AN­A­LYT­ICS, SCOUT­ING, MONEY AND ALEX CORA

How 2018 Red Sox be­came one of his­tory’s great teams

Windsor Star - - SPORTS - DAVE SHEININ

One of the beau­ti­ful LOS AN­GE­LES things about mod­ern base­ball is the di­ver­gent paths avail­able for teams seek­ing to claim the sport’s big­gest prize. A year ago, the Hous­ton Astros clinched a World Se­ries ti­tle at Dodger Sta­dium us­ing the most ag­gres­sive and all-en­com­pass­ing em­brace of an­a­lyt­ics the game had ever seen.

And last month, also at Dodger Sta­dium, the 2018 Bos­ton Red Sox reached the same apex — win­ning the World Se­ries and ce­ment­ing their place as one of the best teams in re­cent base­ball his­tory — at the end of a three-year cy­cle that be­gan with a sud­den and pub­lic dis­avowal of the an­a­lyt­ics-based ap­proach.

The ap­proaches, though, were not as dif­fer­ent as they ap­peared. Where the di­ver­gent paths of the 2017 Astros and 2018 Red Sox crossed was at the happy medium in be­tween two seem­ing ex­tremes, with the for­mer’s self-de­scribed “nerds” com­ing to rec­og­nize the value in un­quan­tifi­able as­sets such as char­ac­ter and cul­ture, and the lat­ter’s brain trust ca­pa­bly bridg­ing the gap be­tween a strat­egy based on an­a­lyt­ics and one based on scout­ing.

And in both cases, at the cen­tre of the trans­for­ma­tions sat Alex Cora. As the Astros’ bench coach in 2017, he was tasked with syn­the­siz­ing the reams of in­for­ma­tion com­ing from the front of­fice and dis­sem­i­nat­ing it in eas­ily di­gestible chunks to the play­ers. And as Bos­ton’s rookie man­ager in 2018, he be­came the rare skip­per who didn’t re­sist the in­tru­sion of an­a­lyt­ics in his job — but rather, pushed his bosses to do more.

“I give him all the credit in the world,” Red Sox owner John Henry said on the Dodger Sta­dium field fol­low­ing the 5-1 win over the Los An­ge­les Dodgers in Game 5. “We have a unity that was un­like any I’ve ever seen. And it was Alex. Alex brought that. He did ev­ery­thing right, on ev­ery level.”

To be clear, the Red Sox au­thored the most dom­i­nant sea­son since the 1998 New York Yan­kees — win­ning 108 reg­u­lar sea­son games and run­ning 11-3 through the post-sea­son over ex­cel­lent teams from the Bronx, Hous­ton and Los An­ge­les — be­cause of their great col­lec­tion of play­ers and their bril­liant per­for­mances over the past four weeks: the re­demp­tive pitch­ing of David Price, the home runs by out-ofnowhere World Se­ries MVP Steve Pearce, the suf­fo­cat­ing de­fence of their all-home­grown out­field, the tire­less work of a half-dozen or so heav­ily taxed pitch­ers, and on and on.

They won be­cause they spared no ex­pense in as­sem­bling a deep and pedi­greed ros­ter, run­ning up the game’s high­est pay­roll by far in 2018, high­lighted by the $110 mil­lion they gave free agent J.D. Martinez in Fe­bru­ary. Martinez hit 43 homers this sea­son and is ex­pected to fin­ish a cou­ple of spots be­hind team­mate Mookie Betts in Amer­i­can League MVP vot­ing next month. They won be­cause two of Dave Dom­browski’s trade-dead­line pick­ups, Pearce and pitcher Nathan Eo­valdi, be­came in­dis­pens­able con­trib­u­tors in Oc­to­ber. But the Red Sox also won be­cause of its re­mark­able or­ga­ni­za­tional unity, flow­ing from own­er­ship and the front of­fice down to the club­house, and its seam­less meld­ing of old-school and new-school con­cepts about how a base­ball team should be run.

