Pushing is Better than Mashing: How Terry Francona Managed An ALDS Sweep
Ever get so frustrated with a video game you just start mashing buttons on the controller hoping it will work?
Yeah, been there. Just press the buttons man. It gives you a better chance because you know what your pressing.
It would be hard to say that anyone could be envious of any manager in Major League Baseball, given the decisions they need to make on a daily basis, or even decisions they don't make on a daily basis. Because, regardless, it all comes back down to them.
Excuse me while I evoke the wise waxing of Manny Acta for a second.
But being one of the 30 managers in baseball is something that most in coaching would strive towards. Who wouldn't want to be in that position to pull the strings. Right?
Well, not me, but I don't aspire to be in that position. It's a tough spot, because even though there are other coaches on staff and you probably use their input, and there's a front office that puts the talent together, the manager is the figurehead. He gets the praise, and with it, the backlash.
It's no secret that I haven't been the largest fan of the tactical and strategical moves that Indians manager Terry Francona has employed over the past few years. This is the same man who said, during the between-time of his stints with Boston and Cleveland, that when you are bunting you are playing for one run, and then continuously would let his prized rookie shortstop bunt a runner over in the first inning of a game or in a game he is down by one-run in early. What, playing for one run?
The constant utilization of Mike Aviles, in left field to boot, despite evidence to suggest that is perhaps an ill-advised move was simply met with calls of "Mikey does a good job out there." Does he? Does he really?
These issues aside, I've harbored a lot of irritation for his strategy. Where I do appreciate Terry Francona is in the clubhouse and the things we don't see. Sometimes, those things that make him great, attribute to the irritations, like his affinity for Mike Aviles, but otherwise, you could do a lot worse than Francona, I'm fully aware of this. In a division that has a real gem like Robin Ventura (not really), a master strategist in Brad Ausmus (you're kidding right?), and a cerebral visionary with Ned Yost (hahahaha, Ned Yost has a World Series), I'll go ahead and say I'm okay with Tito heading up the Tribe, warts and all.
And look, you are talking about a guy who is loved, respected, and heralded in the game. Sometimes that sort of stuff builds up a little bit of an excuse or preservation of reputation, but you can't argue with the fact that the dude has been successful, whether it's by hook or crook. And with that, comes respect that he gets, mostly from his players.
With that in mind, there's been a sort of shifting in dynamic over the past week or so. Hell, it's even been happening for a few months if you go back far enough and comb over things. Slowly, but surely, Terry Francona is becoming the manager that both players and critics are starting to get behind. He's already got that first part down and if he continues wheeling with the sudden gun-slinging visionary tactics he has been and leads the Indians to the promise land, it will be hard to find someone who won't back Tito.
Francona is pushing ALL of the right buttons right now. In addition to that, he's employing strategies and forward thinking that many didn't even think possible. He's leveraging a bullpen masterfully, letting players execute strategy on the base paths to create the best situations possible, and making calls on his lineup and defensive arrangement that make him smell of pure success.
Before the ALCS gets underway and we get to see the game plan of one Terrance Jon Francona unfurl, let's look back at the ALDS and check-down every move he made that helped lead the Indians to a 3-0 series sweep over the Boston Red Sox.
Before the series
Much was debated about leaving off a second left-hander, likely Kyle Crockett, in favor of maligned starter-turned reliever, but sometimes starter Cody Anderson and Jeff Manship. Even Perci Garner got some "hey what about that guy" love from people questioning the bullpen makeup. Turns out Kyle Crockett had some back-issues and well, Jeff Manship, big HAH if you thought a Terry Francona postseason roster wouldn't carry him. An old dog can still keep his spots even if you give him a haircut.
The thing is, despite my internal screaming of "Whyyy Manship Whyyy" and his 5.11 FIP, if you are using either of these guys, things either went really bad or really good. Manship isn't giving you any meaningful innings and well, Anderson would only be in there for a worst case scenario of a starter not being able to give you anything. The Indians would be in dire straights if they had to use either guy and as it turned out, neither guy was summoned. Heck, Tito didn't even have to use Zach McAllister, so the inclusion of those two is clearly nothing to have worried about in hindsight, Crockett injury not withstanding.
