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Terry Francona, I love you but you’re bringing me down

Or, what the Guardians could learn from the Chelsea Football Club

Baltimore Orioles v Cleveland Guardians Photo by Nick Cammett/Diamond Images via Getty Images

This morning I woke up to news my favorite soccer team, Chelsea Football Club, had sacked (to use the British phrase) their manager, Thomas Tuchel. You don’t come here to read soccer analysis, but stay with me because it got me thinking about Terry Francona.

On the heels of back-to-back wins, the Guardians’ first since Aug. 24, it may seem incongruous to ponder Terry Francona’s future. I mean, with 28 games left this season Cleveland still has a 53.5% chance of making the playoffs and 52.7% chance of winning the division, which are both quite good!

However, at the risk of repeating a Hacks joke, I think letting this be Terry Francona’s last year in charge of the Cleveland Guardians would be just fine.

Francona has always been the kind of manager who blended the advanced statistical information provided by the quants with the old-school, human-centered approach. As he told Jayson Stark in 2018, “They [Cleveland] know the stuff I really value, so they’ll build it [analysis] for me the way I understand it, because if you don’t understand it it doesn’t help anybody.” This kind of approach seems to hit the sweet spot in managing an MLB team, where you keep it simple but let smart guys help you get where you want to go. Lately, though, it does not seem like the messaging is either clear to Francona or having an impact on his game management, and he seems to be missing the process the front office is trying to implement.

We’ve long known that certain guys will get playing time regardless of statistics under Francona. Most fans can probably yell at length about guys like Mike Freeman or Ryan Raburn and why their playing time didn’t match their output or their splits. From Aug. 25 to Sept. 5, Cleveland went 2-8 and were outscored 37-16. In that span, the lineup that Francona submitted changed very little despite the team’s offensive ineptitude, including 13-, 27-, and 11-inning scoreless streaks. While lineups in late August and September are pretty static for contenders, the division of playing time has been confusing.

This stretch, Aug. 25 to Sept. 5, was brutal for all the Guardians’ hitters. José Ramírez couldn’t even log a hit in 13 PA against left-handed hitting during that span, but giving him those plate appearances is not questionable. To the contrary, giving Owen Miller (57 wRC+ in 132 PA vs. LHP and just 60 wRC+ in 78 PA against anyone since Aug. 1) 7 PA in similar situations is perplexing. If the argument for Miller’s time is that Josh Naylor can’t hit lefties (and he can’t, he has a 56 wRC+ in 104 PA), why was he given 13 PA (the most of anyone on the team over that span)? Further, why wasn’t Will Benson (.761 OPS against LHP in 72 AB at Triple-A) given a shot at first base, where he logged 24.2 innings in preparation for his promotion to Cleveland?

When looking beyond just the splits, it seems fair to question why Tyler Freeman was limited to just 20 PA over this dismal stretch. Among all Guardians’ hitters from Aug. 25 to Sept. 5, he was the best hitter by average (.316), strikeout rate (5%), slugging (.368), second in wRC+ (84), and third in wOBA (.284). None of his numbers were particularly great, but compared to teammates, like Amed Rosario (46 PA, 19 wRC+), he looked like a much preferable option.

And here’s where the comparison to Chelsea’s former coach comes into play. Chelsea are not a small market club like Cleveland — they were able to go out and purchase several top-class players this summer to reinforce their team — but they made a point to recruit many young players and give lucrative new contracts to their own academy players this summer. However, when Chelsea struggled early in the current season and lost a number of players at one position to injury, Tuchel didn’t trust those young players and instead turned to underperforming veterans to fill the role.

And so, in the wee hours of the night in London, Chelsea’s new owners decided they needed a coach that would match their long-term ambition and not someone who will just fall back on his guys to try for short-term success. To me, this rhymes with what is happening in Cleveland: The front office decided against pricy free agents last winter or trade acquisitions at the deadline because they have a long-term plan and a window of contention that is only peeking open, but Francona continues to pursue victories with players he knows rather than testing the young options the front office is counting on.

MLB is not the English Premier League, and I don’t want to throw Francona out of Cleveland tonight, but the continued existence of someone like Ernie Clement (44 wRC+ in 158 PA) on the roster makes it feel like Francona is getting further away from the process the Guardians front office is trying to work. If that really is the case, the front office might be wise to follow Chelsea’s lead and get a new manager, one who matches the club’s long-term goals more closely. Chelsea’s owners know a thing about this, after all: they’re the same folks who own the Dodgers.

Francona is likely headed to the Hall of Fame someday as a manager, and it will be deserved. But with all the above and the fact his health is constantly in question, he does not seem like the guy who will lead the Guardians to their next World Series if they don’t win one this year. With a lot of talented young players already in Cleveland and many more hoping to prove their worth in the next year or so, the timing seems right to find the next great manager.

Finish this year — and hope for a few (or several) final playoff games to wrap up his tenure with the Guardians — and let Francona move to a front office role or something less intense than manager. One who trusts the process.