In the win­ter af­ter the 2015 sea­son, on the heels of the fran­chise’s first back-to-back last-place fin­ishes in 85 years, Henry and the Red Sox un­der­took a mas­sive re­tool­ing, one pred­i­cated upon the old-fash­ioned no­tions of shrewd scout­ing and mas­sive spend­ing. That win­ter, Henry, him­self a num­bers man who had made his for­tune by ap­ply­ing self-dis­cov­ered al­go­rithms to de­riv­a­tives and fu­tures trad­ing, pub­licly re­pu­di­ated the heav­ily an­a­lyt­ics-ori­ented strat­egy that had made the Red Sox front of­fice an in­dus­try trend­set­ter since the early 2000s and led to World Se­ries ti­tles in 2004, 2007 and 2013 — but that had re­cently left the team, in Henry ’s mind, too rigid and soul­less. “Base­ball is a com­plex, dy­namic, liv­ing thing that has to be nur­tured on a daily ba­sis, 12 months of the year,” Henry told the Bos­ton Globe in Fe­bru­ary 2016. “I think we were re­liant too heav­ily on an­a­lyt­ics.” In the fu­ture, Henry said, the team’s phi­los­o­phy would be “more holis­tic and with a broader ap­proach.” That was the first win­ter af­ter Henry hired Dom­browski as pres­i­dent of base­ball op­er­a­tions. Dom­browski had been work­ing in base­ball front of­fices since the late 1970s and had earned a rep­u­ta­tion as a scout­ing-first ta­lent eval­u­a­tor and an ag­gres­sive deal-maker. With Dom­browski at the helm, the Red Sox be­gan to spend heav­ily that win­ter, mak­ing Price the high­est-paid pitcher in base­ball his­tory, among other moves. But af­ter win­ning divi­sion ti­tles in both 2016 and 2017, the Red Sox flamed out in the divi­sion se­ries both years, lead­ing the team to fire John Far­rell as man­ager. Among the first can­di­dates they reached out to as a re­place­ment was Cora, hold­ing their in­ter­view with him in New York dur­ing an off-day in the Astros/Yan­kees AL Cham­pi­onship Se­ries and com­ing away con­vinced he was their man.

“He was a top can­di­date even be­fore we spoke with him,” Henry said. “We felt our ap­proach (to run­ning a team) was wrong. We needed a dif­fer­ent ap­proach. He had ideas. He told us from his per­spec­tive what we did wrong against [the Astros] last year, and it was just what we wanted to hear.” In that in­ter­view, the Red Sox brought along vice pres­i­dent of base­ball re­search Zach Scott, the head of their an­a­lyt­ics depart­ment, and Cora be­gan pep­per­ing Scott with ques­tions about the Red Sox’s pro­cesses and how they se­cure buy-in from the play­ers. Cora’s im­pli­ca­tion: the Red Sox could and should be do­ing more. A week af­ter the in­ter­view, on Oct. 22, 2017, Cora was named the 47th man­ager in Red Sox his­tory. And one year and six days af­ter that, he was hoist­ing the World Se­ries tro­phy on a makeshift stage in the in­field dirt at Dodger Sta­dium. Though care­ful to de­flect credit to his play­ers — “It’s all about the play­ers; they’re the ones [who] make man­agers look good,” he said af­ter Game 4 — Cora, who be­came just the fifth rookie man­ager to win it all, emerged from this cham­pi­onship run as the undis­puted, beat­ing heart of the fran­chise.

“We have an un­be­liev­able leader,” vet­eran left-han­der Chris Sale said. “He al­ways seems to make the right moves,” Pearce said of Cora. “What­ever he says, we lis­ten and we do it. We jelled to­gether be­hind him, and every­body knew their roles be­cause he was such a great leader.”

While Dom­browski’s anti-an­a­lyt­ics rep­u­ta­tion is un­fair and in­cor­rect — with the Florida Mar­lins in the mid-’90s, he was one of the first GMs in the game to work with an up­start data firm called Ad­vanced Value Ma­trix to eval­u­ate play­ers — un­til Cora’s ar­rival, the Red Sox un­der his reign were mid­dle of the pack at best in terms of its em­brace and ap­pli­ca­tion of an­a­lyt­ics.

“We had a strong an­a­lyt­ics depart­ment,” said as­sis­tant GM Frank Wren, a long­time Dom­browski lieu­tenant. “Where we were lag­ging was in get­ting the play­ers to buy into it.”

That, of course, had been Cora’s spe­cialty in Hous­ton. It helped, too, that he was rarely if ever forced to throw up a stop sign as Bos­ton’s data con­duit, as he per­haps had in the face of the co­pi­ous in­for­ma­tion com­ing from the Astros’ front of­fice. The Red Sox are among the few top teams that still let the man­ager run a game the way he wants, from the start­ing lineup on down. The har­mony through­out their or­ga­ni­za­tion all month stood in con­trast to the ten­sion through­out that of the Dodgers, where the rifts be­tween uni­formed per­son­nel and the front of­fice, with its mas­sive an­a­lyt­ics depart­ment, were scarcely dis­guised, es­pe­cially as things un­rav­elled. “You need to let [the man­ager] run the club,” Dom­browski told Fox Sports. “We com­mu­ni­cate ev­ery day [ but] when it comes to mak­ing the lineup out or run­ning a game, he gets all the in­for­ma­tion he wants, from all the an­a­lyt­ics and statis­tics — he’s very open minded to it. That’s his job. How do you gain the re­spect of your club­house if they know up­stairs you’re mak­ing those de­ci­sions and send­ing those de­ci­sions down (to the man­ager)?”

