Terry Francona has often described his managerial style by saying he wants to put players in the best position possible to succeed.
Which sounds pretty esoteric.
It wouldn’t seem smart to put guys in spots to fail (though it does happen).
But spend a few days with Francona in Goodyear and instances arise that demonstrate what the Indians new manager means. The examples relate to individuals and to the team as a whole, and should be taken in the context that Francona said he always wants to have a reason for what he does.
Consider his thoughts on third baseman Lonnie Chisenhall, a 24-year-old former first-round draft pick. Chisenhall should be a promising player given where he is in his development and his draft status. This season, he gets a full chance to play third.
Last season, he started in AAA because the Indians wanted Jack Hannahan to play third. Chisenhall makes errors, but he also gets to balls. And in limited time last season he had a .741 OPS, with the league average for third basemen .740.
In the two seasons he’s been in the majors, he hit .271 against right-handed pitchers, .227 against lefties. He’s also struck out 76 times and walked 16. Those two areas of concern might have the Indians using Mike Aviles or Mark Reynolds against some of the more difficult left-handers they face.
But it shouldn’t mean Chisenhall shouldn’t be given a full opportunity.
One of Francona’s beliefs is to utilize the strengths of a player instead of harping on his weakness. He looks at Chisenhall and sees a guy who takes his swings and makes contact.
“Lonnie’s not going to probably be a high on-base guy for us because he’s so aggressive and he’s got such good eye-hand coordination, what he swings at he hits,” Francona said.
The solution to take advantage of those strengths?
“If we can just get him to swing at good pitches, he’s going to be just fine,” Francona said.
Taking advantage of strengths also applies to Mark Reynolds, a guy who hits home runs but strikes out a lot (and oddly enough gets on base pretty well). Francona doesn’t shrug at the strikeouts, but he accepts them because he knows Reynolds’ power can change a game.
Think about the last couple seasons. The Indians simply did not have a guy who could make a 4-1 game into 4-4 or 4-3 with one swing.
Francona reached out to Reynolds in the offseason. He wanted him. The manager’s approach with the power/swing-and-a-miss combination?
“Turn him loose,” Francona said.
An example of Francona’s strategy for the aggregate took place early in a game against Arizona. Michael Brantley stepped to the plate with two on, and took three balls.
He put the next pitch in the stands in right-center.
That Brantley hit the home run was impressive. Francona smiled after the game and said “That’s the way to swing at a 3-0 pitch.”
What seems just as significant was that Brantley was given the OK to swing. A lot of managers put the take sign on, trying to get guys on base. Not Francona.
“I love when you got men on base and you got a good fastball hitter hitting,” he said. “The idea is to put guys into position where they can do some damage.”
It’s not like it happens often.
The last two seasons, the Indians did not have a single hit when the count was 3-0. Players had 240 plate appearances, and walked 232 times — a hint of the strategy. The last time the Indians hit a home run on a 3-0 count was Aug. 24, 2009, when Travis Hafner drove in the first three runs of a 10-6 win.
One might say those three runs propelled the Indians to the win.
One might also say more than three seasons is a long time to go without a big hit in a hitter’s count.
“I’ve never understood why so many people just automatically take,” Francona said. “If you’re a smart enough hitter and you’re just able to say to yourself, ‘OK, I’m going to get a certain pitch in a certain spot, I’ll take a free swing.’
“A lot of times when a guys swings three-oh and fouls the ball back, because they took a good healthy swing they feel better about the next swing. I think it’s great. I think it breeds confidence.”
Situations could affect the strategy. But if the situation is right for it, 3-0 is a go to Francona.
“I just think that too often you take the best hitter’s count that could possibly be, and you take the bat out of the hitter’s hands,” he said.