Mark Shapiro, Chris Antonetti and Mike Chernoff did an incredible job putting together the 2016 Indians through the trades of exiting free agents (mostly Shapiro), great recent drafts (mostly Antonetti) and the signing of undervalued free agents to low risk deals (Antonetti and Chernoff). They put together a team that should have been and was the favorite to win the AL Central when the 2016 season started. Then it all fell apart as the roster was repeatedly smashed upon the floor.
Luckily, a few years earlier, the group had conspired to bring the Indians biggest tube of super glue available. Francona provides a truly unique group of skills among managers that has allowed him to become one of the best not just in Indians history, but in Major League Baseball history. He began as a player’s manager and still is. Never have I heard a player who didn’t want to play for him and many, including the biggest name free agents the Indians have ever signed, came to Cleveland because of him.
This aspect of his management style comes through empathy. He was born to a ballplayer and grew up in the game, then played ten years essentially as a bench outfielder. He’s dealt with success, disappointment, injury and everything else a baseball season can bring and respects his players who are going through those things now, 26 years after his own player career ended.
Of course, there is a lot more to managing than just being everyone’s friend and Francona has that as well. While it wasn’t always the case, he has evolved as a manager over the years, largely thanks to his time in Boston. While many “old school” managers refuse to accept anything new, Francona embraced Bill James and the sabermetric styles in Boston and has continued this way in Cleveland. It was using this new style of thinking that lead to the unconventional, but extremely successful lead-off hitter Carlos Santana and the variable use of Andrew Miller. While one of his competitors for Manager of the Year may have had the top reliever in the AL, he sat in the bullpen while his team lost an extra inning game that cost them further play-off games. Francona used Miller to his fullest and never lost a game with the regret that his ace reliever could have pitched earlier and kept it alive.
In fact, Francona nearly never lost in the play-offs. Going back to 2004, he won eight in a row to win the ALCS and World Series, then went 11-3 again in 2007. If anything, it seems he still manages as if he’s down 3-0 to New York and prior to his team completely running out of energy and healthy players over the last three games in the World Series, had went 10-1 in the 2016 post-season.
In fact, Francona was so successful that another of the greatest managers of the current era was only able to beat him when he copied him. After hitting fifth in the first two games of the Fall Classic, Joe Maddon moved Kyle Schwarber to second for the final two games in Cleveland, taking advantage of his on base ability in a very similar way to what Francona had done with Santana. In addition, for those final games, Aroldis Chapman not only started pitching more often, but for a longer duration. While this didn’t work perfectly in game seven, it was instrumental in putting away game five and keeping the Indians from thinking about a comeback in game six.
In the end, the injuries did catch up to Francona as he had to throw Corey Kluber three times in the World Series and used Miller so much that he had lost his effectiveness by game seven. Rather than a detriment, however, this was just further proof of the greatness of Francona.
To start the season, he was handed an extremely difficult situation with Michael Brantley missing more time than expected. Rather than just throw Rajai Davis in left as a starter and hope for the best, he made the risky move of starting Jose Ramirez in left field. Not only did this work defensively, but Ramirez eventually became the Indians top offensive player, something he would never have had the chance to do on a team with a more rigid manager.
At the same time, when a move needed to be made, he made it. Long before injuries decimated the starting rotation, the Indians had such a surplus that Trevor Bauer was moved to the bullpen and Cody Anderson included in the starting five to maximize the value gained from this situation. However, when Anderson struggled, the Indians didn’t hesitate to pull him from the rotation and put Bauer back in.
From the start, the Indians never had a stable rotation. From maneuvering to get Kluber and Carlos Carrasco the most possible starts, to making up for injuries and through the bullpen games at the end of the season, Francona strategically deployed his pitchers to make the most of what he had. This was different from what he did in the post-season as he wasn’t trying to win every single game, but give his team the best chance to win the most games possible. He couldn’t use Bryan Shaw and Cody Allen for four innings every night. Instead, he maximized the value of his other pieces like Jeff Manship and Zach McAllister. It wasn’t until the finish line was in sight that he went all out.
Possibly his most courageous and ingenious move of the season was one of those where he had little to go with, but made it work. His use of the starting staff in the World Series gave credence to the idea that the plan in the ALCS was to go with Kluber three times and Bauer and Josh Tomlin twice each if the series went seven. Bauer’s pre-series injury destroyed that plan. After losing Kluber’s second start, a very similar ending to the ALCS as the Indians saw in the World Series was very possible.
However, Francona again went against the grain. Against a powerful, right handed heavy line-up, he didn’t go with Mike Clevinger or Cody Anderson, but Ryan Merritt, the soft tossing lefty. In hindsight, the move was genius, but few saw it that way heading into the game. In fact, Jose Bautista was fairly certain that Merritt would be shaking in his boots. Francona knew his players better than that, however, and he trusted Merritt through 4.1 scoreless innings in the series clinching win.
There’s not question that he deserved the Manager of the Year award this year as no other skipper in baseball did as much while facing as much adversity as Francona. While he earned his first in 2013, that situation was ideal. Many players, like Jason Kipnis, Carlos Santana and Corey Kluber were coming into their own and the team had been horribly mismanaged the year before. Yes, it was the biggest difference in record between two seasons, but what he did that year doesn’t even compare to this one. Now that we’ve seen what he can do with limited resources, I can’t wait to see what he can do with a healthy and restocked roster next year.