Has Terry Francona Helped or Hurt The Red Sox?

Even though we are 70-51, in first place, and three games up on the Yankees, all is not right in Red Sox land. In our last ten, we are 7-3, and the Yankees are 6-4, but you wouldn’t know it talking to Red Sox fans. Indeed, out of all the divisions in major league baseball, only the Padres and Braves have a worse record than the Red Sox, and that’s only because the Braves have dropped three straight. Even if the Braves never overtake the Red Sox in the wins column, they seem to have a more well-rounded team than the Red Sox.

The Red Sox this year have had a plethora of issues that continue to make fans angry. Outsiders may look at the Red Sox and feel we are holding the team to some sort of unrealistic expectations, that we’re a first-place team who has 24 of the final 36 games at home and whose direct competitors have the third toughest schedule of the way. Well, that is probably true, but our 70-51 record seems quite odd. It seems as if we should be the ones in second place, or even third place, the way the Blue Jays are playing. How is it possible, that with all this dysfunctionality, we are in first?

People have been clamoring to fire Terry Francona and have fallen short of that for Theo Epstein, esteemed General Manager of this ballclub, and are just simply demanding changes.

I think every Red Sox fan would agree that this dysfunctional team should have about five more wins under their belt, but the question here is if these wins would have been achieved with or without Terry Francona as the manager. I’m going to set out to try to explain the answer I have concluded. The answer I have concluded is that not only should Terry Francona not be fired, but he should be commended for the way he is running this club. This runs awry to the thinking of most fans. While it is not really a secret that I have been a Francona fan since day one, I truly did enter into this theory not sure what I would find. I actually thought I would find a lot more dysfunctionality directly attributable to Francona than I truly did, which has caused me to alter my thinking.

There are, or have been, several problem areas throughout the season. They are:

  • First Base: Kevin Millar continuing to get playing time over a possibly more qualified Roberto Petagine,
  • Second Base: Mark Bellhorn continuing to be the starter until he got hurt,
  • Third Base: Kevin Youkilis not recieving any playing time,
  • Starting Rotation: Inconsistency all day long, and
  • Bullpen: It’s like throwing gasoline on a fire.

If we all remember the 2004 postseason, we remember how excellent Francona managed. This was an aboutface from the regular season when he was generally just okay. In the postseason, he was excellent. He outmanaged Mike Scioscia, Joe Torre, and Tony LaRussa. In fact, a national columnist whose name escapes me right now penned after the World Series that no matter what Joe Torre tried, it failed. No matter what Francona tried, he succeeded. He brought in the right relievers, took the correct actions, and managed the Red Sox to a championship. He was not simply along for the ride or lucked into the job. He took this team, and managed it to a championship. A manager is vital to the club, and wins and losses can hinge on the manager. Grady Little has experience in this area.

I mention this because it ties in directly with the first base issue. Terry Francona seems to be a cold-hearted manager in the playoffs, when every win simply matters. In the regular season the last two years, he seems to be gunshy, and sentimental. “If you’re not one of Tito’s guys, you won’t play.” Why is it such a drastic difference? Why is he continuing to give Kevin Millar playing time? Well, has it ever occurred to us that Francona is trying to get Millar out of his rut and start bashing homeruns? Of course it has, but he hasn’t done it to this day, so why keep playing him? Because we’re in first (and we used to have a comfortable lead) and benching Millar won’t serve the purpose of getting him hot. If he gets hot, we have another valid weapon on our team that we can depend on in the postseason, and that’s vastly important to our team.

We do have superior options to Millar ready to go, right? John Olerud and Roberto Petagine. Well, John Olerud is Kevin Millar against right-handers (.299/.333/.418 as compared to Millar’s .282/.360/.402) and as we see, Millar is actually more valuable because of the higher OBP, and the average is not vastly low enough as to matter. John Olerud deserves to play against left-handers, where he is hitting at a .345/.375/.586 clip whereas Millar is at .238/.336/.267. In the last 14 games that Millar has accumulated 3 or more at-bats, Millar has started four games against left-handers. In three of these games, John Olerud was on the DL. In one of these games, August 17th, Olerud played and Millar manned the outfield. In Olerud’s last 14 games (previous criteria apply as well, Olerud has quite a few one at-bat games) Olerud has started three games against left-handers. While that is less than Millar has started against lefthanders, keep in mind that Olerud missed 15 days, three of these games against left-handers. In addition, this is a positive as well, for it means he is logging quite a bit of time against righties, so Millar is actually being benched more than we think. Millar has only played in 106 games so far, and last year he played in 150. He will not sniff 150 this year.

