THE STRIKE ZONE
Sometimes Sports, Sometimes Sportsmanship
As a lifelong New York Yankees fan, I thought I was supposed to dislike Terry Francona. He managed the rival Red Sox for a long time, including helping them break a curse that was supposed to last forever.
However, since his departure from Boston and his resurgence in Cleveland, a few things have happened over the years that have made me take a step back and realize just how good he is. And this week, he proved it a few more times.
"Tito," as he is known in reference to his father, has always been a players' manager. He sticks up for his guys; he manages by his gut more often than not; and he fights for wins as if he was still competing on the field. People in the game laud him for that along with his track record. But whereas a new age guy like Joe Maddon gets so much more attention, it's Francona who is slowly changing the game yet again, and possibly doing so just in time to get another championship ring.
Let's back up for a second and mention something he did earlier this year that garners some kudos. (Look back in this blog's archives for the full article on this specific incident.) In a game against the Houston Astros, umpire Jim Joyce missed a call that ultimately went down as one of his blatant misses. After all, this is the guy who missed the final call in a perfect game and garnered attention for it. I love Jim Joyce; I think he's a fantastic umpire who gives players and coaches the right to explain themselves before responding, and players and coaches respect him for that. He is consistently voted one of the most liked umpires in the game by the players. But he kicked this call: he missed a foul ball and called it a live ball and allowed runs to score...just go back and read the entry or look at the play so I don't have to rehash it!
In the postgame press conference, Francona went on record as stating that Joyce gives everything he's got, and he deserves as much respect as anyone, even if he missed the call. Tito waxed poetically about Jim Joyce while he was down, which is something he didn't have to do, especially since the call favored the Indians. Francona may even come off a little fake for doing so. But his comments were all about respect for Joyce, even when he misses a call.
Over the course of the final two months of the regular season and into the postseason, Francona was given an early Christmas gift: Andrew Miller. Traded from the Yankees, Miller slotted into the Cleveland bullpen like he had been there for years. He has become an unstoppable force, possibly even more so than the great Mariano Rivera because Tito is deploying Miller in so many places. Whereas most teams feared the Yankees because Rivera would come in at the end of the game, the Tribe is garnering success because the opponents don't know when Miller is coming in! Teams feel they have to score before Miller comes in, then can't score when he's in or after he's done pitching. It tightens a team to the point of stress and an inability to score runs.
In doing so, what Francona has done is started to facilitate a discussion that has been under the tablecloths for a few years now. Normally, the best relief pitcher is considered the closer in a bullpen, and he is reserved for save situations in a game (or when the team is at home and the score is tied after eight innings). With that model being the consistent factor in most bullpens, roles then get defined in a backwards manner. Pitchers who are almost as dominant will be baptized as the "7th inning guy" or the "8th inning guy" to create a formula where a three-headed monster comes in to close out a game, meaning the starting pitcher only needs to give the team 6 good innings and turn the game over with a lead to a bullpen who is supposed to not give up any more runs. Other roles are then defined from there, such as the long reliever/spot starter and the "LOOGY," or Lefty One Out GuY. However, as these roles are more defined, the stress and expectation level becomes higher, and thus, when the bullpen fails, more criticism follows.
Whether he meant to do it or not, Francona is now telling everyone that your "closer," or your best weapon out of the bullpen, can be deployed anywhere. Your best pitcher needs to come in when the game really needs to be saved, whether that's in the 6th inning or the 9th inning. Is the final inning really that stressful if nobody gets on base? It certainly isn't that stressful when the 7th inning has two guys on with nobody out and you need to hold onto a one-run lead! In those situations is now when Tito calls on Miller, and Miller has proven time and again that he is amazing at what he does.
Since most sports are copycat leagues, will we now see managers like Joe Maddon start to use closers in these situations? We almost started to see glimpses of it in the National League playoffs thus far. Dodgers manager Dave Roberts used closer Kenley Jansen in the 7th inning of Game 5 of the NLDS against the Washington Nationals and hoped to get a rare (or rare these days, as it was common a few decades ago) nine-out save, only to have to bring ace and hero Clayton Kershaw in to actually get the save. Joe Maddon brought Aroldis Chapman into the game in the 8th inning a few times this postseason, only to have him give up the lead both times.
If the analytic department of each team needs some homework over Christmas break, this is what they'll examine.
Finally, Tito discussed the injury to starting pitcher Trevor Bauer that forced him to be moved from Game 2 to Game 3 of the ALCS. Bauer lacerated his pinky on his right hand while working with his drone and required stitches, thus pushing his start back. Many people started to equate this to stupid situations that caused players to face similar consequences, such as Aaron Boone tearing his ACL in a pickup basketball game following the 2003 season, which caused the Yankees to void his contract and trade for Alex Rodriguez. Francona, on the other hand, came out differently.
When asked about this in a press conference, Tito defended Bauer, citing that "life happens." It was unfortunate and would be preferred if it didn't happen, but players cannot be stopped from being themselves. It's not like he was hurt in an alley at 3am with a beer bottle. He was working on a hobby. For that, Tito believed he shouldn't be chastised.
Should Bauer be a little more careful? Yes. After all, this is a guy who had a personality problem when he first broke into the big leagues. Controversy seems to surround him no matter what. But kudos to Terry Francona for understanding how life works. Instead of crying about it, he accepted it, made an adjustment, and is now sitting up two games to none in the ALCS.
One final thing: how in the world is Trevor Bauer's favorite Star Wars movie "The Phantom Menace?" The only way he can redeem himself from that is to tell me he religiously watched "The Clone Wars" and currently watches "Star Wars Rebels" now.