The 54-year-old had lost his job with the Boston Red Sox following the 2011 season, but after a year off in 2012, Francona got back into managing with the Indians.
Francona brought with him a vast wealth of playoff experience, including two World Series championships. The 13-year veteran manager was able to secure the trust and support of both his players and his coaching staff in Cleveland and it showed in their success in 2013.
According to Yahoosports.com, the Indians were projected to win just 74 games in the 2013 season. In spite of the preseason projections, Francona and his staff were able to lead the Indians to a 92-70 record and the franchise's first playoff appearance since 2007.
Over the course of this season, Francona was placed in several positions that could have made or broken his team. However, on three major occasions, Francona made decisions that made the Indians better.
Let's take a look at the three biggest things Francona did to make the Indians a better team in 2013, starting with the hiring of Mickey Callaway as his pitching coach.
Making Mickey Callaway Cleveland's pitching coach
Of all the moves made by Francona since his arrival in Cleveland, promoting Callaway to the big leagues was arguably his most important one.
Callaway had served as a minor league pitching coach in the Indians organization in the 2010 and 2011 seasons while serving as the organization's minor league pitching coordinator for the 2012 season, per ClevelandIndians.com.
Upon arriving in Cleveland, Francona made Callaway his pitching coach and the results were undeniably positive.
The Indians' biggest strides were in their starting rotation, which is where the discussion of Callaway's success will be focused.
The first group to pitchers to benefit from Callaway's arrival were the Indians' young starters—Zach McAllister, Corey Kluber and Danny Salazar.
The trio own an average age of 25 and only Kluber had more than 12 big league starts under his belt prior to the 2013 season. Nevertheless, they produced results we'd normally expect from multi-year veterans,
None of those three pitchers ever appeared to be overmatched by any particular moment—a tall task for any young pitcher. However, Callaway and Francona, were able to set their young starters up for success.
The second area of the Cleveland rotation where Francona's change were most evident was in the progression of the veterans, specifically Justin Masterson, Ubaldo Jimenez and Scott Kazmir.
Masterson took a huge step forward in 2013, putting together arguably his best all-around season as a big-league starter. Masterson's ERA was the second-best of his tenure as a full-time starter while his WHIP, K/9 and H/9 ratios represented career bests in that role.
Jimenez, whose struggles in Cleveland have been well documented, struggled again through his first 12 starts in 2013. Early on, the 29-year-old had a 5.03 ERA with a 1.36 WHIP while averaging 9.1 K/9, 3.1 BB/9, 2.12 K/BB and 7.9 H/9.
After gaining some comfort in both his new pitching coach and new catcher Yan Gomes, Jimenez was able to stage an incredible turnaround over his final 20 starts. During that time, Jimenez posted a 2.40 ERA, a 1.32 WHIP and ratios of 9.8 K/9, 3.8 BB/9, 2.62 K/BB and 8.1 H/9.
Jimenez allowed a slightly higher number of both walks and hits per nine innings, however, he was able to strike out significantly more hitters while lowering his WHIP and his ERA by over 1.5 runs in the process.
Kazmir is an entirely different animal. Following two straight seasons of disappointment in Anaheim—and one start in the 2011 season—the two-time All-Star nominee fell off the map and flopped out of the majors.
Kazmir rehabbed his image and re-invented himself as a pitcher during 2012 while pitching in the independent Atlantic League and the Puerto Rico Baseball League. Kazmir's hard work was rewarded in the form of a minor league contract, which he used to secure a spot in the Indians' starting rotation.
From there, Kazmir went on to be a solid fifth starter, sporting a 4.04 ERA, a 1.32 WHIP and per-nine ratios of 9.2 K/9, 2.7 BB/9, 9.2 H/9 and 1.1 HR/9.
As the season progressed, it became clear that Callaway was the biggest reason for the success of the Indians' starting rotation. The decision to hire Callaway can be traced directly to Francona.
Sticking with Nick Swisher in September
Nick Swisher struggled through much of the 2013 season. In fact, the entire 2013 season was a bit of a disappointment for him given that he earned $11 million last season.
In 145 games and 549 at-bats, Swisher managed a .246/.341/.423 slash line with 22 home runs, 27 doubles, 63 RBI, 74 runs scored and a 138-77 K/BB ratio. Those numbers represented a decline across the board for Swisher, as all three components to his triple-slash went down.
In addition to those disappointing numbers, Swisher's HR/FB ratio, XBH percent, HR percent and walk rate all declined in 2013.
Despite all of that, Francona stuck to his guns and allowed Swisher to start in all but one of Cleveland's 27 games in September. In that time, Swisher compiled a .263/.353/.515 slash line with seven home runs, four doubles, 17 RBI, 15 runs scored and a 23-15 ratio over 99 at-bats.
In just 18.6 percent of his games this season, Swisher was able to account for over 20 percent of his home runs, RBI and runs.
The 32-year-old native of Ohio was a major part of the Indians' success in September and arguably the biggest reason for the team's 21-6 record in the final month. That success led to the Indians' first postseason appearance since 2007.
Francona could have easily shifted his lineup to allow Swisher to see fewer starts in September, but by sticking with his guy, the first-year manager put the Indians in the best position to win.
Getting Yan Gomes into the lineup and behind the plate
The Indians got Yan Gomes and Mike Aviles from the Blue Jays for practically nothing. Cleveland only gave up Esmil Rogers to get both.
While Aviles served as an average backup to Asdrubal Cabrera, Lonnie Chisenhall, Jason Kipnis and the rest of the outfield on several occasions, Gomes turned out to be the true prize of the trade, grabbing nearly all of the everyday reps as the Indians starting catcher.
Gomes opened the season as a backup to Carlos Santana and started in just 41 of the team's first 107 games. In that time, Gomes proved his worth and was able to command some significant attentio with a slash line of .291/.325/.520 to go with seven home runs, nine doubles, 26 RBI, 23 runs scored and a 30-9 K/BB ratio over 148 at-bats.
Gomes was finally able to secure consistent starting opportunities behind the plate, starting 39 of the Indians' final 54 games where he compiled a .297/.364/.441 slash line with four home runs, nine doubles, 12 RBI, 22 runs scored and a 37-9 K/BB ratio in 145 at-bats.
While Gomes ability at the plate was on full display, something often overlooked is his ability to handle a pitching staff. Take a look at how the pitching staff fared when pitching to Gomes, compared to Santana.
When pitching to Gomes, Cleveland pitchers had a lower ERA, WHIP and slash line across the board. The Indians' pitching staff also allowed fewer walks and had a higher K/BB ratio.
Gomes was a savvy find for the Indians last offseason, and no one expected him to have the type of season that he did. However, it was Francona's keen eye that allowed the 25-year-old to flourish in his first full season of big league action.
All stats courtesy of Baseball-Reference.com, unless otherwise noted.
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