Francona's preparedness among keys to success

Tribe manager's communication skills, open mind also vital

Francona's preparedness among keys to success

BOSTON -- Indians manager Terry Francona does not throw the pitches or swing the bat. He plays the percentages. Francona is the man behind the curtain, pulling the levers and looking like a managerial wizard as Cleveland sits on the cusp of taking down the mighty Red Sox.

Two games into this American League Division Series, Francona has had the Midas touch. His unconventional bullpen usage stole the show in Game 1 on Thursday. A lineup decision that strayed from his norm helped win Game 2 on Friday. One more victory, and the Indians will return to the AL Championship Series for the first time in nine years.

"If there's anybody better," said Chris Antonetti, the Indians president of baseball operations, "I'm not sure I've been around him."

Game Date Matchup Highlights
Gm 1 Oct. 6 CLE 5, BOS 4 video
Gm 2 Oct. 7 CLE 6, BOS 0 video
Gm 3 Oct. 10 CLE 4, BOS 3 video

Francona's skill in the dugout is no secret to the Red Sox, who will host the Indians on Monday (6 p.m. ET, TBS) in Game 3 at Fenway Park after inclement weather Sunday postponed the game. It was Francona, after all, who came to Boston in 2004 and helped end the city's 86-year-old World Series dry spell. He then guided Boston to a second title three years later, addressing the drought with a surplus of champagne.

In Boston, though, Francona had the benefit of deep pockets, elite pitching and power hitters. In Cleveland, the manager has really had to flex his managerial muscles under the kind of payroll restraints that can hold the best of clubs back. Francona won the AL Manager of the Year Award for his work with the Tribe in '13 and he may be on the verge of taking home another trophy, as this year may have been his biggest test yet.

With the exception of 11 ineffective games, Cleveland played without an injured Michael Brantley. The team endured suspensions to outfielders Marlon Byrd and Abraham Almonte, and injuries to Yan Gomes, Carlos Carrasco and Danny Salazar. Francona employed platoons at each outfield spot, and also at third base for a portion of the season.

And yet, here the Indians are, up 2-0 on the highest-scoring team in baseball.

"It's a total package," Indians relief ace Andrew Miller said of Francona. "It's his ability to communicate with anybody -- it doesn't matter if it's a pitcher, a position player, or where they're from, whatever it is. It's his ability to put guys in positions to succeed. They brought him in for a good reason."

Miller is Exhibit A when it comes to Francona's approach to managing.

Francona on the bullpen

After the Indians acquired the left-handed reliever from the Yankees at the July 31 Trade Deadline, Francona elected to use him as a high-leverage weapon, not as a closer. There would be no waiting for save situations. There would only be using Miller when it made the most sense. Francona would then be able to better use Cody Allen, Bryan Shaw, Dan Otero and his other arms in more opportune situations.

Two days after the baseball world watched as Orioles manager Buck Showalter held out closer Zach Britton in the AL Wild Card Game and lost, Francona called upon Miller in the fifth inning of Game 1 of the ALDS. It was asking a lot of Cleveland's bullpen, and it was a radical move in many ways, but the Tribe's bullpen pieced together 13 outs to collect the win.

It was a win-today mentality from Francona, who worries about tomorrow when he gets there.

"I loved it. I loved it," Indians general manager Mike Chernoff said. "He had prepared for that exact situation. It didn't take anyone by surprise and it was great to see his willingness and creativity to do it."

In Game 2, Francona put the lefty-swinging Lonnie Chisenhall in the lineup against Red Sox ace David Price, even through the Indians' outfielder normally only plays against right-handed pitchers. It was a look into how Francona does not treat any player as a strict platoon option, even if the manager did exploit the platoon advantage -- both offensively and with this pitching staff -- more than any other Major League team this year.

Francona weighs all the information. In the case of Chisenhall, the manager liked the right fielder's career history against Price and considered that the left-handed pitcher had relatively even splits this season. Beyond that, Francona wanted to have Chisenhall in there to better align the Tribe's defense.

