Skipper led Tribe to 94-win season, brink of World Series victory
By Jordan Bastian
CLEVELAND -- It can be difficult at times to accurately gauge the impact of a manager. That was not the case for the Indians this year. Throughout the regular season, and especially during Cleveland's incredible and improbable run to the World Series, Terry Francona's influence was apparent.
On Friday, the Indians rewarded Francona for a managerial masterpiece, picking up the 2019 and '20 team options in his contract to keep him at the helm for at least another four years. If the past four seasons are any indication, Cleveland's roster, which appears built to contend for the foreseeable future, is in great hands.
Since Francona took over as manager in 2013, he has guided the Indians to an American League-leading 352 victories, with two postseason appearances. In his first season, Cleveland enjoyed its best one-year turnaround in terms of wins in the history of the franchise. In Francona's most recent campaign, the Tribe captured the AL Central crown for the first time since '07, won the AL pennant for the first time since 1997 and came one win shy of the franchise's first World Series title since 1948.
"He did a masterful job," said Chris Antonetti, the Indians' president of baseball operations. "The way in which Tito is constantly thinking about how to place individual players in a position to be successful, to most impact the team, is always extraordinary. He does that first and foremost by building really deep relationships with guys, where they know he cares and he has their best interest in mind, and he's always going to find a way for them to be the best versions of themselves.
"I think just to focus on the job he's done in the postseason is selling Tito short. He's done that from the day he got here. As high as our expectations were for Tito when we hired him, he's gone beyond that, having had the chance to work with him and work alongside him every day. We're really fortunate to have him."
Francona won the AL Manager of the Year Award for his work in 2013, and he is a leading candidate to take home the honor again this year.
The Indians did not achieve their ultimate goal of winning the World Series, but they took the 103-win Cubs to the 10th inning of an historic Game 7 on Wednesday night. Chicago's players wound up partying on the field, while the plastic sheeting that had been hung in Cleveland's clubhouse was quickly torn down. The fact that the Indians came that close was very much a credit to Francona.
Injuries to Carlos Carrasco and Danny Salazar in September took them out of the rotation equation for the postseason. Complicating matters further, starter Trevor Bauer sliced open his right pinkie finger while repairing one of his drones shortly before the AL Championship Series. Working with two fully healthy starters -- ace Corey Kluber and Josh Tomlin -- Cleveland still came within one win of hoisting the Commissioner's Trophy.
Due to the short-handed pitching staff, Francona was forced to use his arms more unconventionally than he already had during the regular season. Lefty Andrew Miller set a postseason relief record for innings, as he teamed with Kluber and closer Cody Allen to account for more than half of the Tribe's innings. By Game 7, the staff looked to be running on fumes.
"A lot of the resiliency and the grit that we saw with this team is a product of that culture [he helped create]," Indians general manager Mike Chernoff said. "It's not any one move that he made. It's the mindset and culture that was in the clubhouse leading up to that."
Antonetti noted that the Indians are also planning on retaining their entire coaching staff, though the team's president did say that one coach had been given permission to interview with another club for a Major League opportunity. Antonetti would not delve into specifics, but bench coach Brad Mills has been reported to be among the Rockies' managerial candidates.
Barring a coach leaving for another team, Cleveland plans on returning with Mills at Francona's side, along with pitching coach Mickey Callaway, first-base coach Sandy Alomar Jr., third-base coach Mike Sarbaugh, bullpen coach Jason Bere and hitting coaches Ty Van Burkleo and Matt Quatraro.
"I've learned a ton from him," Callaway said of Francona during the postseason. "He uses all his resources. The bottom line is he wants to win the game. He's not going to do what everybody else does, because that's what everybody else has always done. We want to win the game, and he puts guys in a position to best succeed."
In the regular season, the Indians won 94 games while dealing with a variety of setbacks. Star outfielder Michael Brantley was limited to only 11 ineffective games due to left arm issues, catchers Yan Gomes and Roberto Perez both missed significant time due to injuries, and the health woes of Carrasco and Salazar led to a balancing act for the pitching staff in September.
Partly out of necessity and partly by design, the Indians finished the 2016 season with the highest platoon advantage in the Majors both in terms of pitching and offense. Cleveland became the first team since the 1985 Cardinals to lead in both categories.
"I feel like I owe it to the team and to the organization not to guess," Francona said during the postseason. "That means that you have to know your own players extremely well. And then, you take the information that you think is pertinent. ... 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."
Over 16 years as a manager -- including stints with the Phillies and Red Sox -- Francona has recorded 1,381 victories, which ranks 30th all time and fifth among active managers. Among the 30 managers with at least that many wins, Francona's .533 winning percentage ranks 14th. Only the Angels' Mike Scioscia (.541) ranks better among active managers with at least as many victories as Francona.
Francona's .545 winning percentage (352-294) with the Tribe is behind Al Lopez (.617 from 1951-56) and Mike Hargrove (.550 from '91-99) for the third-best mark among Cleveland managers with at least 350 wins. Francona is also second to Lopez (389 wins) in victories in the first four years as manager of the Indians.
This past year marked the eighth time that Francona helped lead a team to at least 90 wins, marking the most such seasons among active managers. His run of 12 consecutive winning seasons is also the longest streak among active managers, and it is the longest since Joe Torre's 14-year run with the Yankees and Dodgers from 1996-2009.
"It's not one thing. It's a total package," Miller said of Francona. "They brought him in for a good reason, and he's backed it up. It's a fun place to play. The players have a lot of fun. The clubhouse is essentially ours. It's a total package."
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.