We can conclude from this that John Olerud is a better option at first-base against left-handers. However, he is not a better option against right-handers. He could certainly be platooned against right-handers with Millar, but it would be nice to keep him as a bat off the bench should a left-hander come in. In the regular season, Francona can afford to continue playing Millar as much as he has if the Red Sox maintain a comfortable lead. In the playoffs, I would not be surprised to see Millar not even sniff a left-hander if he continues the way he has.

As for Roberto Petagine, his line is .286/.400/.476 in ten games, 21 at-bats (not including yesterday’s game). This is since August 4th, so he has appeared in ten out of sixteen Red Sox games. That’s not burying him on the bench, that’s rather impressive. He played the 4th, 5th, 6th, 7th, 8th, 9th, 13th (off-day the 11th), 15th, 18th, and 19th. Oh, and throw in the 20th, as well. 11 of 17 Red Sox games. Six of these 11 games have logged three or more plate-appearances. In two games, he recieved zero at-bats. He entered a game after Millar was pinch-ran for and one when Manny was taken out late in the game.

Is he a superior option to Kevin Millar? You see, that’s dicey. He’s always had the potential, but he’s been in Japan the last seven or so years, and that hurts. He’s been Barry Bonds in the minor leagues, but that’s the minor leagues. The major leagues are a whole different ballgame. Yes, he’s three home-runs away from Millar, but who is to say he will hit them? I am actually quite pleased with the amount of playing time Petagine has recieved so far. For a percieved lack of benching Kevin Millar, Olerud and Petagine do seem to be playing at a good clip, and here’s the more important thing… seem to be playing more now at a good clip. This seems to coincide with the regular-season/postseason Francona theory. As we enter September and the Yankees continue nipping at our heels, Kevin Millar has a shorter leash. He starts less games and he comes out more in games. This is important. It in no way means that Francona will stick through Millar thick and thin. He’s not. He is jut trying to give Millar every opportunity he can to break out of his slump. I think it is a good idea.

This is the exact same reason why Francona stuck with Mark Bellhorn, and unlike Millar, Francona did not have options. Ramon Vazquez? Honestly, do you want Mark Bellhorn or Ramon Vazquez getting playing time? One could argue Dustin Pedroia, but at the time he was still in Double-A (or if you prefer to be recent, at Triple-A and struggling – but since Bellhorn was DLed, Pedroia has caught fire). Too much, too soon for Pedroia. So no matter how many times people (ahem, me) cried for a replacement, we did not recieve one because (as I admitted) the issue was not as pressing as other issues. In addition, Francona wanted to see if Bellhorn could play his way out of it. Alex Cora was not the answer, and even though he is hitting decently for the Red Sox, I feel none of us want to see him with a starting job, yes?

Well, not only did Bellhorn not play his way out of it, he got hurt. Epstein was able to get a second-baseman, Tony Graffanino. He was plugged in immediately, and started doing great. Mark Bellhorn? An afterthought. If he was one of Francona’s guys, wouldn’t he have agitated to have Bellhorn return? No. He avoided all Bellhorn questions and stuck with Graffanino. Do you remember when Graffanino could have started at third but Francona kept him at second and had Cora have his first ever start at third? He did that because Graffanino was his second baseman. He wasn’t a utility guy. He was the second baseman for the Boston Red Sox. Period. Bellhorn had his chance to produce, did not. He had his chance to bang hits out for Triple-A, and did not. Francona didn’t just brush him aside like a wet dishrag, but he also did not cling to him like one of “his boys”.

The third-base issue, aka the “Find Youkilis playing time!” cry is quite simple. First of all, Bill Mueller (not including last night’s game) is hitting an excellent .297/.382/.438. That’s not grounds for benching, not when his post-All Star line is .325/.363/.509 . (By the way, in 2003, Mueller had a .540 SLG! Wow!) Youkilis also did not find time at first base, because, you know, we have a slight logjam there. Also, he’s been taking groundballs at second, but that’s all it is. Groundballs at second. It doesn’t mean he can become a Gold Glove whiz there immediately. One might fault Francona for burying Youkilis in favor of Alex Cora, but that is Cora’s job, to be the utilityman, thus he needs to be sharp. We are going to need a middle infielder with excellent defense in the playoffs. Can Youkilis provide that? No, so give the at-bats to Cora to keep him sharp.

