The postseason hasn’t gone Terry Francona’s way for the last two years. To say the least.
After blowing a 3-1 series lead in the 2016 World Series against the Cubs, the Indians officially took over the longest championship drought in MLB, which now stands at 70 years. They followed that up with yet another disappointing finish—a 2-0 blown series lead in the American League Division Series against the Yankees in 2017.
The early exits for the back-to-back AL Central champs haven’t been sitting well with the Indians’ manager.
“Last year it was hard for me to talk to the guys,” Francona told Jayson Stark in the latest episode of Stadium’s Baseball Stories. “I was so disappointed that it was really tough for me. And I told them that this spring.
“I said, ‘from the last out against the Yankees to now, I’ve been trying to figure out how to talk to you guys this spring because I was so broken up and it took me so long to try to process it because it hurt so bad.’”
Despite promising teams and regular-season domination, Francona has continued to fall short of his third World Series win.
And he isn’t exactly used to losing.
In 18 seasons as a manager, Francona has compiled a .539 win percentage, two World Series wins with the Red Sox and an AL pennant with the Indians. His win percentage would be closer to .600 save four dismal years with the Phillies from 1997-2000 to start his managerial career. Following his stint in Philly, Francona has won at least 90 games in nine of 13 seasons and has made eight postseason appearances, in which he has a record of 40-26.
But after the last two postseason performances, it feels like Francona’s chances of winning another World Series title are slipping away.
Here’s the good news for Francona: The 2017 Indians, who were brimming with potential, returned almost completely intact this season. The main changes include losing first baseman Carlos Santana, relief pitcher Bryan Shaw and outfielder Jay Bruce, while adding first baseman Yonder Alonso.
Last year’s team may best be known for stringing together a 22-game win streak, which is second only to the 1916 New York Giants’ 26 straight wins. The streak, which ended in early September, also made the Indians just the third team in MLB history to compile 14-game winning streaks in back-to-back seasons.
While their bats aren’t exactly hot so far this year (the team is hitting .218 combined), the pitching certainly is on pace with their output from last season.
Bolstered by two-time Cy Young winner Corey Kluber, the rotation includes right-handed pitchers Carlos Carrasco, Trevor Bauer, Mike Clevinger and Josh Tomlin. Danny Salazar, the other cog in the Tribe’s starting rotation last year, hasn’t started this year due to injury. Cody Allen, who had 30 saves last year, and Andrew Miller, who tallied 95 strikeouts with a 0.830 WHIP, returned for the back end of the bullpen.
Last year’s rotation was one of the most notable in MLB history, with a league-best 3.30 team ERA and record-setting 10.1 strikeouts per nine innings.
According to FanGraphs, the Indians’ 33.6 WAR as a pitching staff was about seven wins better than the next-best staff, and was also better than any other team in MLB history. Better by more than two wins, in fact.
In addition to having five pitchers win at least 10 games, they became the first team in MLB history to have three pitchers with 17 or more wins and 190 strikeouts.
This year’s staff has looked at least on par, if not better, than last year’s.
The Indians currently have a team ERA of 2.83 with a 1.008 WHIP, which leads the league and is extremely close to the coveted 1.000 mark—no team has ever posted a WHIP of less than 1.000 over an entire season. They’re also averaging almost seven innings per start, which is well above the league-average 5 1/3 innings.
But here’s the bad news for Francona: The best pitching staffs and regular season records don’t always translate to a World Series title.
Since the start of the Wild Card era in 1995, only five of the 28 teams with the top record at the end of the season wound up winning the World Series: The 1998 and 2009 Yankees (114-48 and 103-59, respectively), the 2007 and 2013 Red Sox (96-66 and 97-65, respectively), and the 2016 Cubs (103-58).
The Indians franchise doesn’t have a great track record in the postseason after dominating in the regular season, even before Francona arrived. Of the six times since 1901 that they’ve had the best record in the league, the only one that resulted in a World Series title was in 1948, the last time Cleveland won.
The 1954 roster, highlighted by four Hall of Fame pitchers (Early Wynn, Bob Lemon, Bob Feller and Hal Newhouser) and Hall of Fame slugger Larry Doby, went 111-43. Their postseason result? Swept in the World Series by the New York Giants.
In 1995, the Tribe managed to lead the league yet again with 100 wins in a strike-shortened, 144-game season. Albert Bell bolstered that roster with a 50-homer, 126-RBI season, but the team still came up short in the postseason, falling to the 90-win Braves in six games in the World Series.
Not to mention the blown Jose Mesa save in Game 7 of the 1997 World Series against the Marlins.
But that’s the past, and Francona and his talented roster have plenty going for them this year. With a three-game lead over the Tigers in the AL Central out of the gate, they’re a near-lock to win the division again. But in baseball, you can be the best, yet never touch the coveted Commissioner’s Trophy.
Francona has hoisted that trophy twice. Will he ever do it again?