I did not recognize the Terry Francona managing the Guardians in the ALDS.
The person who managed the 2016 playoffs like his pants were on fire was not present in Cleveland or New York. And this really has nothing to do with the decision to start Aaron Civale in Game 5, either. That decision, while open to scrutiny (especially after the fact), makes more sense than other decisions made during the series and, anyway, was almost certainly the course of action arrived at by more than just a single individual. What really confuses me are the decisions that were Tito’s alone, and how they departed so far from the aggressive and incisive decisions that helped his team reach the World Series six years ago.
Some questionable decisions were holdovers from the regular season. For instance, slotting your best hitter (Andrés Giménez, who led in both wOBA and wRC+) no higher than sixth, or repeatedly running a guy who hit 47% worse than league average against lefties (Josh Naylor) against a bevy of left-handed pitchers. You can almost defend these moves by arguing that Cleveland needed to stick with what worked all year long. But the playoffs are a time when boldness is not only important, but necessary, and that means going against the grain and making hard choices. However, it’s not the decisions we’ve debated all season long that stand out.
One of the most inexplicable moments came in the first game, when Francona decided to let Cal Quantrill go through the Yankee lineup a third time. After four solid innings with just a couple of mistakes, Quantrill had given the Guardians a chance to compete by holding the hosts to two runs and it seemed like his day should have been done then. Quantrill had been no exception to the third-time-through-the-order penalty in the regular season, with FIP of 3.21, 4.16, and 5.40 the first, second, and third time through, respectively. Yet Francona had him start the fifth and face the American League’s second-best offense (by wRC+, 115) a third time. Francona had a chance to change course after Quantrill walked Aaron Judge to lead off the inning, but he still rode with his starter and Anthony Rizzo took advantage of the peculiar dimensions of Yankee Stadium in the next at-bat to give the hosts a 4-1 advantage and 92% win expectancy (that they would cash in for a series-opening win, of course).
In Game 4, Francona only let Quantrill face one batter, Gleyber Torres, three times, going to Eli Morgan to face Judge to begin the fifth inning. With the team very much in the game, down just one run, making the move to the bullpen was wise, but picking Morgan was not. Morgan is not a bad pitcher by any means, his 3.38 ERA and 3.58 FIP over 66 IP this year were solid, but he was not the best option available. Morgan had pitched one inning the night previous, but the team’s two best relievers, Trevor Stephan and Emmanuel Clase, had not and were fresh and available. The 2016 version of Francona might have gone with Stephan, using him in the Andrew Miller role (while saving the closer, Clase, for the ninth), but this version of Francona seemed to be playing for Game 5 instead. While it’s impossible to know the exact leverage index at the moment, it is not impossible to recognize that the Judge-Rizzo-Giancarlo Stanton portion of the Yankee lineup represents a high-leverage situation. Francona did not, however, and the Guardians did have to play that Game 5.
Another instance of questionable decision-making came in the form of simply letting Austin Hedges bat. Even among the desolate offensive landscape of catchers, Hedges is an outlier. Seventy catchers had at least 100 PA in 2022 and none were worse by FanGraphs’ offensive runs above average than Hedges, who posted a -25.8 mark; his 42 wRC+ ranked 65th among the same group, as did his .255 wOBA. Letting Hedges have even middle-inning at-bats, thus, was a head-scratching decision, particularly with three catchers on the roster. Using the run expectancy matrix, Hedges alone cost the Guardians nearly one run (-0.93 RE24) over the course of the series. Particularly egregious was his strikeout with the game tied 2-2 in the sixth inning of Game 2 with Giménez on second and one out. In nearly the same scenario in Game 3 (down 2-4 in the sixth, two outs, two on), Francona went with Will Brennan and got a run home. Cleveland was fortunate to win both Games 2 and 3 late, but only once did the process seem to help the result.
In trying to find some reasoning for Francona’s decision-making during the ALDS, the best I can come up with is that idea he was relying on what the team had been successful with over 162 regular season games and two Wild Card games. More than that, though, what if Francona was simply working with what he was given?
I could probably fill this paragraph with links to articles written by professional journalists or amateur analysts, message board and comment section posts, or tweets and podcasts based on the premise that Cleveland needed to add offense to help this team contend. Those articles were written before the season, shortly into the season, and near the trade deadline. That addition never happened, of course; nevertheless, the front office’s decision-making seemed to pay off in the form of a division title.
The division title flag will fly forever, but that’s all we get from 2022. The front office decided the contention window for this group of players was just peeking open and they decided to let things play out without any additions. They continued to do so when the young players lifted that window higher than anyone expected. This left Francona with the youngest roster in baseball, a roster younger than many Triple-A teams, and he deserves a ton of praise for getting them this far.
But Francona in the ALDS was not the best version of himself. He was not the best version because he was not set up to be that person by the front office. In 2016 he was reinforced by the additions of Andrew Miller and, to lesser extents, Mike Napoli, Rajai Davis, and Coco Crisp, and was able to deploy them aggressively throughout the team’s World Series run. By not providing him with even the lesser kind of reinforcement, the front office dictated Francona’s cautious managerial style in the ALDS.
Francona will be back next year and, though I question one-year deals for a manager at the beginning of a window of contention, he’s done more than enough to earn another shot at leading this group to glory. But nothing is guaranteed. Even with reinforcements, this team may not even win the AL Central in 2023. Feelings fade, but for now, 2022 feels like a missed opportunity for the Guardians, undone by inaction and an abundance of caution.