The other point of contention was the carrying of three catchers, technically. With Yan Gomes's inclusion, surely there was a thought that he was healthy enough to be the full time catcher. That is relatively unknown, but things were clarified when Tito straight up stood by Roberto Perez as the team's starting catcher. Then why is Chris Gimenez around? To catch Trevor Bauer right? Nope! Perhaps because he's the backup catcher, not Gomes. So why is Gomes around? While he didn't get an appearance, you have to believe his inclusion was mainly for late-game matchup reasons that Tito just didn't need to justify because the situation did not present itself.
So all-in-all, even the pre-series moves, Tito and company hit on them, even if we had some questions. Danny Salazar is still not ready to go, so we'll likely see a similar cast of characters and likely have to once again hope Jeff Manship doesn't see the light of day. I've repeated Manship's FIP and xFIP (4.81) numbers so often, I don't even have to pull up Fan Graphs anymore.
If there was ever a time to put on a managing clinic and turn in quite possibly the best game of your Indians managerial career, this is one of those times. And with that, Tito set the tone for the series. Let's start from the beginning of decisions with the puppeteer extraordinaire.
T5- Leon Homers off Bauer, Tito sticks with him
You would think that after giving up a homer to the eight hitter and losing the two-run cushion, Tito would get super itchy and just go straight to his bullpen right then and there. But Tito realizes that every out matters and if he could get a few more out of Bauer, he can get a few more out of Miller if he can bring him in to face the lefty, instead of the bottom of the order. So Tito stuck with Bauer despite the homer and Trevor rewarded him with a Benintendi fly out and a Pedroia strike out, leaving Tito in a position to call for Miller to end the fifth.
As this is unfolding, I'm thinking Bauer is looking better than his statistics indicate and hoping Tito at least let's Bauer continue. He's getting ahead of guys, throwing strikes, he hadn't walked anyone, but he was just having issues putting guys away. He got bit by Leon and that's something you just nod your head to and be thankful it didn't put them behind. His trust in Bauer paid off.
T5- Tito deploys Miller in the fifth to face Brock Holt
It didn't produce the immediate result that Tito was looking for, which was likely Miller getting Brock Holt, but going to Andrew Miller in that situation was the right call. Ideally he gets Holt, the left-hander, and gets Betts leading off the inning rather than with a runner on. No biggie, after walking Betts, Miller met the guy, despite what role he would be called upon to fill, he is expected to neutralize, be it in the fifth or the ninth. Miller faced David Ortiz and struck him out, exactly what Tito wants, the Miller/Ortiz matchup.
B5- Indians rally, knock out Porcello, score a run, Tito sticks with Chisenhall
An extra run was added in the fifth after a Roberto Hercules Perez single, Santana fly out that (smartly on Roberto's part) advanced Perez to second, and Kipnis single. Big ups to Mike Sarbaugh for making the call to send Roberto, it worked out. Pomeranz was brought in to bring Jason Kipnis, similarly how Miller was brought in to face Holt. After a ground rule double and an intentional walk, the bases are all of a sudden very loaded and the Indians have a chance to really make a mess of things in the fifth.
It's the fifth, you already have gone to your pen, whose to say you can't go to your bench? Brandon Guyer, a lefty-masher to face Pomeranz? Would it prompt Boston manager John Farrell to make a counter move, which would invalidate your move to Guyer? There's a bit of psychology to play here as you have to basically decided what your better matchup is: Brandon Guyer vs RHP of Farrell's choosing or Chisenhall vs Pomeranz if you think Farrell is going to go away from Guyer/Pomeranz. You can either get the matchup you want, or get rid of Pomeranz.
This felt more like a move for innings, not matchups, and Pomeranz was in it for the long-haul. So Tito makes the call to keep his better defender in there, even if he has to let Chisenhall strikeout with the bases loaded to end the fifth.
T6 - Miller settles in
A 1-2-3 inning helps Tito's Game 1 plan immensely.
B6- Tito goes to Rajai Davis
Last inning, Tito had a chance to make a switch and bring in Brandon Guyer. Here he has the opportunity to dispatch the other half of his outfield platoon by using Rajai Davis for Tyler Naquin. The at-bats for Naquin against lefties are virtually non-existent, so the call is made to lose Naquin for this particular matchup, which will give you another idea of what Farrell intends on doing with Pomeranz. Davis, despite his handedness is actually a higher wRC+ player against righties than he is lefties, and has a smaller difference between at-bats between lefties and righties than Naquin. Tito assumes he'll get one at-bat against Pomeranz but then have Davis the rest of the way against the righties in Boston's pen.
