It’s interesting to gauge the national perception of a baseball team and compare it with the local perspective. While national baseball writers may not match the depth of knowledge of those covering the team locally, they may be able to offer a more neutral perspective free of the conscious and unconscious biases that come with following a team all the way through the minor minutia.
This can be especially instructive for Indians fans because, save for the sabermetric-based coverage from sites like Baseball Prospectus and Fangraphs, the Indians aren’t exactly the apple of many national sportswriters’ eye. It often has little to do with wins and losses; the national media will always gravitate towards covering certain teams (and players!) regardless of their record. But The Indians just don’t drive the mainstream national baseball conversation in ways that higher profile teams do, so it can take something drastic (or not so drastic) to happen for the team to get some publicity on the national stage.
Well, as spring training swings into action across Florida and Arizona, the Indians are starting to get some buzz in national baseball circles. The most high-profile “mainstream” source of recognition might be ESPN’s Dave Schoenfield ranking the team fourth overall in his preseason power rankings. But this is just the first in what may be many pieces with a national bent championing the Indians as the “trendy sleeper” of 2015. Even the projection systems are getting in on the act:
The national buzz surrounding the Indians is well-deserved. The team won 85 games last year and 92 the year prior. They have one of the best rotations in baseball, a Cy Young winner and MVP candidate, and a top shortstop prospect knocking on the big league door. They made a couple of quality additions to the roster in the offseason and have one of the best (and most media-friendly) managers in the game. It’s now wonder that any writer trying to make a “splash” would look to the Indians as an under-the–radar pick in 2015, and the national coverage of the Indians as a “sleeper” will only pick up the closer we get to Opening Day.
Beyond that though, it’s likely the players have high expectations for themselves this season. Combine the above information with the natural confidence a professional athlete must have to be successful and you have the recipe for a team that expects to not only earn a playoff berth but win the division outright. That in and of itself is not an issue, but combine high expectations with the natural inclination for a professional athlete to put pressure on himself to perform, and one can wonder whether Tribe player’s might begin to wilt under those heavy expectations.
In today’s sabermetrically-inclined baseball coverage environment, people can be prone to discount soft factors such as this. It’s understandable because it’s damn near impossible to measure. We don’t know how much internal pressure a player is putting on himself. We don’t know how much it deviates from the “baseline” amount of pressure he puts on himself. We don’t know if he swung through three straight letter-high fastballs because he is putting undue pressure on himself to drive in the runner on second base or if it’s simply a matter of his mechanics at the plate are out of whack.
But whatever negative impact the heightened expectations might have on the Tribe, they fortunately have a ready-made solution that sits in the dugout, wears hoodies, and chews on some ungodly combination of tobacco and Double Bubble.
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The quality of a manager can generally be broken down in two categories: the moves he makes between 7 p.m. and 10 p.m. when the game is going on and the moves he makes during the other hours. When it comes to 7-10 p.m., Terry Francona is pretty darned good, especially when compared to his counterparts in opposing dugouts. Sure he may bunt a little too much for my liking, but all told he’s about as good an in-game manager as one could hope for.
But it’s the moves Francona makes during the non-game hours that really sets him apart, and the chief quality Francona possesses is simply that his players like him. They listen to what he has to say and won’t tune him out over the course of a season. They believe in his ability to pull the right strings during a game to put them in the best position to succeed. They are confident that he’ll have their backs with the media and that he’ll be honest with them behind closed doors.
Each of those things has merit, but they ultimately culminate in one overarching idea: trust. The players trust the manager, and the manager trusts the players. As the Indians embark on a season that carries the loftiest expectations since Francona’s arrival at the corner of Carnegie and Ontario, that trust will be instrumental in keeping the team relaxed and cohesive over the course of 162 games. Whatever pitfalls expectations and pressure may throw at the Indians, they have the right man at the helm to navigate them.