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Terry Francona, baseball's most underrated manager

A paean to the Cleveland skipper, who will hopefully gift us all with a creative October.

John Hefti-USA TODAY Sports

After a promising 2015, Cleveland is having a heck of a follow-up in 2016. The AL Central is nearly locked up, and in a postseason mostly dominated by familiar names, they're positioned nicely to take on the role of feel-good underdog to root for. They've got a ton of exciting players, including 22-year-old phenom Francisco Lindor and sabermetric favorite Corey Kluber, and they're from a city that is having a good year sportswise after a long, long dark age.

There's another reason it won't be hard to root for Cleveland this October, however, at least for me. As with most stat-oriented baseball writers, I try to emphasize process over results, and maybe it's selfish, but when a team achieves good results with bad process, I can find my joy a little lessened than it might be otherwise. For example, the Royals' extraordinary runs in 2014 and 2015 happened despite evidence suggesting they were essentially a .500 team, at best, and instead of fully enjoying this amazing Cinderella story, I grumbled about how it wasn't deserved. Is that the right way to enjoy baseball? Nope! Is it nonetheless something I find myself doing, and something I think others probably do as well? Yeah.

Luckily, the 2016 playoffs are shaping up to be different. If Cleveland really does take on the underdog mantle, it'll present an opportunity to root for Terry Francona, currently in his fourth season at their helm. Francona has been incredibly successful in the past, winning World Series with the Red Sox in 2004 and 2007, and is also a very nice and likable guy. Most relevant to my pathological way of enjoying postseason baseball, however, is his evolution into an excellent, cutting-edge manager.

Now, there's only so much that managers can do and that we can measure, and even excellent on-field managing has a relatively small impact on the success of a team. For that reason, you should always pay attention to how a manager handles the various personalities on their team, as while that is resistant to measurement, it's probably the most important part of their job. Nonetheless, the on-field part of the job is much more visible, and if there's any part of the baseball season when it matters most, it's October, when a single strategic choice can end your season, or your opponent's. As a result, a lot more attention is paid to the manager in the playoffs, and frustration at their adherence to outdated principles is common. Based on his performance in 2016, though, it seems like Francona will make paying that attention a little less infuriating and lot more enjoyable.

Lineups

The first way managers impact their team's chances of success comes before the game starts, when they set the lineup, and in 2016, Francona has shown a willingness to ignore conventional wisdom and embrace sabermetric principles. For example, the "normal" player type to have lead off your lineup is a speedy outfielder or middle infielder, someone who can steal a lot of bases, but also someone who doesn't hit for much power and doesn't walk much as a result. Rajai Davis fits that description to a T — despite being nearly 36, he's got 40 stolen bases, though his .314 OBP leaves a lot to be desired — and, to be fair, Davis has been the second-most frequent occupant of the top spot in the Cleveland lineup.

Ken Blaze, USA TODAY Sports

The most frequent, however, has been Carlos Santana, who is emphatically not the archetypal leadoff hitter. He's in his eighth season with Cleveland, and he's averaged only five steals per year in his career. Santana began as a catcher, but has since 2014 has spent all his time at first base and designated hitter, neither of which is a normal position to see at the top of the lineup card. But Santana makes a ton of sense, based on what we know about what kind of lineups make sense.

Speed is actually not that important to a leadoff hitter, since the hitters who follow him tend to be among the team's best. They usually have enough power that it doesn't matter whether the leadoff guy has stolen second or not; he's going to score on their double or home run either way. Instead, what's most important is just getting someone on base ahead of those hitters, and Santana's career OBP of .354 and walk rate of 15.5 percent are both reasons he fits perfectly in that spot.

The other notable thing about the leadoff spot is that it starts the game, which means the player in the leadoff spot will always have (or be tied for) the most plate appearances in a game. Over the course of a season, that translates to roughly 15 to 20 extra PAs for each spot a hitter moves up in the lineup. One of the most important things in selecting a guy to hit leadoff, therefore, is picking a great hitter! Santana's 122 wRC+ ranks second among Cleveland hitters with at least 100 PAs, so while he might not look the part of a leadoff hitter, Francona is making an excellent choice when he puts the slugger at the top of the lineup.

(As always, big thanks to Baseball Reference, in this case for tracking lineups for each team and season.)

Relievers

Earlier this week, our sister blog for Cleveland in the SB Nation baseball orbit published a great piece calling for Cleveland to eschew the traditional model of pitching (starter, relievers, closer) and use "openers": relievers who start the game, pitch to six to ten batters, then swap out for another reliever. Because of the additional rest between games in the playoffs, this is a viable strategy in a way it isn't during the regular season, and it keeps opposing hitters off-balance in a way that seems to yield real run prevention dividends. Cleveland is a great candidate for openers, but not just because they've lost both Danny Salazar and Carlos Carrasco to injury. As that article says, under Francona's direction, the team has demonstrated its "willingness to use its closers whenever and wherever they are most valuable."