Never was Cora’s lead­er­ship more needed, or more ef­fec­tive, than in the af­ter­math of the 3-2 loss to the Dodgers in Game 3, an 18-in­ning marathon that left Bos­ton’s pitch­ing staff in tat­ters and had the feel­ing of a dev­as­tat­ing blow. At its con­clu­sion, as Nathan Eo­valdi walked off the field in de­feat at the end of a heroic, 97-pitch re­lief ef­fort, his team­mates, led by Price, met him al­most half­way to the mound, en­gulfed him and prac­ti­cally car­ried him down the tun­nel.

For the first time, the Red Sox, de­spite still lead­ing by a game, could see a clear path to los­ing the se­ries, with Games 4 and 5 the next two nights on the Dodgers’ home field. Cora isn’t big on team meet­ings, but he called one in the wee hours of Sat­ur­day, in the af­ter­math of Game 3. And rather than im­plore his team with empty words of en­cour­age­ment, he high­lighted the sac­ri­fice of Eo­valdi and told his play­ers the loss was the great­est loss in base­ball his­tory, be­cause of how hard they made the Dodgers work to beat them. By the end, the play­ers spon­ta­neously rose for a stand­ing ova­tion — less for Cora than for them­selves.

“A loss like that — 18 in­nings, seven hours long — stinks,” work­horse re­liever Joe Kelly said. “We got in that club­house, and there were a lot of tears in peo­ple’s eyes [from] watch­ing Nate.” Cora’s speech and its af­ter­math, Kelly said, was “one of the coolest things I’ve ever been a part of. A lot of teams could have folded. But we were fired up. It took the Dodgers — and they’re a very good ball club — but it took them 18 in­nings to beat us. And we weren’t go­ing to let that hap­pen again.” As hit­ting coach Tim Hy­ers told re­porters, the play­ers “left a whole lot dif­fer­ent than when they came in.”

They would go on, of course, to win Games 4 and 5 to close out the se­ries — though not be­fore fall­ing be­hind by four runs in the for­mer, prompt­ing Sale’s now-fa­mous dugout tirade and leav­ing Cora to go around beg­ging his play­ers to “pick me up” for the mis­take he felt he made by leav­ing starter Ed­uardo Ro­driguez in the game too long. There were many dif­fer­ent fi­nal im­pres­sions left by the Red Sox dur­ing their ti­tle run: the re­lent­less at-bats and two-strike ap­proach of their hit­ters, the self­less­ness and tire­less­ness of their pitch­ers, the con­tri­bu­tions they got from su­per­stars and role play­ers alike. But the over­ar­ch­ing im­pres­sion was of a fran­chise in per­fect har­mony, from the top down — its yin and yang in­ter­sect­ing in the per­son of Cora. The fi­nal image of the World Se­ries was of Sale, arms raised in tri­umph, af­ter strik­ing out Dodgers star Manny Machado for the fi­nal out. But for sym­bol­ism, it should have been what hap­pened just be­fore Sale en­tered.

Like all the Red Sox starters, Sale made re­lief ap­pear­ances be­tween sev­eral of his starts — in Sale’s case, de­spite a shoul­der is­sue that had kept him on the dis­abled list for much of Au­gust and Septem­ber. He and Eo­valdi were both warm­ing up in prepa­ra­tion for the ninth, but it was Sale who got the call.

And now, as the gates to the vis­i­tors’ bullpen opened, the rest of Bos­ton’s re­liev­ers stood to the side, near the door, and ap­plauded Sale’s en­trance on to the field, a chill­ing mo­ment cap­tured by Fox Sports’s cam­eras.

So to the lengthy list of things Alex Cora’s Red Sox did ex­traor­di­nar­ily well this month, on their way to com­plet­ing a mem­o­rable, his­toric cam­paign, you can add one more item: Stand­ing ova­tions.

He al­ways seems to make the right moves. What­ever he says, we lis­ten and we­doit. We jelled to­gether be­hind him,and every­body knew their roles.

THE AS­SO­CI­ATED PRESS

In his first year at the helm for Bos­ton, Red Sox man­ager Alex Cora holds the cham­pi­onship tro­phy af­ter Game 5 of the World Se­ries.

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