Postseason Managerial Report Card: Alex Cora

For the first two installments of this feature, I graded the postseason performance of two managers per article. This time, I’m sure you were expecting the same: the losing managers for the ALCS and NLCS lined up for some random internet writer to opine on their faults. That’s still basically the idea here, but I’ll be honest: I didn’t feel like fitting a chance to enumerate Dave Roberts’ strange decision-making into only half an article. That main course is still to come; for now, you’ll just have to settle for an accounting of Alex Cora’s playoff acumen.

Lineups/Pinch Hitting

Grade: A-
The Red Sox aren’t built for versatility. By the end of the season, they mostly plugged in their best hitters and let them go to work. An injury to J.D. Martinez meant even less flexibility in several early games. Even so, I liked some of the small moves Cora made to extract a tiny bit of extra value from his lineup.

When Boston faced a lefty pitcher, Enrique Hernández led off, with Kyle Schwarber batting second. Against righties, that order was flipped. That might seem like a small thing, but I like that it always keeps a starter from having a (relatively) easy matchup when the order turns over for a third time. If you’re trying to get extra outs from your starter, you’ll be doing it at a disadvantage. And if you pull your starter, the second batter your reliever faces will have the platoon edge anyway.

One place I thought Cora went too far: he kept that lefty/righty alternation all the way down the lineup. Xander Bogaerts and Rafael Devers batted third and fourth in some order, but they alternated along with Schwarber and Hernández. That’s totally fine — in addition to being excellent hitters, they’re very similar hitters, so getting lefty/righty staggering for reliever matchups is a small boost. But batting Martinez sixth, behind Alex Verdugo, was very strange to me. Martinez is clearly a better hitter, and you can tolerate one righty/righty pocket in your lineup — particularly given another righty always hit after Martinez.

It’s not a huge problem, but I would have done it differently. Heck, by the last game of the ALCS, Cora was doing it differently, batting Martinez fifth behind Bogaerts against a righty. Perhaps we can chalk it up to a mix of easing Martinez back into the lineup (sixth until the team got more information) and then superstition (We’re unstoppable when J.D. is hitting sixth! Why mess with it?).

There’s really nothing else to critique. The team had one lefty pinch hitter, Travis Shaw. Cora used him almost exclusively to replace light-hitting righties against right-handed pitching, a perfect use of limited resources. I wouldn’t say this was the hardest lineup-setting job in the playoffs, but it’s been one of the best-executed.

Pitching

Grade: B+
Unlike his mostly cookie-cutter batting decisions, Cora faced a string of tough choices in optimizing Boston’s limited pitching. In their first playoff game, a do-or-die contest against the Yankees, he showed a quick hook in taking Nathan Eovaldi out when the stakes of the game got high. I thought it was a marginally bad decision at the time, and I stand by it, but it was really close: reasonable people can disagree about which way to go on this one.

Against the Rays, Cora pulled off a delightful gambit. In Game 1 of the series, he sent Eduardo Rodriguez out for nine batters, then used Nick Pivetta to fill in the bulk behind him. It got the Rays into some bad platoon matchups — but the Red Sox didn’t score at all, and Tampa Bay won 5-0. The same thing ended up happening, though by happenstance rather than design, when Chris Sale got shelled in the next game, facing eight batters in a five-run first inning. Tanner Houck provided five innings of solid relief, and the Sox won by putting 14 runs on the board. Scoring 14 is better than scoring zero, as it turns out.

That early deke with Rodriguez had an extra benefit: he returned for Game 4, on short rest but after having thrown only 41 pitches in his last start. He was efficient in five innings of work, and though Ryan Brasier blew a save (more on him in a minute), I liked the way Cora got Rodriguez into the series for a full start despite using him as a decoy in an earlier game. The whole strategy dovetailed nicely with the pitchers Boston was working with and the way the Rays approach lineup construction.

