The Tenth Inning
 The Tenth Inning Blog
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Alex Cora: Luck or Genius?

Rookie manager Alex Cora led the Boston Red Sox to their best regular season ever with 108 wins.  His Red Sox then capped off the post-season with a World Series championship ring, in the process posting an astonishing 11-3 record over formidable opponents like the New Yankees, Houston Astros, and Los Angeles Dodgers.  Was Cora that good as the skipper of the BoSox, or was he just in the right place at the right time for the historic season?

Cora is only the fifth major-league manager to win the World Series in his rookie season.  Bob Brenly (2001 Diamondbacks), Ralph Houk (1961 Yankees), Eddie Dyer (1946 Cardinals), and Bucky Harris (1924 Senators) were the only managers to accomplish this unlikely feat.  He is the first Puerto Rican manager to win the Series.

His only experience in the dugout prior to the Red Sox was as the bench coach for the Houston Astros in 2017, when coincidentally the Astros won the World Series.  He had played 14 seasons in the majors with six different teams, including the Red Sox with whom he won a World Series ring in 2007 as a utility player.  After his retirement as a player, he spent four seasons as an analyst for ESPN.

In recent managerial hires, significant prior experience in coaching or managing hasn’t been at the top of general managers’ list of preferred skills for the candidates.  That approach has met with mixed results.  So Cora’s appointment as the new Red Sox manager had its skeptics, especially since the team had just won the AL East Division title the year before under well-experienced manager John Farrell.

However, Cora had the advantage of inheriting a very talented Red Sox roster.  Sure, they had missed David Ortiz’s bat in 2017, but they now had the latest version of the Killer B’s in Mookie Betts, Zander Bogaerts, Andrew Benintendi, and Jackie Bradley Jr.  Furthermore, the Red Sox starting rotation boasted two former Cy Young Award winners in David Price and Rick Porcello, as well as the award’s 2017 runner-up in Chris Sale.  And then they had one of the best closers in all of baseball with Craig Kimbrel.  Going into the 2018 season with that type of talent in its core players, it was hard to imagine Boston wouldn’t be favored again to repeat as the division winner, regardless of who the manager was.

When Red Sox President of Baseball Operations Dave Dombrowski hired Cora, did he know something about the 42-year-old skipper the rest of the baseball world didn’t know?  Had Dombrowski perhaps hired the wrong Cora?  (Alex’s brother, Joey, has been a major-league coach since 2003, including multiple stints as interim manager, and was previously considered for permanent managerial positions.)  Was the long-time baseball executive taking a calculated chance with the relatively inexperienced Cora, knowing the Red Sox would be a strong contender in the division anyway?

Despite being a high-profile job, the Red Sox manager position had all the makings of being a reasonable situation in which to insert a first-time manager.  Frustrated Red Sox fans were ready to see Farrell go, despite his World Series championship team in 2013. (Four of his seven seasons as manager ended in 4th or 5th place finishes.)  Boston was projected in 2018 to be as good as, or better than, their division rival New York Yankees, who had their own rookie manager in Aaron Boone.  But it was naturally expected Cora would experience some snags throughout the season due to his greenness as manager.

However, it turned out there would be few missteps by Cora during the regular season.  Except for a dozen games before the All-Star break, the Red Sox held first-place throughout the season.  The team had added slugger J.D. Martinez right before the season started, and he became an exceptional replacement for Ortiz in the batting lineup.  Dombrowski further added several key role players later in the season, as well as added pitching depth.  Then Cora pulled all the right strings to stay ahead of the Yankees, and the Red Sox essentially clinched the division title by the first of August even though the Yankees won 100 games, too.

In addition to a star-studded lineup led by Martinez and Betts, Cora’s approach to managing the team turned out to be a key factor in the Red Sox’s success.  It was based on the effective utilization of his role players and an aggressive style of play, wrapped in an open communication style with his players.

Cora juggled the lineup practically every day, making good use of utility players Steve Pearce, Eduardo Rodriguez, Brock Holt, Blake Swihart, Ian Kinsler, and Christian Vazquez, most of whom could play multiple positions.  It wasn’t uncommon for one of them to be the star of the game with a clutch hit or a spectacular fielding play.

The Red Sox hit their share of home runs, but their game wasn’t solely based on the long ball.  Cora emphasized aggressive offensive play centered around putting the ball in play, use of the hit-and-run, and opportune stolen bases.

Cora’s overall communication style created a positive vibe and looseness among the players.  There was a calmness about him during games, and it seemed to rub off on his players.  He was reportedly good at letting his players know how to prepare for games, especially as he used various lineups.  He was usually able to put players in a position to succeed.

The Red Sox employ the new-styled analytics as much as any other major-league team, but Cora seemed to find a good balance of “playing by the numbers” provided by the team’s front-office analysts and his own observations and judgements of how his players were responding in various game situations.

In some respects, Cora was indeed lucky with the hand he was dealt as the manager of the Red Sox.  It’s not likely he could have won the World Series with Baltimore’s roster, which finished 61 games behind the Red Sox.  On the other hand, he did manage to defeat two very good 100-win teams, Yankees and Astros, to capture the American League pennant.

It’s too early to declare Cora a genius already, but he sure appears to be on a good path toward it.

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