Column: Boston turns to Alex Cora to steer shaky ship

Houston Astros bench coach Alex Cora watches batting practice during media day for baseball's World Series against the Los Angeles Dodgers Monday, Oct. 23, 2017, in Los Angeles. (AP Photo/David J. Phillip)

On Sunday, the Boston Red Sox officially hired Alex Cora to be their new manager for the next three seasons, plus a club option for 2021. Cora, who enjoyed an 11-year playing career that included a four-year stint with the Red Sox, spent the 2017 season as A.J. Hinch’s bench coach for the Houston Astros.

Cora replaces the recently fired John Farrell as Boston’s skipper. Despite his team success in Boston, there were many issues with Farrell that made his termination a near certainty, including issues with the media, clubhouse, and front office. The Red Sox hope that Alex Cora will alleviate these rifts with his positive clubhouse presence and analytical background.

The bad optics surrounding Farrell’s Red Sox club made his firing all but inevitable. There was an embarrassing beanball war between Boston and Baltimore during the season’s first two months. The length of the controversy was out of control, and things didn’t get better when Dustin Pedroia openly admitted that it was conceived by the pitching staff.

In June, there were two media incidents involving David Price. After one game, he yelled at a reporter; after another, he yelled at team broadcaster (and Hall of Famer) Dennis Eckersley for negative coverage. Later in the year, there was a controversy involving the Red Sox being caught using Apple Watches to steal signs; the Red Sox were punished, but Farrell insisted he had no knowledge of the operation.

Admittedly, it’s unfair to pin the blame of these issues on the manager, but Red Sox general manager Dave Dombrowski used the ammunition he had to fire the manager of a successful team. The greatest sin Farrell committed in a Red Sox uniform was that he was not hired by Dave Dombrowski. After being hired to replace Ben Cherington as the head of the front office in 2015, Dombrowski did not install his own manager, which made Farrell a bit of a misfit.

There have been rumors that Dombrowski (the only GM to travel on the road to watch his team) openly criticized Farrell in the clubhouse after games to the point of shouting matches. If this is true, then there is no mystery behind Dombrowski’s mysterious remark after firing Farrell.

“Farrell was fired for reasons he won't disclose and that no level of team success would have prevented that,” Dombrowski said.

That line of reasoning suggests there may have been even more turmoil below the surface, turmoil we will never know about.

As for Alex Cora, Dombrowski finally has his man, and he has the potential to be the solution Boston needs. He has experience with the Boston media, having played for the Red Sox from 2005-2008. Additionally, all signs suggest that Cora is an incredible leader in the clubhouse. Astros outfielder Carlos Beltran agrees. 

“Alex brings a lot to the table. He’s a guy that always is looking for information that he could use against the opposite team [and] he provides that information to the players," Beltran said. "He has good communication with the guys, he respects the guys. He’s always in the clubhouse getting to know the players, getting to know which buttons he could push on each player to make them go out there and play the game hard.

Sometimes managers draw a very defined line between players and the manager. Sometimes they get caught up not going to the clubhouse because they don’t want to feel like they’re invading their space. But as a player, I love when managers come to the clubhouse, sit down, talk to us, get to know us, ask about our family, about everything. That, for me, means a lot. Alex does that real well.”

The greatest market inefficiency in baseball is communication, and Cora brings that to the table. Every team has the resources to formulate a formidable analytics department, but getting that information from the computers to the players is a difficult task. The front office needs the coaching staff to buy into the numbers because it is their sole job to get the players to buy into them in turn. Alex Cora is praised as both an analytical mind and great communicator by Carlos Beltran. Beltran’s opinion is important because he’s been around the game for a long time, right through the beginning of the sabermetric era. He knows what works and what doesn’t. Cora, coming from the analytical Astros organization, will have every opportunity to use Boston’s resources to make his on-field team more efficient.

If there is one thing the Red Sox need on the field, it’s a new way of deploying their pitchers. Chris Sale, David Price, and Drew Pomeranz all need to be rested in October if the Red Sox want to be competitive in the playoffs. Consider the progression of Chris Sale’s Fielding Independent Pitching (FIP, a statistic that encapsulates the overall quality of a pitcher) throughout the season:

(Screenshot via Fan Graphs)

Chris Sale was incredible, and he is absolutely deserving of the Cy Young award if he wins it, but his FIP worsened as the season went on. Sale accumulated an MLB best 5.3 fWAR in the first half, but his 2.4 mark in the second half was only seventh best (and equal to Charlie Morton, for reference). Drew Pomeranz suffers from similar second half woes. Despite a successful season as a whole, his fastball velocity dropped throughout the year; his last few starts showed that he had simply run out of gas:

(Screenshot courtesy of Fan Graphs)

The Red Sox need Drew Pomeranz to be in prime form if they want him to quiet the Astros’, Indians’ and Yankees’ lineups in October. He has a lengthy injury history and even experienced arm fatigue at the tail end of the 2016 season. The only way to keep Pomeranz fresh in October is conserving him throughout the season. $217 million dollar man David Price, who has thrown 1600 innings since 2010, also needs to be conserved. Consider that no team in baseball asked their starting pitchers to throw more pitches than the Red Sox (16112 pitches, an average of 100 pitches per start).

If Alex Cora can bring some of the Astros’ practices to Boston, then it could go a long way to keeping their best starters healthy for October. That means shorter outings for Pomeranz, early pulls for Sale if the Red Sox have a big lead and even the use of tandem starts akin to the Morton-McCullers combination Houston used to knock the Yankees out of the ALCS.

The Red Sox are asking a lot out of their new manager, but he is taking the reins of a supremely talented team with many contributors under contract or team control for the next few seasons. Dave Dombrowski gets “his guy,” the players get an involved and analytically minded manager, and the team gets a new chance for stability. To compete with the other American League heavyweights, they’ll need it.


Matthew Mocarsky is a campus correspondent for The Daily Campus. He can be reached via email at matthew.mocarsky@uconn.edu.