand this, I think. Moneyball, the book we all cut our teeth on, spends some time talking about the subject. In his book, Michael Lewis talks about Billy Beane and why, despite his great physical gifts, he didn’t make it as a player. Most of the people Lewis interviewed about Beane had the same opinion: Beane could not play because his mind would not let him. Some talent has to be there, of course, but the ability to make use of the talent has to be there too.
Tito’s best quality is that he instills or re-instills confidence in players and then helps them maintain it. His tactics – for example, when to stick with a player when the rest of us are screaming for a substitution – are what instill and maintain the players’ confidence.. I could offer dozens of examples, but I will limit myself to a few. The first involves Bryan Shaw.
In an April 17, 2016 story Jordan Bastian wrote about Tito’s reaction to Shaw’s early-season woes:
Indians manager Terry Francona does not plan on disrupting his bullpen by potentially overreacting to a small sample size.
While there is legitimate concern over the command issues that setup man Bryan Shaw has displayed in the early going this season, Francona trusts that the right-hander will get things together after a couple of rough appearances. Shaw's velocity is up from a year ago, and the manager believes command and results will soon fall in line with the reliever's past production.
"He's throwing the ball good. He just needs to command," Francona said. "Sometimes guys have a couple bad outings early and their ERAs, they're going to have to fight it for a while. But if you start changing roles because of it, I think you're doing your team a disservice."
Shaw took the mound in the eighth inning on Saturday with the Indians holding a 7-1 lead, and he allowed four runs on three hits, including a pair of home runs, in two-thirds of an inning. Cleveland held on for a 7-5 win over the Mets. On April 9 in Chicago, Shaw surrendered a career-high five runs in two-thirds of an inning against the White Sox. In that outing, his woes in the seventh inning turned a 3-2 Cleveland lead into a 7-3 loss.
Even with those early-season disasters weighing his numbers down, Shaw went on to have a good 2016 and a very good 2017.
Another player to mention is Cody Allen. Early in 2015 he had run into a lot of trouble. As this April 27, 2015 story on WKYC said:
Cleveland Indians closer Cody Allen has blown two saves in only five chances over the first 14 games of the 2015 regular season, but while locating his pitches has been a problem, he has one very important thing on his side.
And that is the confidence of manager Terry Francona.
Last Monday, Chicago White Sox right fielder Melky Cabrera capped off an unlikely rally that gave his team a 4-3 come-from-behind victory over the Indians at U.S. Cellular Field.
The White Sox started the inning facing a three-run deficit. However, Allen allowed seven straight batters to reach base with one out in the ninth inning and the White Sox turned what was a 3-0 Cleveland advantage into Chicago's fifth win of the season while handing their guests a second straight loss.
"It hurts when you lose a game like that, but he's a guy we trust as much as anybody. He's a hard worker. It just hurts when lose a game you felt you should've won. But if there's a guy that's going to bounce back, it's Cody.
"If I had that much concern, I would've taken him out. I thought he was going to get out of it pretty much the whole inning. That's how much faith I have in him."
Knowing that Tito had his back, Cody Allen righted himself shortly thereafter and went on to be one of the best closers in Indians history.
We have seen more of the same thing this season. Cimber got roughed up several times, but Tito stuck with him. Hand blew a three-run lead, a save, and the game against KC, and about a week later Tito put him out there to face almost exactly the same part of the KC lineup again.
And we have seen it with his handling of José Ramirez and his epic slump. There were calls here for Tito to drop Ramirez to the bottom of the batting order and even a call or two for him to send Ramirez to Columbus "to get himself straightened out". Tito’s response was vintage Tito. He continued to treat José like a top-of or middle-of-the-order hitter, and that is what he has become again. And so it was that Mandy Bell was able to write a story after yesterday’s game in which José was quoted as saying: "My confidence is always there regardless of the results….I just like to keep working and I think that's what I focus on, my confidence and on the work that I put in and the results will show."
Yes, José said that his confidence was always there. But would it have been if Tito had followed the suggestions I mentioned in the previous paragraph?
Managers are always making judgments about the players, and the players are likewise always making judgments about their managers. If a manager shows confidence in a player, the other players notice. And if he shows doubt, the players notice that too. So a manager has to be mostly right in his decision-making. But he also has to be consistent, and he can never afford to be rash. What they see from Tito is that once a player has proven himself Tito will see him through down periods.
And, really, what other approach would work in this exceptionally difficult sport where a good hitter fails more than two-thirds of the time and where even a good pitcher gets hit hard from time to time and where every failure happens in the full view of the public and is recorded on film and subjected to scrutiny by everyone following the game? Once the manager lets doubt creep in, chances are it will spread and infect an entire team.
Let me finish by talking about that LGT bugaboo – Tito’s managerial tactics. As I have written here before, I do not really think you can separate his tactical decisions from his player development decisions, which include developing and maintaining player’s confidence. It is the steady accumulation of tactical decisions – when to leave a pitcher in and when to take him out, for example – that creates confidence. But even if the tactics could be separated from the effects on players they produce, I am not sure that his tactical decisions are as bad as a lot of people think.
Let me start with the running game. Though it looks to the naked eye – at least my naked eye – that the current team is not particularly fleet of foot, it is aggressive and smart on the basepaths. I think the analytics bear this out. So again and again you see runners going from first to third and barely making it or scoring from second just ahead of the tag. There are risks involved in players on a relatively slow-footed team routinely trying to take an extra base. But on a team which lacks power and has a mediocre OBP, these baserunning skills are important.
We have seen them pay off in Martin stealing home just because he sensed that he could. We have seen them pay off in Roberto stretching a double into a triple and then coming home on a relatively short passed ball. And we have seen them pay off in Freeman executing a drag bunt and sliding headfirst into first base. All these plays were made in close games. And none of them would have happened if the players were not taught to be confident in their own judgment and if the players did not know that Tito would have their back if the plays had turned out badly.
I don’t want to finish without discussing the single aspect of Tito’s decision-making that draws the most scrutiny and criticism here – namely, bunting. He routinely defies what I have come to think of as the LGT Iron Law of Bunting, which can be stated as follows. Unless you are bunting for a hit or are a pitcher forced to bat in a NL park, never bunt before the seventh inning; and, once the seventh inning has begun, never bunt unless it is to get a hit or to sacrifice for the purpose of adding a single run.
I must say that I puzzled over why Tito seems to ignore the statistical evidence about bunting when he so easily adapted to the use of his best reliever in high leverage situations, as opposed to at the end of the game, in 2016. He even used the expression "high leverage situations" to justify his use of Andrew Miller back then. And, as noted, he has adopted and put into use current thinking about the importance of the running game.
So what about bunting? I can only guess that he has come to understand that bunting, a very difficult skill to acquire and use but also an important one in some situations, can only be learned in game situations, so if you limit players to attempting bunts only late in games they will never acquire the skill. Or maybe Tito believes that in order to develop a complete ballplayer you have to trust that player’s judgment, which means that you do not create ironclad rules about bunting. Or, I have to admit, maybe the Iron Law is right in Tito is wrong. What I do not believe, however, is that Tito’s approach to bunting is born of stubbornness or blind adherence to tradition. He has made too many adjustments to the modern game in other areas for this to be a reasonable explanation.
As you can tell, I appreciate the job Tito has done and, particularly this year, is doing. I have spent most of a lifetime devoting a lot of time and money to being an Indians fan. The Indians have been fun to watch since Tito arrived, and I think he deserves a lot of the credit.