Tuesday, September 24, 2019 Elyria 54°

Jim Ingraham

Commentary: Terry Francona continues to work his magic, as Indians defy odds to climb back into contention

  • Indians-Tigers-Baseball-48

    Indians manager Terry Francona, middle, watches with third base coach Mike Sarbaugh, left, and bench coach Brad Mills against the Tigers during a game in June.



If the playoffs had started Wednesday, the Indians would have been in them as the second wild-card team, with a better record than, among others, the defending world champion Red Sox.

The Indians went into play Wednesday seven games behind the AL Central-leading Twins. That’s the closest the Indians had been to first place since May 22.

In June, nobody in the American League had a better record than the Indians, who were 17-9 (.654), tying them with the Yankees for the best record in the league.

The Indians went into Wednesday’s game with a record of 46-38 (.548). If they were in the National League Central Division, they’d have been in first place, a game ahead of Milwaukee.

How can this be? Seemingly, it can’t.

Because for most of the season the Indians have been without the top four starters in what would have been the best rotation in the majors. Corey Kluber has missed most of the first half of the season with an injury. Carlos Carrasco has missed most of the first half of the season with an illness. Mike Clevinger missed most of the first half of the season with injuries.

Trevor Bauer hasn’t missed a start, but he also hasn’t had many pretty ones. For most of the first half he has not been vintage Trevor Bauer. He’s gone from being a near-Cy Young Award winner last year to a pitcher this year who leads the league in hit batters and has given up, in half a season, twice as many homers as he gave up all of last year.

Bauer has gone from a pitcher last year who went virtually the entire season without a bad start to one this year who went eight starts, and nearly six weeks (May 6 to June 11), without winning a game.

The Indians’ best position player the last two years has been their worst position player this year. Jose Ramirez has gone from finishing third in the MVP voting in consecutive years … to Bill Selby. From fourth in the league in RBIs last year (105) to 85th this year (31). From fourth in home runs last year (39) to 127th this year (five).

The Indians’ lineup has been so punchless that second baseman Jason Kipnis, who in his first eight years in the majors batted fourth just 19 times, hit fourth 18 times in the first three months of this season.

The Indians, who were recently outscored 26-0 in consecutive games by an Orioles team on pace to lose 116 games, rank 16th in the majors with a paltry run differential of plus-4. The Cincinnati Reds, who are in last place in the NL Central, have a run differential of plus-38.

Baseball-Reference has a stat called Pythagorean winning percentage. It’s an estimate of what a team’s record should be, based on its run differential. It’s designed to show if a team has been lucky or unlucky.

The Indians’ true record going into Wednesday was 46-38. But their Pythagorean record was 42-42, meaning the Indians have gotten a bit lucky having the record they do with so meager a run differential.

Yet despite all of the above, the Indians are in second place in the AL Central and, in the last month, cut 4½ games off the Twins’ lead.

What’s wrong with this picture, right?

Here’s what’s right with this picture: Terry Francona.

In his nearly two decades as a major league manager he’s won two World Series, three American League pennants, four division titles, and his teams have reached the postseason in nine of 18 years.

This is his 19th year as a big league manager, and this might be, given all the above, his best one yet.

Whether the Indians go on to win the World Series, win the pennant, win their division, claim one of the wild-card spots or, more likely, none of the above, what Francona has achieved with this team in the first half of the 2019 season is jaw-dropping.

Baseball doesn’t normally work like this. When most of your key players are either hurt or having awful seasons, you shouldn’t have the best record in the league in June, you shouldn’t be in second place in your division, and you shouldn’t have a better record than the defending world champions.

Unless …

Unless you have the best manager in the league. If the Tito fits, ride him. That’s what the Indians have done in the first half of this season. They are milking The Tito Factor for all it’s worth — and it’s working.

The Franconamen are Franconaing their little hearts out.

The Indians have three players on the American League All-Star team, but their MVP in the first half is their manager.

Contact Jim Ingraham at (440) 329-7135 or jingraham4@gmail.com. Follow him @Jim_Ingraham on Twitter.

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