What does that look like in practice? Andrew Miller has been the easiest example to track. Cleveland acquired the relief ace from the Yankees at the trade deadline, and he's been excellent since then, throwing 22 and 2/3 innings with a fantastic 1.99 ERA/2.12 FIP. Normally, the best pitcher in a bullpen is labeled the closer and limited to pitching at the very end of a game, mostly so he can rack up the savezzzzz. The ninth isn't always the most important part of the game, however. If the game is tied, and the other team's #2 hitter is coming up after your starter just put two runners on to start the seventh, what happens with the next batter will very possibly decide the entire game. A traditional closer might not get the call, however, since it's only the seventh.

Luckily, Miller hasn't been a traditional closer, or at least not with Cleveland. After pitching almost exclusively in the eighth and ninth with New York, he's come in throughout the second half of games, taking the mound whenever things look potentially dire. It's not been limited to Miller, either. FanGraphs tracks "leverage index," an indication of how important a situation is. A bases-loaded, two-out situation in a tie game will have a higher leverage index than a bases-empty, nobody-out situation, for example. When the leverage is high, teams should bring in their best pitchers, as that's when the difference between a great reliever and an okay one translates into the biggest difference in games won.

Francona has been pretty excellent at identifying his best relievers and using them in the most important spots. Miller has the third-highest average leverage on the team, behind Bryan Shaw and Cody Allen, both pretty good in their own rights. There have been some pitchers who have been excellent but still failed to earn Francona's trust — Dan Otero is sitting on a 1.54 ERA for the year but an average leverage of 0.84 — but overall, the willingness to use the best guys in the most important spots is clear.

It's probably not fair to credit all of this unconventional reliever usage to Francona, but he certainly deserves some portion. The primary limiting factor on this kind of bullpen usage is the willingness of a team's elite relievers. They have to accept a less settled role and be ready to come in with much less notice than they might be used to. The manager plays a key role, therefore, not just in pulling the trigger on the relief ace in the early innings, but convincing them to set aside their personal stats for the good of the team. Francona seems to be doing an excellent job of both; back on August 15, just a couple weeks after Miller was traded, the 6'7" lefty said the following:

"For me, flexibility is a positive I can offer," Miller said. "However Tito wants to use me, I'll happily oblige."

Miller and Francona had crossed paths before, in Boston, but only for a few months, and before Miller had made the transition from subpar starter to wipeout reliever, so it doesn't seem like this has to do with any special familiarity between the two. Rather, it seems like Francona is simply good at getting the most out of his players, both by putting them in the game in the most important spots and convincing them to go along with that unconventional usage. The playoffs in particular give this skillset a chance to shine, as the above-linked article describes; not only are the late innings of every playoff game filled with frequent switches, the gates are opened to even more unconventional strategies, and if any manager has both the desire and the will to enact those strategies, it's Francona.

Clubhouse

This goes last, because it's the fuzziest of the three. Cleveland's 2016 has been a success thanks in large part to some huge offensive contributions from young players and rookies, specifically Francisco Lindor, Tyler Naquin, and Jose Ramirez. I certainly don't mean to take anything away from any of them; they're the ones doing the actual swinging, running, fielding, etc. But when you've got young guys making the major-league minimum of about $500,000 playing alongside veterans making many times that amount (though not that many — it is Cleveland after all), and the former group is the one that's contributing the most to the team, there's a lot that can go wrong.

And that's before considering all the other stuff that Cleveland has had to endure this year, including suspensions to Marlon Byrd and Abraham Almonte that threw the roster into chaos, Michael Brantley missing the whole season due to injury, and their normal minuscule payroll. Through it all, however, the team has displayed a very loose, casual, fun vibe. It doesn't all come down to the manager, obviously; the personalities of the players themselves matter a lot, maybe more than the manager, and it's definitely easier for a group to be happy when they're winning a lot of games. Francona maybe can't take credit for all of that, but he at least didn't mess it up, and it sure seems like he contributes to the relaxed atmosphere, yet another way he gets the most out of his players.

***

Maybe it's because Francona moved from a huge baseball market to a much smaller one, or because Cleveland hasn't had any real success with him at the helm until this year, or maybe it's just because we are much more used to criticizing managers than praising them. Whatever the reason, Francona doesn't seem to get named as a top-flight manager nearly as often as he deserves. Not only is he personable and great at connecting with players, he's displaying both a stat-friendly approach and the ability to earn the trust of his players and sell them on that approach. That's all you can ask for from a manager, and it should be fun to watch Francona put those skills to use in the playoffs.

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Henry Druschel is a Contributing Editor at Beyond the Box Score. You can follow him on Twitter at @henrydruschel.