CLEVELAND — While his belief in statistical analysis has gained notoriety with the non-traditional usage of reliever Andrew Miller this postseason, Terry Francona has always gone against conventional baseball wisdom.
Since his days in Philadelphia, the Cleveland Indians manager has never been afraid to trust the numbers in order to find an edge that might help his team. Francona’s shrewd style, one he’s most certainly honed over the years, has come into focus this October for the willingness to employ his best reliever far earlier than most managers traditionally would ever imagine. Even though his decisions have had a significant impact on the Indians’ fortunes, the club’s veteran manager likes to downplay his role in an aw-shucks manner.
But he isn’t fooling his former boss. As the Cubs began their first World Series appearance in 71 years on Tuesday night, the team’s president of baseball operations, Theo Epstein, knew his old Boston Red Sox manager would undoubtedly have a few unconventional ideas in store.
“Tito has always been great at blending the numbers with his gut and his knowledge of the game and the same thing he’s doing now,” Epstein said. “Back when he was with the Red Sox, he always took his managerial game to another level in the postseason. He was willing to be assertive in situations where maybe he wouldn’t have over the grind of the regular season and be very decisive and very proactive.”
Francona’s progressive use of Miller has become a focal point as the situations in which managers utilize their key relievers has been a talking point among analysts for several years now. Whereas the majority of managers normally save their top relievers for last, analysts believe the best skippers don’t hesitate to use theirs in the highest-leverage of situations.
So when Francona trotted Miller out in the fifth inning of Game 1 of the American League Divisional Series on Oct. 6 only two days after Baltimore’s Buck Showalter didn’t use Cy Young candidate Zack Britton in a wild-card loss, the national conversation gained steam.
But this isn’t Francona’s first foray into making decisions based on analysis. He used to write down the splits of batters and pitchers on the back of lineup cards when he managed the Phillies from 1997 to 2000. Then he added a computer into the mix when he made decisions as the Oakland A’s bench coach in 2003, and it grew from there. Not only did he spend eight seasons with Epstein in Boston, Francona now has one of baseball’s largest analytical front offices as his disposal. That has resulted in a number of decisions the old guard might find eye-opening.
Consider that Francona used the slow-footed Carlos Santana in the leadoff spot 85 times this season even as his own front office thought the Indians might be losing too much offense. Cleveland also became the first team since the 1985 St. Louis Cardinals to lead the majors in both offensive and pitching platoon advantage.
Even though he’s unconventional, Francona’s players trust his decisions.
“He does a great job of putting us in the best situations possible,” outfielder Lonnie Chisenhall said earlier this postseason. Of Chisenhall’s 418 plate appearances, 366 (87.5 percent) came versus right-handed pitchers, against whom he has a .784 OPS. Chisenhall has a .642 OPS against left-handers.
But it’s more than just giving his players an edge that has earned Francona their trust. Miller said it's his ability to communicate the basis for decisions that helps players better understand.
“It’s all about finding a way to communicate that information in a way that players can use it,” Miller said. “I think if you throw a bunch of numbers at us that we don’t understand, it doesn’t do us any good. But when we have a manager like Tito who is almost translating that as it gets to us and he communicates well with guys ... whatever it is, he’s just a natural when it comes to that and we’re thankful we have him because he’s really good at that.”
As Epstein pointed out, Francona seems to improve his decision-making in the postseason. He doesn’t hesitate to give his starting pitcher a quick hook, nor is he afraid to use his best reliever in the fifth inning.
“Just a fantastic postseason manager and he’s done that same thing here in this postseason,” Epstein said. “We know what we’re up against.”