Of course, Davis strikes out, and so does Perez, as did Crisp a hitter before, making this a clean inning for Pomeranz and all of this pretty moot. The strategy is interesting though.
T7 - Shaw relieves Miller
Tito squeezes two more at-bats, one against Leon and another against left-handed Benitendi out of Miller before he brings in Bryan Shaw, who he utilizes to get righty Dustin Pedroia. Shaw is in for three lower leverage (as lower as a middle of an order can be) outs before Ortiz comes up again, Tito wants him to get three batters so Ortiz has to come up in the eighth inning with nobody on, two outs, and a two-run lead.
T8 - Shaw doesn't go with the plan, Tito brings in Allen
Tito's master plan goes out the window with a Brock Holt home run to lead off the inning. Now Betts and Ortiz can bat with just a one-run deficit, making all of their at-bats the potential to be lethal. Shaw is kept in to get Betts, and that prompts Tito to go for a five-out save with Cody Allen. From here, it is a lot of hoping Allen gets the job done, which he does, even if it was shaky.
Call back to leaving Chisenhall in the game, although he didn't peg him, Lonnie came super close to nabbing Ortiz at second. This likely doesn't happen with any of the Indians other outfielders. Regardless, Cody Allen gets the job done and not once was there a doubt. Well, yes there was, this was filled with lots of beads of sweat and stomach knots.
Getting through Game 1 masterfully was obviously the ideal scenario seeing as you had Corey Kluber on the mound for Game 2. Now you're looking for a little more length out of your starter to make it easier on your bullpen, but still, there were some decisions to be made.
Lineup - Chisenhall vs the Lefty
Perhaps sticking with the idea that he has a better outfielder in Chisenhall than he does in Coco Crisp, Tito goes against what would be his year-long conventional wisdom and starts Lonnie Chisenhall in right field against a left-handed pitcher. Brandon Guyer goes in left field and Rajai Davis starts in center.
Here's Chisenhall's season breakdown against left-handers, which he isn't really allowed to face, because, numbers.
.217 AVG, 19.2 K%, .294 OBP, 72 wRC+
He's hit not a single home run this year, to add to his grand total of eight in 337 career at-bats against lefties. Chisenhall's last start against a LHP? August 25th against Cole Hamels. Also the last time Josh Tomlin walked someone. Must have been a weird day all around.
Strangely though, one of those eight homers off a LHP? David Price. And when you think about it, what more of a chance does Coco Crisp really give you? In fact, Coco's 2016 wRC+ against lefties? 71. He's not even better than Chisenhall and he's had double the at-bats! Tito makes an excellent call to keep the better defender who has just as much of an opportunity to get a hit off Price. He compensates by hitting him eighth behind Guyer. Don't overlook this detail, and credit Tito with lineup construction, something he's both bucked the trend on and been regressive with in one season. THAT is impressive.
Of course, the move pays off in a big way. Not only playing Chisenhall, but the spot in the order is key as Lonnie comes up in a position against a lefty, for the second night in a row mind you, to deal a big blow early in the game. This time he comes through and it all started before the team even took the field.
B6 - Tito sticks with his lineup
Perhaps the biggest cap tip to Tito other than his Chisenhall play was keeping the guys in the lineup that night. In the sixth, despite a reliever on the mound, Tito stuck with Brandon Guyer and Guyer came up with another hit against a right-hander. Farrell would then start playing matchups bringing in Robbie Ross to face Chisenhall. This time Chiz wasn't as lucky against the lefty, but quickly Farrell would turn to Brad Ziegler to face consecutive righties Roberto Perez and Rajai Davis. Instead of Tito going to a righty for Chisenhall, he stuck with him and that let the rest of the inning unfold. Davis would hit a sac-fly off Ziegler.
T8 - Tito ready to go with the B-Squad
And when I say B-Squad, I mean that in the nicest way possible. With having pushed Allen and Miller to the limit the previous night, getting seven strong from Corey Kluber was obviously the optimal scenario. So why not get more? Tito let Kluber go out to face the bottom of the order, which is an absolutely okay thing to do with a six run lead. Step on their throats, don't worry about the possibility of Kluber on short rest, and go for the win. Unfortunately he couldn't get either out, but he had Dan Otero on stand-by. The obvious ultimate goal is to get through these two innings without having to use any big guns and Otero makes Tito look like a genius and makes just winning the game a secondary achievement. Otero strikes out Pedroia, gets a Brock Holt line out and unlike Shaw the previous night, sets up a bases-empty situation for David Ortiz by getting Betts to groundout.
