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If the Cards Hired Terry Francona Instead of Mike Matheny, Would Things Be Different?

When future Hall of Fame manager Tony La Russa retired after the 2011 season, the Cardinals had a chance to replace him with another future Hall of Fame manager.

Terry Francona, who had won two World Series as the manager of the Boston Red Sox.

The Cardinals hired Mike Matheny instead. He’d never managed before on any level. But team chairman Bill DeWitt Jr. and general manager John Mozeliak were impressed with Matheny’s natural leadership skills and longterm potential to develop into an outstanding manager.

Francona took 2012 off, and was hired by the Cleveland Indians before the 2013 season.

In fairness to DeWitt and Mozeliak, Francona had just parted ways with Red Sox management, and the split was emotional and nasty. He was also going through a divorce in his personal life. Francona may have been burned out. He may have needed a year away from managing to decompress and rejuvenate. That’s one view, but Francona has said he was ready to manage in 2012.

It makes you wonder …  what if?

I only bring this up for two reasons:

1. Earlier this week, Mozeliak announced the firing of pitching coach Derek Lilliquist and made it clear that it was important for the Cardinals to bring in a pitching coach who understood the value of advanced metrics as a tactical tool. A coach who would enthusiastically utilize the information handed to him by the Cardinals’ astute analytics department. And speaking on my radio show, DeWitt said his organization wanted to hire a pitching coach to help Matheny navigate his way through the baseball-metric world. Matheny, DeWitt insists Matheny has a positive attitude about incorporating the data supplied by the analytics staff.  And that’s good to know. But by making this move, Cardinals’ ownership-management signaled that the dugout, including the manager, had to be more receptive and fluent in sabermetrics.

2. I came upon a Washington Post profile of Francona. It was a great piece written by Dave Sheinin. And something jumped out at me: Francona already is educated and well versed on advanced metrics, and that process began a long time ago. Among managers, Francona was way ahead of the curve in discovering the benefits to be found in baseball’s new frontier.

If I may translate …

— DeWitt is a strong proponent of advanced metrics and proved that by reorganizing his baseball front office in the early aughts … hiring an analytics department … bringing in Jeff Luhnow to implement a new system with an emphasis on using advanced methods for valuing talent.

— It makes sense for DeWitt to employ a manager who is comfortable, or even knowledgeable, with the owner’s guiding philosophy and determination to find an edge on the competition. What would be the point of having  a manager who is ambivalent (or worse) about DeWitt’s strategy?

— Matheny may be moving closer to fully embracing these concepts. Again, that would be positive for Matheny’s growth. And would make him more effective in the dugout. And that can only be good for his team’s winning percentage.

— But it’s also true that DeWitt and the front office could have hired an advanced-metrics enthusiast and practitioner as their manager before the 2012 season.

— If Matheny is trying to catch up in this vital area, that’s fine. But by hiring Francona, the Cardinals would have given themselves a significant head start … a six-year head start.

Francona was the star of the MLB 2016 postseason. His Cleveland starting rotation was chewed up by injuries. He was low on starters. He couldn’t just play it straight, like a normal regular-season game where managers count on starters giving the team six or seven innings.

Francona went as far as he could with the deteriorating rotation, finessing as many innings as possible. But that couldn’t last. So Francona was aggressive about limiting a tired starter’s exposure and fast-forwarding his best relievers into the game to cover multiple innings.  In multiple Cleveland postseason wins, Francona managed with admirable urgency by summoning lefty Andrew Miller or righthander Cody Allen much sooner than usual to protect a slim Indians’ lead. Or to keep a slight deficit from expanding.

Francona’s tactics were an example of something analytics people have been shouting about for many years: if a team is facing a critical, pivotal high-leverage situation that should be handled by the best pitcher or pitchers you have in the bullpen … then get your best reliever into the game. Do not wait, or it could be too late.  Don’t go with some mediocre reliever in the early or middle innings because you want to save your top reliever (or two) for a late-game scenario that may not materialize.

Though the Indians eventually lost to the Cubs in a tense and thrilling World Series Game 7, it was a miracle for the Francona’s team to get that far. His bold, creative maneuvering shattered the ancient paradigm and displayed an innovative way of thinking. Cleveland survived in October by winning game after game because of a manager did not flinch when it was time to defy baseball’s standard customs for bullpen deployment.

Matheny has struggled with this since his first day on the job. Staying with starters too long. Failing to manage with the necessary urgency by going to his relievers early. Thinking outside the box.

Perhaps the new pitching coach will help Matheny show the way … the new way.

Last fall, Francona instantly became a baseball hero of analytics departments everywhere. But thing is, this wasn’t an epiphany for Francona. After all, his .629 postseason winning percentage ranks 2nd in MLB history behind Joe McCarthy.

And Francona has been in alignment with the analytics crew since becoming Boston’s manager in 2004. It’s one of the primary reasons Cleveland recruited Francona in 2013. The Indians rank among the most advanced, data-driven operations and Francona was the ideal fit.

Just as Francona would have been a good fit for the Cardinals back in the late fall of 2011.

“He’s an extremely open-minded person,” Indians GM Mike Chernoff told the Washington Post. “He doesn’t just accept information; he embraces it. And he’s always been a relationship builder. That’s what allows him to learn and adapt.

“He welcomes the analytics guy who has just discovered something in the numbers into his office just as quickly as he welcomes the old-school scout who has something to tell him. He prepares for games better than anyone. He crushes information. He then manages off his experience and his preparation. That’s the gold standard for a manager.”

With Francona, the Indians have the best of both worlds. He’s a true leader. His communications skills are unmatched. He uses humor and self-deprecation and an Ordinary Joe persona to avoid coming off as haughty or too serious. But he’s also studying data and listening carefully to suggestions made by analytics staffers.

Francona’s players adore him because he’s so much fun to play for.

The analytics specialists adore Francona because he takes their work seriously.

That’s a special manager.

What if …

Thanks for reading and have a great weekend.

–Bernie