Featured, General, Sportsman of the Year

My Sportsman of the Year: Terry Francona

Terry Francona Cleveland Indians
David Richard / USA TODAY Sports

Sports Illustrated’s Sportsman of the Year is an annual must-read. Sadly, that the national recognition rarely has anything to do with the teams or individuals whom we cover. In turn, WFNY will soon announce its choice for 2014’s Cleveland Sportsman of the Year. Here’s one of the nominations for that honor by an WFNY writer.

Here are some things that are true:

  • The Cleveland Indians have won more games in the last two years than the New York Yankees, Boston Red Sox, Tampa Bay Rays, Kansas City Royals, Anaheim Angels, Texas Rangers, Seattle Mariners, and Toronto Blue Jays.
  • Corey Kluber won a Cy Young Award.
  • Michael Brantley put together the Indians best position player season since Grady Sizemore’s prime, and finished in the top 3 in the MVP race. (Click that link; it’s a good one.)
  • After being acquired for a middle reliever, Yan Gomes took over as an everyday catcher and posted the highest WAR among AL catchers.
  • Carlos Carrasco—who entered the season with a 5.29 career ERA—managed the following line from April 30th through the end of the season: 112 IP, 1.69 ERA, 5.9 K/BB, and .194/.233/.257 against.

WFNY’s Sportsman of the Year

WILL: Cavaliers center Anderson Varejao
JACOB: AL Cy Young winner Corey Kluber
KYLE: Browns quarterback Brian Hoyer
KIRK: Buckeyes next man up JT Barrett
TD: AL MVP candidate Michael Brantley
MITCH: Browns ball hawk Tashaun Gipson
CRAIG: Joe Banner-ousting Jimmy Haslam
ANDREWCaptain Cleveland, Joe Haden
JON: Tribe skipper Terry Francona
SCOTT: Coming Soon
JOE: Coming Soon
COLIN: Coming Soon
RYAN: Coming Soon
BEN: Coming Soon

In the past I’ve pointed out these nuggets to suggest that maybe possibly perchance occasionally the Front Office is doing a decent job of acquiring and developing talented players. For the record, I still think we should be making that argument—especially in the face of some of the nonsense that gets lobbed against them.

But I also think that giving all that credit to Antonetti and Shapiro and the scouting department misses a giant piece of the puzzle. It misses what a Big League manager can and should be for his team. It misses how the whole can be more than the sum of its sabermetric parts. It misses all the attributes and characteristics that guys like me often have had a difficult time measuring: the leadership and development, the intangibles and the gravitas of the manager. Consequently, any argument that discusses the Indians’ recent successes that doesn’t point to Terry Francona’s revitalizing and dynamic leadership seemingly misses the point altogether.

Let’s start by discussing something Francona isn’t. He is not, by many measures at least, a superior tactician. For example, while the sacrifice bunt has largely been eschewed in recent years by most stat-savvy teams who recognize the run-value of the out, Francona attempted more sac bunts than all but one AL team in 2014.1 He can be uncomfortably stubborn with his lineup, refusing, for example, to move Nick Swisher from the second spot until late May last season, at which time he had compiled a .203/.303/.323 line and was close to single-handedly torpedoing the offense. He can wear out a bullpen, leaving them out of gas in the final month of the season due to heavy workloads in the summer. In 2014, the Indians pen had two of the top four appearance leaders, including Bryan Shaw’s league-leading 80 appearances, which is just an insane workload. In what can’t be considered a coincidence, Bryan Shaw’s ERA through August was 2.34; in September it was 4.09. Finally, we will pause only to remind you that Carlos Santana started the 2014 season as the everyday third baseman. Let’s leave it at that.

So yes. We can pick all sorts of nits with Francona’s decision making, in-game and otherwise. As far as I’m concerned, these criticisms are fair game and can and should continue (though we’d be wise to remember that, in general, second-guessing in-game managerial decisions is a particularly unsophisticated form of human discourse). But what these nits tend to miss is substantial, and probably best exemplified through what I hope is a stark comparison. Let me digress for just a moment.

