Bradford: One year after his introduction, it turns out Alex Cora knew what he was talking about

Rob Bradford
November 06, 2018 - 8:09 am

USA Today Sports

A year ago Tuesday. That was when we were formally introduced to Alex Cora, manager of the Boston Red Sox.

The narratives flying around that day are now somewhat hard to fathom. Is Cora too inexperienced? How will he deal with David Price? Is he too close with Dustin Pedroia? Will he be able to co-exist with Dave Dombrowski? And there was more.

Much of it all now seems silly. A world championship will do that.

But looking back at the transcript of that Fenway Park press conference what stands out is how right Cora was that day. A first-year manager always goes into their new existence promising bigger and better. That's usually how they get the job in the first place. Upon a year-long review, these words actually meant something.

Let's take a look back at what Cora said that day, and what actually happened ...

CORA: "We put a pretty good coaching staff, they relate to me, they’re gonna be an extension of me, we’re going to connect with players, be genuine and be accessible and that’s the most important thing. This year I learned that talking to players is not bad. Having a good relationship with players is not bad. Doing that, you’re going to get the best out of them. People might think that crossing that line is not helpful but I see it the other way around and I lived it. You embrace them, you tell them how good they are and when you have to twist their arm and tell them that’s not good enough, they’re going to respond to you. That’s my goal here. I want players to respond to me, respond to the city and if we do that, we’re going to be in good shape."

WHAT HAPPENED: This year I learned that talking to players is not bad." When the Red Sox players universally went out of their way to praise Cora's approach throughout the season it was this sort of thing they pointed to as being perhaps the biggest difference-maker.

CORA: "I don’t think experience is going to be an obstacle for me. I think I’m prepared.  I’m surrounded by people from top to bottom who have experience – Dave Dombrowski,  Tony La Russa,  Ron Roenicke,  the coaching staff.  These guys,  they’ve been around and they’re going to help me out.  It’s not about just me.  It’s about the staff that is around me,  the people that are going to support me.  I’m going to be fine,  and I’m going to have a blast, too. I’m  looking forward  to the challenge."

WHAT HAPPENED: There was some concern that the presence of Dombrowski, La Russa and even Roenicke might be oil and water when it came to Cora. It was a concern that percolated a bit when Dombrowski chose to deliver the first round of cuts instead of his manager. But the dynamic actually seemed solid, with Cora clearly showing an ability to relate to both the younger players and older executives while being secure enough to do it the way he ultimately wanted. La Russa's existence may have been the most eye-opening, with the Hall of Famer adding an affable air of experience to the organization.

CORA: "This team is good. That's the first thing. We're going to be alright. As a manager, I'm going to be genuine with people and we're going to do what we're supposed to do on the field. We're going to have fun doing it, too."

WHAT HAPPENED: There wasn't one team meeting to address an issue regarding how players were approaching the game. As Rick Porcello noted in September, that is far from the norm when it comes to major league teams. It suggested the right tone was set early and lasted until the final celebration.

CORA: "When they invest money in this, as coaches you have to embrace the information. And then you have to filter this information and give it to the players. At the end of the day, you know who wins games? The players."

WHAT HAPPENED: Ultimately, the information was embraced, leading to the players winning the games. The combination of analytics and talent doesn't always end up in an embrace, but this time it did.

CORA: "We're going to have a connection with them and we're going to use the information. There's going to be different formations, probably, defensively. We're going help this infield to be better. The outfield, they're amazing defensively, so we don't have to make too many adjustments, but there are going to be certain adjustments that come from upstairs that are going to make this team better."

WHAT HAPPENED: Initially the outfielders wanted no part of the cards in the hats or the new analytics, going on record to say they were going to figure it out themselves. Next thing you knew Mookie Betts was waving his card in the air, thanking the coaching staff for the positioning tip. According to BaseballSavant.com, the Red Sox shifted on 15 percent of their opponents' plate appearances, up four percent from the year before. Against left-handed hitters, the infield shifted 43 percent of the time compared to 32 percent the year before. It seemed to work.

CORA: "And the most important thing you have to do as a manager, you have to delegate. You have to trust your coaches. I saw it first-hand this year. The staff that we put in together, I’m very excited, I’m very happy that we have those guys and I’m going to delegate because I can’t do it all."

