, Terry Francona Is The Cleveland Indians’ MVP, The Nzuchi News Forbes

Terry Francona Is The Cleveland Indians’ MVP

, Terry Francona Is The Cleveland Indians’ MVP, The Nzuchi News Forbes

If you’re a fan of “this makes no sense at all” stories in professional sports, this story is for you.

If you’re a fan of managerial legerdemain, Terry Francona is for you.

If you’re looking for the most under-appreciated performance by a major league team so far in the 2021 major league season, the Cleveland Indians are definitely for you.

Where do you want to start?

How about here: According to spotrac.com, the Indians have the lowest payroll in the major leagues at just over $53 million. That’s $197 million less the Dodgers and $148 million below the Yankees.

The Indians don’t even have a starting rotation. None. Due to injuries and poor performance, the Indians only have one true starting pitcher, Aaron Civale, who leads the major leagues in wins, with a record of 10-2.

The other four spots in Cleveland’s rotation are, on a daily basis, to be determined. Cleveland is Team TBD.

Francona and pitching coach Carl Willis literally don’t know who the Indians starting pitcher will be on any given tomorrow, until the game today is concluded.

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That’s right, they’re making it up as they go along because they have no choice. They have no choice because they have no other proven starting pitchers, except for Civale. All the others are either relievers, failed starters, wannabe starters, auditioning starters, auditioning relievers, or some combination therein.

Somehow, Francona is making it work.

One of the most amazing stats – if it is a stat – is that despite having no starting rotation, and a bullpen cattle call that changes from game to game, Francona has yet to use a single position player as a pitcher.

Cleveland has used 19 pitchers so far, and 10 of them have started games. In 12 of Cleveland’s 69 games, the Indians’ starting pitcher was a pitcher who prior to this year had never started a big-league game.

Offensively, their catchers are hitting.172, first basemen .175, second basemen .207, and center fielders .212. Indians’ hitters rank 13th in the American League in batting average and on-base percentage, and 14th in OPS+.

, Terry Francona Is The Cleveland Indians’ MVP, The Nzuchi News Forbes

Oh yeah, and earlier this season they were no-hit twice in less than three weeks. And their cleanup hitter, Franmil Reyes, who leads the team in slugging and OPS and is second in home runs, hasn’t played in a game in over a month due to a strained oblique.

All in all, it is, seemingly, the ugly profile of a bad baseball team.

But then there’s also this:

At the start of play Monday, the Cleveland Indians had a run differential of +3. The Chicago White Sox had a run differential of +88.

But in the AL Central, second-place Cleveland was only one game in the loss column behind first-place Chicago, whose $131 million payroll is $78 million more than Cleveland’s.

How can a team that on paper looks so bad be putting the pressure on a first-place team that on paper, and the ballfield, looks so good?

Two words: Terry Francona.

This is one of the great examples of an elite manager holding together a leaky ship, when all available evidence suggests it should be sitting at the bottom of the sea.

Some people are simply born to be certain things, and 62-year-old Terry Jon Francona was born to be a major league manager. The first sign of that came in 2004, when, in his first year on the job in Boston, he managed the Red Sox to their first World Series championship in 86 years. Three years later he took the Sox back to the World Series, and won it again.

Then he moved on to Cleveland, where he inherited a 94-loss team from 2012 and took it to the postseason in 2013. In 2016 he responded to an injury-riddled Indians starting rotation by reinventing the art of bullpen usage in leading the Indians to Game 7 of the World Series. His 2017 Indians team won 102 games, including an American League-record 22-game winning streak.

Francona has taken Cleveland to the postseason in five of his eight years as manager of the Indians, and he’s 17 wins away from his 729th win in Cleveland, which would move him past Mike Hargrove (721) and Lou Boudreau (728) as the manager with the most wins in franchise history.

But the 2021 season, whether the Indians reach the postseason or not, is arguably Francona’s best managing job yet. He’s somehow not just keeping an injury-riddled, no-starting-rotation, bottom-of-the-payroll-barrel team afloat, but the Indians, with a record of 39-30 – even though they’ve outscored their opponents by just three runs – are putting the pressure on the first place White Sox.

In baseball, managers still matter.

Exhibit A: the Cleveland Indians.

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