Managing is so clearly about more than tactics.

From 2010-2012, despite having an almost comical lack of power, the Indians attempted fewer sacrifice bunts than all but one AL team. Over the same timeframe, they outperformed their Pythagorean expectations every season, and ended up with the second best Pythagorean differential in all of baseball.2 They attempted to steal bases rarely, because their success rate didn’t support more attempts (70.9%, third worst in the AL). They played, by and large, “by the book”. They were, sabermetrically at least, a well-managed team.

The club’s manager was Manny Acta, and over that three year span the team went 217-269 (.446). In Acta’s final season at the helm—a stinking diaper of 94-loss excrement—he was listed among baseball’s least respected managers in an anonymous player poll. When he was fired, he was pretty sure he hadn’t lost the clubhouse.  Because of course he hadn’t.

And that, in a nutshell, is why I don’t give a damn about Francona’s tactics. Let him bunt. Let him have his lineups and protect his veterans and talk about “grit” and hit-and-run to his heart’s content. Managing is so clearly about more than tactics. Francona embodies what the team needed more than anything in Acta’s disastrous wake: credible and inspiring leadership. That’s not about bunting or pitching changes or double steals. That’s about building a clubhouse where trust, responsibility and development are paramount. Make no mistake: these “soft” qualities matter, and not in a touchy-feely friends-are-forever way, but in a demonstrable, winning-baseball-games way. If Acta’s strength was squeezing every last run out of a bad performance, Francona’s appears to be making a bad performer better, though coaching and leadership. When given the choice, give me the latter every day of the week and twice on Sunday.

The evidence for Francona’s capacity to build players up is in the endless collection of anecdotes, that, when taken on the aggregate, begin to overwhelm. Ubaldo. Kluber. Brantley. Chisenhall. Kazmir. Jose Ramirez. Trevor Bauer. Yan Gomes. Cody Allen. Bryan Shaw. Carlos Carrasco. These were players whose futures were one thing, and then under Francona’s leadership, they became something else, something better.

In the simplest of terms, we have become an organization that consistently develops its talent—an absolute essential for a team with limited means—and that ability begins with the leadership of the team’s manager.

Cleveland fans in general—and Indians fans in particular—can be a fractious bunch. There is the lightning rod of ownership, which will derail any discussion quicker than you can shout “RIGHT HANDED POWER BAT!!” There is the front office, which will always signify something negative for a large portion of the fans due to their past failings. There is the public and open embrace of analytics, which rubs so many the wrong way, especially when it challenges long-held beliefs. There is Wahoo.

Which is just to say that it is somewhat unique that Francona, by and large, is roundly revered. I’ve yet to meet a fan who thinks the Indians are worse off for his leadership, or who were dismayed upon learning of his contract extension last November. He is charming. He embraces the city and its history. He protects his players while retaining accountability in the organization. Oh, and he’s really good at his job. 97% of Cleveland has never agreed on anything, and yet…

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Over the last five years we’ve heard so many reasons why people wouldn’t come to Cleveland. The weather sucks. The ownership won’t pony up the money. You can’t win with those lousy losers. It’s easy to forget, amid a winning Browns season and LeBron’s triumphant return, that this Cleveland renaissance was begun by the Indians and Terry Francona.

In the winter of 2012-2013, when hope was a foreign concept to us—after Manny Acta left behind the smoldering corpse of a professional baseball team and the Cavs were in the midst of another 60-loss debacle and, horribly, the Browns employed Pat Shurmur—Terry Francona came to town, and told us to believe in him. That came first. Before the Return™ and Money Manziel and the resurgent boom of the Cleveland T-Shirt economy, we had a bald man with bowed legs riding a scooter who told us to follow him. That we’d be better for it.

We probably should have seen it all coming. Making people better is what he does.

  1. Interestingly, the only AL team with more sac attempts was the Tampa Bay Rays, whose since-departed manager has historically been at the forefront of stat-minded incorporation. []
  2. The difference between actual wins and expected wins based on runs allowed and scored—often thought to be an assessment of a manager’s tactical savvy. []