WHAT HAPPENED: Perhaps the best example of this was the dynamic between Cora and his hitting coaches (Tim Hyers, Andy Barkett) and pitching coaches (Dana LeVangie, Brian Bannister). They were clearly the ones putting specific plans in place while offering key in-game opinions at the manager's side during games.

CORA: “Too close to players, that doesn't exist."

WHAT HAPPENED: It's something this new world of baseball is coming to understand more than ever.

CORA: "Base-running is another way you can take advantage of the opposition, in an era where there's a lot of people who are quote-unquote out of position, you can put pressure on defenses. Stealing bases, I think the Red Sox over the years have done an outstanding job, is another tool, another weapon you can take advantage of it. We have a bunch of athletes here, and we're going to preach that. It should be fun. There's not going to be one way we're going to beat you but we're going to find a lot of ways to take advantage of your weaknesses and try to take advantage and win games.”

WHAT HAPPENED: The Red Sox were third in the majors in stolen bases, but more importantly second overall in stolen base percentage (in a virtual tie with the most efficient team, the Dodgers). The combination of Mookie Betts, Andrew Benintendi, Jackie Bradley Jr. and Xander Bogaerts stole successfully 78 times in their 90 attempts.

CORA: "One thing, there are certain guys here that, they’re going to get better. I expect Xander Bogaerts to be a better player. Mookie Betts, he had a great season, but I expect him (to be better). These guys are going to take a step, and when you see Xander driving the ball to left-center against Charlie Morton, I’m like, that’s him. We’re going to preach them to be aggressive. Not everybody has to take pitches. I get it. Work the count. But is it worth it to work the count now? Guys are throwing 98, 99. So, you hunt for a pitch available and you do damage with it. That’s going to help us out."

WHAT HAPPENED: The key guys -- Benintendi, Betts and Bogaerts -- all saw significant upswings when it came to their OPS from 2017 to 2018. And Jackie Bradley carried an .827 OPS in the second half. Part of that was their approach, but the presence of J.D. Martinez can't be discounted either.

CORA: "In the minor leagues they talk it over there, but in the big leagues we talk about doing damage. It's not like we're reinventing swings. We had guys who made adjustments and they use the information the right way and that's what we're trying to do. We talk about it in the interview process. If they didn't believe what I was preaching in that interview in New York, I would probably be in Houston hanging out. They trust what I'm preaching.  … I want guys to do damage. Look for pitches and do damage. One thing you obviously don't do damage on is ground balls. You're not trying to hit fly balls but you have to hit the ball in the air. How you do that is getting a pitch that is available and putting a good swing on it early in the count, or wherever in the count, and do damage with it."

WHAT HAPPENED: The Red Sox placed second in the majors in both percentage of balls classified as "barrelled" and "hard hit," while finishing first in average exit velocity.

CORA: "I want to talk with him. This is about the 2018 Red Sox and moving forward and this guy is very important for me. Whatever I can do to help him out, I'm going to be there for him. And at the same time, whatever I can do for him to be successful, I have to be there for him."

WHAT HAPPENED: Whatever Cora did in terms of relating to David Price, it worked. Not only did the Red Sox get the results they were looking for from the starter, but the manager expertly navigated a few bumps in the road when it came to the pitcher's perception.

CORA: "Obviously you've got to play good defense in the infield. We're going to make certain adjustments doing that, but you have to pay attention to detail -- where guys are at, when can you steal bases, when can you go first to third? The value of the outs are very important."

WHAT HAPPENED: This proved more of a project that Cora probably anticipated, with the Red Sox carrying over their baserunning issues from the year before throughout the early part of 2018. They did improve, but for the season the Sox finished with the eighth-most unforced errors in the majors, totaling the third-most outs when trying to take an extra base.

CORA: "Rest. Being able to clinch early and have rest. I don't know. We'll see. Like I said, this team was almost there. This is a very talented team. Throughout the year, we're going to have certain situations that, you know, hopefully, we can have a great season, be ahead and rest the guys and put this team in a position to be successful in October. That's the most important thing."

WHAT HAPPENED: The bottom line was that they had guys not stumbling to the finish line in late October. For that they can thank Cora prioritizing rest, not only in September leading into the final month but right out of the gate back in April.

One year later, it seems like Cora knew what he was talking about.

 

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