There was less starter subterfuge in the ALCS, but Cora made up for it with bullpen action. The game that featured the strangest decision-making was Game 4, which was locked at two runs apiece going into the ninth inning. Having already used two solid options, Josh Taylor and Garrett Whitlock, Cora turned to Eovaldi out of the bullpen on two days rest. Eovaldi had been great in relief in the 2018 World Series — why not run it back?

It didn’t pan out. Down 3-2 and with Eovaldi tiring, Cora turned to Martín Pérez in an attempt to put out the fire against lefty Michael Brantley. That worked about as well as you’d think in reading that sentence — Brantley cleared the bases with a double, and the rest was academic. But before that, Eovaldi hardly looked overmatched. He also looked passable in his next start, though with less than his normal stamina. If things had gone differently, you could imagine this move looking like a masterstroke. Mike Petriello found that using starters in relief historically has mainly reduced future innings pitched, not effectiveness.

I wonder whether that finding, which looks at all of baseball history, is slightly misleading in a season where most pitchers doubled (or more than doubled) their previous year’s innings totals. Either way, it wasn’t a make-or-break decision, though I probably would have gone with someone other than Eovaldi, particularly given that it was a tie game. If the Sox didn’t score in the bottom of the ninth, Eovaldi surely wasn’t coming out for another inning. If I’m risking the future to bring my ace in, I want a huge payoff if they do well.

The reason I’d be mostly okay with using Eovaldi is that Cora didn’t trust most of his bullpen. Houck and Whitlock each put in yeoman’s work. Taylor and Adam Ottavino were effective platoon pieces. That was kind of it! Aside from that, Cora was turning to Brasier, Hansel Robles, or a break-glass-in-case-of-emergency reliever chosen at random. Hirokazu Sawamura, the aforementioned Pérez, Darwinzon Hernandez, Austin Davis, Matt Barnes, and Garrett Richards all had brief and mostly-uninspiring appearances in these playoffs.

That meant a lot of work for Brasier (seven appearances, four innings) and Robles (six appearances, 5.1 innings). That’s really not where you want to be. Both are basically average middle relievers, not the high-leverage workhorses that they were cast as on this team. They allowed a combined eight runs in their 9.1 innings of work, which cost the team dearly. I’m not sure there’s anything Cora could do about that — he simply didn’t have much bullpen to work with, and he gave his two best relievers huge workloads — but it was strange to see two journeymen coming into the game in big spots (Brasier more so than Robles).

This was likely a problem without a solution. The Red Sox simply don’t have a great bullpen. Barnes caught a breakthrough case of COVID-19 in August, when he was already struggling after a spectacular first half. He then cut a part of his thumb off while making an omelet (always order your omelets if you’re a professional athlete, kids), and was only added to the ALDS roster as an injury replacement for Richards. Richards, too, would have been a nice option out of the bullpen, but he sprained his hamstring while running in the outfield in pregame warmups. At some point, you just don’t have enough pitching, regardless of the levers you pull.

Would I have liked to see more of Houck and Whitlock? I think so, though Cora did use them aggressively. I also wish he didn’t treat Brasier as a stopper, though again: what else are you doing given this roster makeup? This is a good reminder that good decisions and success aren’t always correlated; Cora did an excellent job across his whole roster, but the Astros are the best offense in baseball, and they showed it.





Ben is a writer at FanGraphs. He can be found on Twitter @_Ben_Clemens.

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booond
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Member
booond

Shaw hasn’t hit well against RHP in three years. Poor roster construction if the one guy who has the job can’t do the job.

darren
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darren

It really seemed like they were stressing depth early in the season, so it was really strange to look up and see Danny Santana and Travis Shaw as the two big bats coming off the bench.

johndarc
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johndarc

I don’t think of the red Sox as a particularly deep team. Their rotation isn’t deep, their lineup isn’t deep, the bullpen isn’t deep. And yet, a pretty flawed Red Sox team still made it pretty deep into the playoffs. Nobody really expected them to be this good but here they were.