Saturday, September 06, 2008

Steady at the Helm: The Terry Francona Story

"Story" might be a stretch since this is going to be a short blog post but the point of my title is that Terry Francona's success at the helm of the Red Sox is worthy of much more ink than he's received to date. I'm not implying that people are dissing him but merely that he is one of the most underrated managers in baseball (and possibly all sports for that matter).

After two World Series wins and three trips to the post season (soon to be four) in his five years as manager of the Red Sox, it's hard to argue with the fact that Terry Francona is a good manager. What makes him special, however, is his ability to stay calm under pressure. By pressure, I don't just mean in the game but during the season. I'll argue that it's this ability that allowed the Sox to win the WS last year and is what will get them deep into the playoffs this year.

Unlike former Yankee manager (who as many of you know now has the pleasure of coaching "Red Sox West" aka the LA Dodgers), Francona doesn't burn out his bullpen. He doesn't panic and keep guys off the DL when they need time to heal. Francona isn't affraid to run with a rookie even when he's struggling mightily (remember how poorly MVPedroia started off last season?) or to stick with a veteran that needs to work himself out of a deep slump (hello msr. Varitek). That's not as much of a knock on Torre as it is a compliment to Francona.

One of the things that ultimately did Torre in in New York was the pressure from Steinbrenner to win at all costs. It forced him to constantly ride his best 2-3 relievers in the pen ( I remember a dozen times over the last few years where Torre brought Rivera in for 4+ out saves, mainly because the Yankees early season losses constantly put the team in must win situations starting as early as August). This ultimately lead to the Yanks exiting the playoffs early (see 20002, and then 2005-2007) because by the time they got into the playoffs, there bullpen was so worn out they didn't have the horses to win in tight games.

Francona on the other hand has taken extremet caution with players like Beckett, Papelbon, Schilling, Wakefield, Dice-K, Lowell, Youkilis, Ortiz and others during the regular season, sometimes seeming to thumb his nose at opportunities to win the division and instead settling for the Wild Card. Even this year, up until a few games ago, it appeared that the Sox were headed for the Wild Card but with Tampa Bay hitting the wall and Boston getting back some of their studs (Beckett, Lowell, Youkilis and soon, Drew), a win tonight against Texas would put the Sox just 1 1/2 games back in the division with six left against the Rays.

Now I must also give credit where credit is due to Theo Epstein who has not only completely restocked the Sox farm system (4th best in the majors) but made the tough decisions like trading Nomar in 2004, not emptying the bank for Johan Santana and ultimately pulling the trigger on the Manny for Bay trade at the trading deadline this year (a deal that apparently has worked out well for both teams with the Sox a near lock for the playoffs and the Dodgers with a 1/2 game lead in the West). It doesn't hurt to have owners with deep pockets but the Yankees, Cubs and Dodgers have equally deep pockets and look how they've faired up until this year.

What do you think? Is Terry the man? Or is he just lucky?


Jim said...

Good post. IMHO, what makes Francona special is his ability to "be one of the guys" while maintaining his role of the manager of the team. He's clearly a "player's manager," yet he's not afraid to make the tough call (how many times have you seen him face an irate pitcher on the mound?).

While I agree he's cool under pressure, he's not much of a poker face. The rocking in the dugout is stuff of legend and the tick just gets worse as the heat's dialed up.


Warren said...

I wasn't much of a fan when he was first hired. His performance with the Phillies was mediocre and it seemed like they were allowing Schilling to hire the manager which really bugged me. However, Francona has certainly proven his value and will most definitely go down as the best Sox manager in history.

Johnny Rooster said...

Francona is the man. As pointed out by Warren, there wasn't much excitement at his hiring (much like his cohort Belichick). But you can't argue with 2 WS. One WS may be a fluke, but 2, especially in Boston, is truly impressive.

Adawg said...

Gents - great conversation. I too was lukewarm when the Sox hired Francona. Felt the same with Belichick (and Doc Rivers). Now all three have rings!

Andy said...

Francona is a loyalist. He'll go to bat for his players. And, it seems like he strikes a nice balance between honest communication and selective avoidance (e.g. the Manny issues). He has done a tremendous job in my opinion. It's all about the results and he has shown Boston the money.

The management team also seems to have some heavy influence.
Remember the Theo interview post-Buchholz's no-hitter? He made it pretty clear that Francona was ordered from above to pull Clay after a certain pitch count.