T9 - Shaw, for the hell of it
He probably could have stuck with Otero, but instead of tempting fate, he lets Shaw start an inning clean and Shaw rewards him with three outs. This was an easier game to manage due to his starter's brilliance and his excellent pre-game lineup decision. Sometimes, these calls make themselves. Internal screaming died down for one game. Breathe, one more to go, but this may be the trickiest one.
And here we go, things have played out the way the Indians wanted, sans the rainout of Sunday's game, which would put them in a position to have to play three games in a row if the series went to five games, which obviously doesn't play well into the bullpen plans. Another reason to go for the jugular if you have the opportunity. Think they will?
Keeping with Tomlin
In actuality, Trevor Bauer would have started Game 4, which would have occurred on Monday, which is when Game 3 actually happened. In theory, could they have gone with Trevor Bauer on short rest? Sure, but the right move was to stick with Josh Tomlin. You are pretty much moving forward with the same plan you deployed in Game 1. So, even in hindsight, going with Tomlin is the right call in this situation, especially up 2-0. The reasons to do this outweigh the reasons to not do this.
T4 - Coco Sac-Bunt
You know me and how I don't like to endorse a good bunt attempt, let alone a bad one. I'd maintain that the Indians need to be more aggressive and need to attempt to score more than one run, which is theoretically what the bunt is aimed to do, set you up to score at least one.
Except for this situation where it can set you up to score two with a single, which is exactly what happened. This isn't a "did he make the right call or not" type of an outlook, it's more so a look at all the decisions that were made that panned out and this one most definitely did. And I can even get behind it a little considering you have a guy like Coco Crisp, who you aren't really counting on to come up with any big hits (whoops!), that actually does have the capability of executing a bunt. Add in there's two guys on, which sets up a one out, two in scoring position situation. Again the argument is you need more than one run, which is perfectly valid and the line of thinking I fall into. But there's a few times a bunt can be justified with some sort of understanding and Tito pushed a right button here. Plus, Coco Crisp hitting into a double play has better odds of occurring than Coco Crisp jacking one over the Green Monster and spontaneous combust as he touches home plate.
B5 - Sticking with Tomlin, again
Keeping Tomlin in despite giving up a RBI double was the right call. Again, in a game where every out matters in terms of your bullpen, to get a few more from Tomlin was huge. Tomlin was also not looking like he was in any sort of danger and he had not yet gone through the lineup for a third time, so keeping with him was a good call as you would then be able to deploy Andrew Miller for the middle of the Boston lineup.
Not to mention, Josh Tomlin was pitching really really well. Perhaps one of the grittiest and gutsiest performances we've seen in quite some time.
T6 - Another Bunt? Whatever.
While I have a little understanding of the previous bunting situation mentioned, this one, didn't make sense. Here's the funny thing though. It didn't matter. Tito may have outsmarted himself a bit on this one, calling for a bunt after Jose Ramirez lead off the inning with a walk.
Was it because of the left-handed hitter in Lonnie Chisenhall? We already recapped the whole lefty-righty thing and obviously in the sixth and having mentioned the fact that Lonnie Chisenhall is probably your best defensive outfielder, perhaps this was Tito's way of keeping Chisenhall in the game but also taking the bat out of his hands in a way that made sense.
What's funny is that the bunt was rendered moot (other than mentioning that perhaps Chisenhall gets on and it's a 3-run homer) after Coco Crisp, he of "take the bat out of his hands" fame from the first time around, belts one well over the Green Monster in left. So, moral of the story is, screw bunts, hit dingers and be glad he didn't spontaneously combust.
B6 - Miller Time Part 2
So in a virtual mirroring of what Tito did in Game 1, here comes Andrew Miller at the slightest bit of trouble with the middle of the lineup, only it comes an inning later, which is obviously better. Miller has an issue though. He lets up a double and a sac-fly and a run scores, but after this, he does his job. Heck, a clean slate and there isn't a run, so maybe Miller was used a tad late. But with a three, now two run lead, and Miller pitching the seventh, you are in a good spot. Not everything is going to be perfect.
