Is Francona The Right Fit For The Cleveland Indians?

Wayne McDonnell October 9, 2012 0

A few people are scratching their heads and asking why Terry Francona would agree to manage the Cleveland Indians. Why would someone who managed the Boston Red Sox to 744 wins and two World Series titles from 2004-2011 go to a team that ended last season 20 games back in the division standings, ranked in the lower-third of Major League Baseball team payroll, and hasn’t won a World Series since 1948? Why not return to the job he held last year, as a baseball analyst at ESPN? Or, if he prefers managing a team to talking on television, why not go to a franchise with better prospects for winning sooner?

The Indians don’t have either the payroll or the roster to field the kind of teams that Francona managed in Boston. Their win-loss records of late resemble the Philadelphia Phillies teams he managed from 1997-2000. So, it might appear that Francona was paying some lip service to his new employers when he said, “I’m really excited. People who don’t know me may have thought I was looking for something different.”

Assumptions about what that “something different” is range from taking-up the challenge of managing a MLB team to getting a shot at redemptionfollowing the Red Sox well-documented collapse that led to his being fired in 2011. Francona might be interested in these things. In particular, he might be interested in shifting the focus back to his effectiveness as a manager instead of where it’s been of late: how, on his watch, a playoff-caliber team tanked during the stretch run. But if that’s the case, the Indians probably don’t seem like the right destination. So, what is Francona thinking by heading there?

The answer likely lies with understanding how individual strengths and skills produce results, and, in turn, how those align with the structure and function of an organization. For example, consider the difference between the Red Sox blowing Game 7 of the 2003 American League Championship Series under manager Grady Little and their coming back the next season to win the club’s first World Series in 86 years under Francona.

In that ALCS game against the New York Yankees, Little visited the mound with the Red Sox up three runs and five outs away from a trip to the World Series. He went there, ostensibly, to remove Red Sox pitching ace Pedro Martinez in favor of a relief pitcher. But Little gave-in to Martinez’s insistence to complete the game. He returned to the dugout without making a pitching change and the Yankees came to, eventually winning the game with an extra-innings homerun. That singular decision is arguably what led to Little being quickly relieved of position and replaced by Francona.

In allowing Martinez to stay in the game, Little abandoned a formula that had worked to that point: achieve seven innings of effective work from the starting pitcher; bring in a reliever in the eighth; and a closer in the ninth. To make what should have been an clear decision even clearer, Martinez was topping-out at the high-end of his pitch count. Pulling the pitcher at that point would have been consistent the Sabermetrics-based approach to game decisions that had been instituted by the Red Sox front office. Little, the person tasked with converting that philosophy into action by filtering it to those in the dugout and on the field, had given-up on the plan at the moment it was needed most.

In Francona, the Red Sox found a manager who could understand the organizational philosophy and get players to respond to it. He did what a manager is supposed to do: take the vision, mission, and objectives set by executives and communicate it to those on the front lines in way that helps them perform to the best of their abilities. And this includes knowing the right way to say “no” when the situation calls for it. A couple of World Series wins and several years of playoff appearances followed. Then, things began to show signs of unraveling, culminating in a turbulent end to the 2011 season.

The mechanisms that made Francona effective ultimately did him in. After those years of success, the Red Sox culture and roster changed. Francona’s style—that of a “players’ manager”—didn’t. And this, in short form, explains why the team fired him and hired Bobby Valentine, whose management style tends towards the confrontational.

So, then, what makes Francona and the Indians fit well together?

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