terrySo, here we are.

Three weeks into the 2013 baseball season, the Indians are a thoroughly unsurprising 8-11 (I mean, we’d all like more wins, but 8-11 seems about right for this team right now). In those three weeks, the offense has sputtered and surged, the defense has been extremely shaky, and Ubaldo tweaked his mechanics at least five different times. Throughout it all, though, there has been one unshakeable positive in the minds of Indians fans (at least according to what I see on Twitter and across the blogosphere): Terry Francona. The man who could have had any job he wanted jumped into the Cleveland job with both feet, ready to bring some much-needed validity and leadership to a young team. The Indians report that season ticket sales are up over last year, and while one can certainly point to the additions of Nick Swisher and Michael Bourn as catalysts for increased ticket sales, the hiring of Francona to be the organization’s newest manager certainly sold a few ticket packages in its own right.

But is the praise being heaped upon Francona fair? Given the talent that the Red Sox had on their roster during his tenure in Boston, does that dampen what he accomplished? I think it is at least worth a discussion, and so I looked at three factors across his thirteen years as manager of the Philadelphia Phillies, Boston Red Sox, and Cleveland Indians: April records (unfortunately, the only comparison point we have for Francona so far), Runs Per Game, and Payroll-based performance.

Initially, I was really interested in Francona’s record in the month of April because he has a notorious reputation for being a laid-back clubhouse guy, and so it stands to reason (or so I thought) that his teams would get off to slow starts (admittedly, the Red Sox 0-6 start in 2011 played into this hypothesis), but as you’ll see, the history does not support this trend:

Year Team Overall Record April Record
1997 PHI 68-94 8-16
1998 PHI 75-87 12-13
1999 PHI 77-85 11-11
2000 PHI 65-97 7-17
2004 BOS 98-64** 15-6
2005 BOS 95-67* 12-11
2006 BOS 86-77 14-11
2007 BOS 96-66** 16-8
2008 BOS 95-67* 17-12
2009 BOS 95-67* 14-8
2010 BOS 89-73 11-12
2011 BOS 90-72 11-15

* – Made Playoffs
** – Won World Series

Overall, Francona has had six winning months of April (all with Boston, from 2004-2009) and six losing or .500 months (all four years with PHI and his last two years in Boston) and his record in April is comparable to his overall winning percentage (.513 in April vs. .528 overall). Unfortunately, I don’t think it says a lot about the Indians current situation (8-11 as of this writing) that we didn’t already know, that this is a flawed team that will need to either catch lightning in a bottle and/or have a team above them collapse in order to be playing into October.

What IS concerning to me, however, is the fact that Francona has never made the playoffs when his teams are under or at .500 at the end of April, and he’s only missed the playoffs once (2006) when his teams found themselves over the break-even mark on May 1st. Does this really mean anything? Probably not, but as my next point will illustrate, Francona is a manager who tends to get a consistent and appropriate level of success from his players (which is better than it sounds, I assure you).

So, with the slow-start/April swoon hypothesis busted, I turned my attention to another factor that may loom large for this Indians team: payroll.

It is no secret that the Indians are not the Red Sox when it comes to ability to spend, and even with the signings of Swisher and Bourn they still find their 2013 payroll commitments in the bottom-third of the league (21st of 30 teams). While payroll was never a concern in Boston, it was a concern in Philly, and so we can see how Francona’s teams have performed compared to their payroll ranking. I didn’t go into this research with a specific hypothesis in mind, but I do think the results are certainly interesting:

Year Payroll Rank Wins League Rank
1997 22nd 68 26th
1998 22nd 75 20th
1999 23rd 77 17th
2000 20th 65 29th
2004 2nd 98 3rd
2005 2nd 95 5th
2006 2nd 86 11th
2007 2nd 96 2nd
2008 4th 95 4th
2009 4th 95 4th
2010 2nd 89 10th
2011 3rd 90 9th
2013 21st ? ?

Clearly, payroll is strongly correlated with Terry Francona’s relative success as a manager. In Philadelphia he managed teams that had relatively meager payrolls, and his success was likewise meager, but consistent (except for 2000, when the wheels came off and the Phillies finished with the 2nd worst record in all of baseball). In Boston, however, he worked for an organization that acquired talent at any price, and to his credit he guided those Red Sox teams to enormous success, including two World Series Championships (in 2004 and 2007). Logically, it would mean that the Indians are headed for a record that will rank in the middle of the pack (with a little luck), and that is very unlikely to be in the absolute basement of the league. This would likely mean somewhere between 75-80 wins for the Indians in 2013, which seems to be consistent with what many experts believe this team is capable of.