B8 - Shaw gets a clean inning, here comes Cody
Regardless of how on-point he was or wasn't, the plan in the eighth makes sense. Bryan Shaw gets a clean inning, which is what he needs. Shaw gets an out, gives up a single, but then gets another out to bring up David Ortiz, which naturally means you've seen enough of Shaw. Tito makes the call for Allen to once again get more than three outs. Allen gives up a single, which lets one of those runners score, but this looks like a dicey situation. Still, this was the plan and even if it is looking scary, you need to stick to the plan.
B9 - The plan, works, but not without an elevated heart-rate
Not much you can do in the ninth other than get Otero up in case the game gets tied. But thankfully, that never happened and despite his lack of command on his breaking stuff and the amped-up fastball that wasn't hitting the zone either, Allen gets the job done and completes Tito's brilliant bullpen work.
Sure, in a five game series, this was easy to employ. With a break after two games, only needing to win three, you could maneuver your way around to set this up. With weapons like these, it makes it easy to go hunting.
A seven game series is a bit of a different animal and Tito is looking at a little bit of a different outlook if things don't go exactly how he would hope they would. Is Tito revolutionizing the way things are done in the postseason? I think "revolutionize" is a strong word, but the Indians as a whole are giving a little perspective to the world on how you CAN do things in the postseason. It's not unprecedented of course. The Royals used a deep and lethal bullpen to do some damage, but the Indians are doing things a little differently out of a situation that simply is dictating them to do so thanks in part to the injuries to Carrasco and Salazar.
Francona's bullpen usage has turned for the better since Miller's arrival, that is no secret. It's easier to make decisions when you have more options, especially good options, and even more so with options like Andrew Miller who can fill a variety of roles. I've said this repeatedly, but look how much more difficult Joe Girardi's job became when he lost Miller and Aroldis Chapman. I look back to that extra-inning game the Indians lost to New York back in July. Girardi won that game because he had that dynamic trio that got him through 5.1 innings of work. That was one less out than his starter, CC Sabathia, gave him. Andrew Miller, Cody Allen, and Corey Kluber accounted for 14 innings pitches in this series. Which is a shade over half of the 27 innings you need to get through in three games. Looks familiar, doesn't it?
In the postseason, I think it is pretty clear what Francona is looking to do with a depleted rotation. The Indians have already announced they intend on going with a Kluber/Bauer/Tomlin/Probably Clevinger & Pen lineup, which already presents a different dynamic of what they had in the ALDS. Because Game 5 would come immediately after Game 4, you can't really start putting Kluber & Bauer back out there after only playing three games, unless you get desperate. You can, but it probably sets them up for shorter outings and it would make more sense to throw them when they can give you more, not less. Again, it's a numbers game in terms of accumulating as many outs as possible and if things break right in the first few games, like they did in the ALDS, there's fewer outs the Indians need to concern themselves with.
Some of the other moves, not related to bullpen usage and starting rotations have been very favorable. Tito has opted to value his defense a little more (and rightfully so, especially when he stands to gain little, if anything at all with alternative moves) and not be so quick to give-in to the matchup game, which has promptly rewarded him with surprise hits, but also kept what is a more optimal roster out on the field at all times. While the Jays have a few lefties in the pen, they only have one left-handed starter in JA Happ, so we may see less of that decision making about the lineup. Still, in a longer series and with a different dynamic, it will be interesting to see how Tito approaches some of the other decisions that will likely come his way in regards to matchups and situations.
It's like that button mashing I talked about earlier. If you are just making a whole bunch of moves because you aren't sure what is going to work, you are going to get a totally random and uncontrollable result. Yeah, you could get a desired outcome, but you are removing any aspect of predictability. If you at least push the buttons in a way that you think makes the most sense, you are at least controlling your destiny, even if it may still end up losing you the game.
The way he is pushing buttons, I'm most definitely okay with Terry Francona leading the charge right now. His past issues aside, whether it was the right pieces being put in place, or Francona figuring out how to use them, things are being utilized the way they should. And here's the fun part. It's working. When you go with what makes the most sense and gives you the better percentage to win, you stand to look pretty brilliant when things do turn up your way. This is still a territory of chance and you need some luck in a MLB postseason, but it doesn't hurt to go with the moves that dictate better outcomes. And hopefully for the Indians and Francona, that outcome is another series win and a trip to the World Series.