Francona on playing Chisenhall

Chisenhall launched a three-run home run in the second inning, powering Cleveland's 6-0 win on Friday.

"Sometimes," Francona said, "good players make you look smarter than you probably are."

Maybe, but this was hardly the first instance where one of Francona's decisions paid dividends.

Another example can be found in switch-hitter Carlos Santana. For years, Francona had toyed with the concept of using Santana -- primarily a middle-of-the-order bat in his career -- as a leadoff hitter. The manager was intrigued by Santana's keen eye, on-base ability and knack for grinding out long at-bats. The heart of the order would be missing some power, but it might also benefit from having a runner on base more often.

During Spring Training, Francona's curiosity finally convinced him to have the Indians' analytics department -- led by Sky Andrecheck, the team's senior director of baseball research and development -- to run a study on Santana as a leadoff man. When the report landed on the manager's desk, he read it with some disappointment. Statistically, it did not project as the kind of beneficial move that Francona thought it could be for the Tribe's lineup.

Even with that feedback, Francona went with his gut. On April 22, Santana made his career debut as a leadoff man and he has stayed there on a part-time basis. Santana leads off against righties and hits fifth against lefties. The result was a career year for Santana, who belted 34 homers, collected 87 RBIs, scored 89 runs and drew 99 walks.

Santana's two-run triple

"If the information he gets doesn't support an idea," said Brad Mills, Francona's longtime bench coach and close friend, "he'll look at it a little bit and not give in totally to that side yet. It might take him a little bit longer, and that's OK. He uses all his experiences, along with some of the experiences that some of the analytical people have, and kind of puts it all together."

Francona jokes that he did not know the word "sabermetrics" when he began managing the Phillies back in 1997, but the manager believes he was always leaning in that direction.

To this day, Francona tapes up sheets of paper in the dugout with a variety of numbers to assist him with in-game decisions. He had a similar method back in his days in Philly, but he would write the matchup statistics on the back of his lineup card. Even then, he made lineup decisions that he knew "people in the upper deck might be second-guessing," but Francona trusted his instincts and the information.

Francona did not have a computer in those days, but finally got one when he worked for the A's as a bench coach in 2003 under GM Billy Beane. Francona's access to analytics increased further when he moved to Boston and it has continued to expand in Cleveland. In four years with the Indians, Francona has torn down the wall between the front office and the clubhouse.

"You hear about the divide between a Major League staff and front-office people," Chernoff said. "Here, he breaks down those barriers and makes it safe to have all kinds of creative ideas."

It is not unusual to see a front-office member in the locker room talking to coaches or players. Assistant GM Derek Falvey, who will take the reins as the Twins' new president of baseball operations when the Indians' season is complete, is constantly dividing his time among the players, coaches, Francona and the front office. Andrecheck has been more visible this season, including being in the middle of the clubhouse during Cleveland's AL Central-clinching celebration, along with other staffers.

Francona on Indians' journey

Chernoff said that cohesiveness has been a critical element to the Indians' setup. The GM added that the front office is never sending directives to Francona, either. Most of what the manager tries stems from his own ideas and brainstorming sessions.

"Our information is there to support him. It's driven from him," Chernoff said. "We work hard, but we're not trying to push him in any direction or shove information down his throat. I think it's the other way. He's exceptionally open-minded to listening to the information to validate his ideas."

Asked about the discussions behind the scenes, Francona laughed.

"I've probably made Sky want to jump out of the window," he said. "But I really like it, because it makes me think. If somebody has the ability to make me think through something, I say, 'OK, that's good to do,' but they also give me the information the way I want it and the way it's applicable to me."

All of the numbers, all of the decisions, have culminated in Cleveland being in position for a deep October run.

"I feel like I owe it to the team and to the organization not to guess," Francona said. "I just don't feel like it's fair to throw something against the wall and hope it sticks. Things don't always work, but I feel like if I'm prepared, I can relax and enjoy the game."

Jordan Bastian has covered the Indians for MLB.com since 2011, and previously covered the Blue Jays from 2006-10. Read his blog, Major League Bastian, follow him on Twitter @MLBastian and listen to his podcast. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.