Is the starting rotation Terry Francona’s fault? Is Matt Clement’s history with second-half slumps Francona’s fault? How about David Wells’ four terrible starts, three due to his ankle, one due to persistent vomiting all week? How about Wade Miller, who looks done for the year, both combined due to injury and due to the Red Sox wanting to play it safe as they have high hopes for him next year? About Miller’s first-inning issues when he did start? How about for Bronson Arroyo’s fustrating slump a few weeks back? Is he at fault for these, and for Curt Schilling’s absence for the rotation? No, he’s not. He’s simply dealing with the cards that he’s dealt, and trying to fix them. He’s starting Jon Papelbon, twice so far which will become thrice today. He’s also decided to move Curt Schilling back into the rotation (pushing Wakefield back a few days, and probably also trying to prepare the team for the suspension David Wells has yet to serve, for it is quite apparent that ‘Yankee Bob’ is trying to wait until games matter for Wells to be suspended … someone could compare Bob Watson’s suspension tendencies for the Yankees and Red Sox over the years and find some serious discrepancies) which makes sense because as it gets closer to the postseason, Schilling needs to start building his endurance up and getting used to starting again. Jon Papelbon to the bullpen will also help matters tremendously, and rumors continue to fly that 2005 first-rounder Craig Hansen will arrive in Boston for the Kansas City series (I would assume Mike Remlinger would be cut then, as DiNardo should already be back down in favor of Trot Nixon).

I can’t say the bullpen is Francona’s fault, either. You may have questions about why he brought certain relievers in and so on and so forth, but the bottom line is that this bullpen is Theo’s construction, not Francona’s. A couple of people wondered why Lenny DiNardo was brought into the situation he was in last night. He started the seventh, gave up two singles, a sacrifice fly, and then left the game. Another run was charged to him when Edgar Renteria made an error with Mike Myers on the hill. Chad Bradford then coughed up a single to load the bases and then uncorked a wild pitch to have Figgins, who singled off DiNardo, come in. Kotchman then struck out and Remlinger induced Izturis to fly to center.

Lenny DiNardo has enjoyed success in AAA this season.

Lenny DiNardo doesn’t invoke the same excitement as Sanchez, Lester, or Jonathan Papelbon, but in their shadow, DiNardo is piecing together a remarkable season. The PawSox lefthander settled for a no-decision Tuesday despite allowing only one unearned run over six innings. He’s 6-3 in 21 starts, and his 2.90 ERA ranks second in the IL. His ERA in his last 16 starts: 2.30.

That’s why. DiNardo is no slouch. Given the way the bullpen has been going, it makes sense to throw DiNardo in there. With Papelbon going to the bullpen, Craig Hansen inching his way up, this bullpen has the potential to make a marked turnaround. Keith Foulke mentioned that he feels great. “‘I’m much stronger. This [layoff] has allowed me to work my lower half more than I have in a couple of years. When I come back I’ll be a lot better pitcher than I was before I left. I wasn’t in perfect health then, but I still should not have pitched as poorly as I did.” With him, Timlin, Bradford (but not with runners on base, please), Myers, Gonzalez, Papelbon, and Hansen … that looks pretty darn good.

Francona is not the best manager in the game, but he’s certainly got to be at least above average. He has done an excellent job manuevering through all the egos in the clubhouse and has formed a cohesive team. He can be firm when he needs to be, but gives people every chance to work out their problems unless more exciting alternatives are found or his hand is forced. The Red Sox are 70-51 and a lot of issues are not exactly attributable to Francona. Sure, if Millar was benched long ago and Petagine entered in, we could have two more wins. But we might not either, or two less. If another manager had done that, we could have ten more wins, or we could have ten less wins, because he might not be as effective with pitching management, substitution management, or player management, period. Francona brings a lot to the table we don’t realize, and he’s no slouch on the strategic end.

He has guided this team to winning series against the White Sox, Indians, Tigers, Royals, Angels, Twins, A’s, Devil Rays, Rangers, and cumulatively, interleague. He’s got a shot to get us a winning series against the Orioles and Yankees. This means that if we can overtake the Orioles (5-7 record) and Yankees (6-7 record) we only have lost one series all season long, to the Blue Jays where we are currently 3-8.

Are we winning because of Terry Francona or in spite of Francona? Considering all the factors, and that we’re improbably still in first and still having a good season, I’m going to have to say that Francona is a big reason why we are winning. We can get on him all we want for continuing to play Kevin Millar, but not only is he trying to snap Millar out of his slump, for all we know, he’s actually minimized the damage the bullpen has done to us.

With all our issues, we’re on track for an appearance in October. No matter how short that appearance is, a playoff appearance is always an accomplishment, and with our issues this year, will be a big accomplishment. There is no quick fix-it like there was last year, but it’s not as if we’re skidding. Not at all, we’re on track for the best thing in sports: October baseball.