Nick Swisher, one of several key offseason additions, has a career-best .875 OPS entering the weekend series in Boston. (Jason Miller/Getty Images)
On Thursday night, Terry Francona will do something that he hasn't done since the end of the 2011 season: manage in Fenway Park. The most successful manager in Red Sox history returns as the pilot of the Indians, who after four straight years of sub-.500 finishes — three of them with at least 93 losses, including last year — are running first in the AL Central, one-half game ahead of the heavily favored Tigers. Even having dropped their last two game in Detroit, the Indians have the AL's best record in May at 15-6; prior to the series against the Tigers, they had won 18 of 22.
Francona spent eight years at the helm of the Red Sox from 2004-2011, guiding the team to five playoff appearances and two world championships (2004 and 2007), the first of which marked the team's first title in 86 years. His 1,296 games managed and 744 wins are second in franchise history, and his 192 games over .500 rank first. His .574 winning percentage is second among managers who spent more than three full seasons with the team (of which there have been just 11 in their 113-season history) and just one point behind — wait for it — Don Zimmer.
Francona's accomplishments in Boston go beyond than just the numbers, though. A previously unsuccessful skipper hired by the John Henry/Larry Lucchino/Theo Epstien regime in the wake of the team's crushing loss to the Yankees in a seven-game American League Championship Series in 2003, he meshed well with a front office that somewhat radically combined a sabermetric bent with financial might. As rival Joe Torre had done in New York, he projected an almost superhuman composure from within the most severe storms, starting with the team's historically unprecedented comeback from a 3-0 deficit in the 2004 ALCS against the Yankees. The ensuing championship, which chased away ghosts from Babe Ruth to Bill Buckner to Grady Little, bought him more leeway than any Sox manager had enjoyed in generations. That enabled him to survive and his team to thrive amid Boston's fishbowl environment, at least until back-to-back playoff misses, the latter of which was the gruesome collapse in 2011, cost him the last of his managerial capital.
Francona spent a year in the ESPN broadcast booth before taking over the Indians from the fired Manny Acta. He has far less in the way of financial resources in Cleveland than he had in Boston, though as in his previous job, the front office does have a decidedly sabermetric bent, having hired Baseball Prospectus data guru Keith Woolner back in 2007 and several others from the analytical community since. Francona inherited a roster that had solid core of young up-the-middle players — Carlos Santana, Jason Kipnis, Asdrubal Cabrera and Michael Brantley — but was otherwise in need of an overhaul. The lineup lacked power, ranking third-to-last in the AL in home runs and second-to-last in slugging percentage and runs scored, the pitching staff didn't miss enough bats -- ranking last in runs allowed and second-to-last in strikeout rate -- while the defense behind that staff was porous, yielding the third-worst defensive efficiency rate in the league.
Thanks to the work of general manager Chris Antonetti, those areas were addressed this winter via significant spending on the free agent market as well as some astute bargain-bin pickups. Despite their relative lack of financial muscle, the Indians were the only team to sign more than one free agent to a long-term contract worth at least $40 million, adding Nick Swisher (four years, $56 million) and Michael Bourn (four years, $48 million) at significant discounts relative to their pie-in-the-sky dreams of $100 million contracts each. On the other hand, Mark Reynolds (one year, $6 million) and Ryan Raburn (one year, $1 million) came from the ranks of players nontendered last December.
Combined with strong showings from Santana (.296/.405/.556), Kipnis (.248/.312/.471) and Brantley (.309/.363/.394) those newcomers have helped rejuvenate the offense, which ranks second in the league in scoring (5.02 runs per game) and first in slugging percentage (.457) and homers (62). Reynolds ranks fourth in the league in homers (12, to go with a .248/.333/.529 line), Swisher (.274/.382/.493) has offered his usual combination of patience and pop, Raburn (.297/.354/.527) has been potent in part-time duty and Bourn (.308/.357/.451) has been a fine table-setter despite missing three weeks due to a finger laceration.
With Francona enjoying the presence of switch-hitters Santana, Cabrera and Swisher and taking advantage of the positional flexibility of both the latter (outfield and first base) and Reynolds (first base and third base), Indians hitters have enjoyed the platoon advantage a league-high 69 percent of the time (the average is 57 percent). That's not always a recipe for success — under Acta, they led the league in the previous two seasons as well — but in this case, the team's lefties have teed off on righty pitching at a .289/.362/.534 clip while accounting for a league-high 25 percent of Cleveland's total plate appearances.
On the side of run prevention, the Indians' 4.38 runs allowed per game ranks a middle-of-the-pack eighth, though still a vast improvement on last year's 5.22. With Bourn, Brantley and offseason acquisition Drew Stubbs, the team has three players capable of playing centerfield; Francona has deployed that exact unit only 13 times in 45 games thanks to injuries and lineup shuffling, but it certainly hasn't hurt the defense, and neither has the staff's spiking strikeout rate of 8.6 per nine, which ranks third in the league.
The rotation has often seemed like an all-or-nothing proposition, with Justin Masterson and Zach McAllister both consistently effective, but Ubaldo Jimenez, Corey Kluber and back-from-oblivion Scott Kazmir combining good days with awful ones; as a whole, the unit's 4.51 ERA and 51 percent quality start rate are both mediocre but still an improvement on last year. The bullpen ranks sixth in the league in ERA (3.35) but eighth in rate of inherited runners scoring (31 percent), and closer Chris Perez has been homer-prone, yielding four in 16 innings. The recent return of top setup man Vinnie Pestano from a bout of inflammation will only strengthen that unit.
After a disastrous season under Bobby Valentine, the Red Sox have fared quite well themselves. They are 28-19, just a half-game back in the AL East and boast the league's third-best record and run differential (+38) under John Farrell, Francona's former pitching coach in Boston and a man who has Cleveland connections as a player and executive.