Ah, but I write for an Indians blog so I am committed to finding the silver lining in all of this. None of these teams (even the Red Sox) were really committed to sabermetrics (his stint with the Phillies preceded the 2001 A’s opening everyone’s eyes, and the Red Sox were a big market team), and the Indians certainly are regarded as one of the most analytically-minded teams in the league (though success is, as always, forthcoming). It is certainly possible that 2013 will be the year that this correlation breaks down for Terry Francona as he guides a roster of bargains and castoffs to postseason glory.

As the adorable kid in Angels in the Outfield reminds us, “Hey, it can happen!”

Finally, I would like to point out that Francona’s teams have always overachieved (even if only slightly) on offense. His offenses in Philadelphia were slightly below league-average, but they generally outperformed what the team’s record would indicate (except 2000, which was an unusually bad year). In Boston, however, Francona’s teams were offensive juggernauts; three times (2004, 2005, and 2011) the Red Sox scored more than a run over league average, and from 2004-2011 they never put together a below-average offensive campaign. Fenway Park is certainly a hitter’s park, but the numbers indicate that Francona and his staff exert a positive influence on offenses under their tutelage. Perhaps someday (when the Indians have enough of a sample size in warm weather to be significant) I will delve more into the positive offensive effect of Terry Francona.

So what, if anything, can we take from all of this? Terry Francona should be regarded as a steady, consistent manager who routinely gets quality effort and production out of his players. His teams tend to do better on offense than expected (which could be the impetus behind the revamped offense this season), but he doesn’t really do anything exceptionally. This isn’t a bad thing, though. In years past the Indians have employed young managers who made mistakes or maybe hit some of the wrong notes in the clubhouse. These concerns are greatly diminished with Terry, who has shown an ability to manage personalities and egos and keep the team focused on the goal at hand. I will go out on a limb and say that the Indians under Terry Francona will not have a swoon like they experienced in August 2012, but that is not what Indians fans should be worrying about. The real question, and the one who don’t have an answer to just yet: Can Francona get this group of players to overachieve relative to their payroll rank and the expectations placed on them by all the expert talking heads?

Like most of you, I can’t wait to find out.

Other Miscellaneous Things:

-The Indians are off today, and they will kick off a 4-game series at Kansas City on Friday night. Here are the pitching matchups for the upcoming series:

Friday (8:10pm EST) – Kazmir (0-0) vs. Santana (2-1)
Saturday (7:10pm EST) – Jimenez (0-2) vs. Guthrie (2-0)
Sunday (2:10pm EST) – Masterson (4-1) vs. Mendoza (0-1)
Monday (8:10pm EST) – Kluber (1-0) vs. Davis (2-1)

-While it is kind of lame that MLB is so iron-fisted with their video rights (try putting something from a game up on Youtube and see how that works out for you), I have to commend them on the way they have set up the video section on MLB.com. Navigating highlights and getting to the play you want to see is incredibly easy and intuitive, which is how it should be (and honestly, it is WAY better than it would be on Youtube anyway). But the best thing about MLB.com‘s highlight packages is their Must C line of highlights.

If you’ve never been to MLB.com, Must C highlights are the generally the three-to-five best plays of the previous day, presented from every angle AND with commentary from the home TV -and- radio crew (rarely highlights also include away team commentary, if the play was particularly great or gut-wrenching). Must C clips are also presented without a long, annoying ad (like most other highlights on the website), instead having only a short intro from a sponsor. I don’t want to give free press to a sponsor, but I just wanted to take this space to applaud MLB and their sponsor for the decision to regulate Must C ads in this way. It is noticeably less annoying, and I wish more companies would go this route.

Anyway, I wanted to point out a Must C clip from a game that doesn’t involve the Indians. Last Sunday, the Pirates and Braves were finishing up a 3-game set at PNC Park. In the bottom of the 6th, Pedro Alvarez hit a shot deep into the weird left field corner at PNC, and Justin Upton made one of the most subtly-beautiful catches I’ve ever seen (clip here). Let me break it down:

First, let’s look at the fact that Upton took a home run away from Alvarez. It’s not clear until the last angle, when we see a fan in the first row noticeably recoiling from a ball he believes is about to hit him square in the chest.
Second, note that Upton didn’t have time to measure his jump like a lot of players do around the wall, and he’s coming in from the side, not running directly under the ball.
Third, he jumped and caught the ball on a dead run, which is just insanely impressive.

Go back and watch that catch again, it’s worth a second (or in the case of the highlight, a third and fourth) look.

Try not to be too sad, Indians fans, the Tribe will be back tomorrow!

Follow Adam on Twitter (@palagoon) for more Indians-related tweets and information.

1 Comment

  • Mary Jo says:

    Hard to judge Francona on the kind of April we’ve had. 4 rain outs, two at home and two on the road. 16 road games, only 10 at home. And how many Cy Young winners have we faced already? That said, I sure wish we had won a few more games…