HOUSTON — When Alex Cora took the Red Sox managerial job, he brought similar thoughts to how the Astros were run. He also brought comparisons of Astros players to Red Sox players and he wanted his new team to approach some of the ways and mannerisms of the players in Houston.
He thought, for instance, that Mookie Betts should be more like George Springer — a guy who attacked the strike zone as the leadoff hitter. He saw Springer as someone who could put his team in a good spot early by hitting a leadoff home run. Guess what happened? Betts has become that guy. He’s been very aggressive early in the count and has hit home runs from the leadoff spot. Exactly what Cora wanted.
Betts bought into what Cora was preaching. Cora knew Betts is every bit as talented, if not moreso, than Springer. If Springer (34 homers last season) could do it, why not Mookie?
When Cora looked at Xander Bogaerts, he thought he could be a similar offensive shortstop to Carlos Correa, who hit 24 homers last season. OK, not a great fielder, but one who made all the plays. Bogaerts has turned into that and has actually been a plus defender at shortstop. Offensively, Bogaerts has been elevating his swing and trying to hit more home runs — like Correa.
Cora had a conversation with Bogaerts in the offseason and told him that he was no longer in the conversation as one of the great shortstops in the game. Cora told him he could be every bit as good as Francisco Lindor, Correa, Didi Gregorius, Corey Seager, and others. It’s something Bogaerts took to heart and now he’s proving he belongs in that category.
Cora said it’s a copycat league and his one season with the Astros, which produced a World Series championship, pretty much shaped the way he viewed things as a manager. He knew he inherited a talented Red Sox roster, and some of the players he saw from across the field during the playoffs last fall got him thinking about comparisons.
When he saw Drew Pomeranz in his first few outings, he hearkened back to what he remembered about Astros lefty Dallas Keuchel, a former AL Cy Young winner.
“Keuchel always talked about how important his back leg was to his delivery and I stressed that to Drew, who was struggling with his back leg,” Cora said.
Nobody, obviously, compares to Jose Altuve, but in some respects Dustin Pedroia does. Pedroia might not be at Altuve’s level, though Pedroia, a former AL Rookie of the Year and MVP, has the size similarity, the position familiarity, and the ability to hit. Cora knew he could do similar things with Pedroia that the Astros did with Altuve.
Cora says Marwin Gonzalez is one of the most versatile players he’s ever been around. In Boston, Cora has Brock Holt, who like Gonzalez can play the infield and outfield.
Cora had Justin Verlander and he inherited Chris Sale. Josh Reddick and Andrew Benintendi. There are similarities all over the field.
“There are a lot of things we do here that we did last year in terms of the information,” said Cora, referencing an emphasis on analytics. One difference is the Red Sox have a vast scouting staff to augment the analytics, while the Astros cut back their scouting staff to further emphasize their analytics.
“What we’re doing with the medical staff is similar to Houston,” said Cora, who did not elaborate on the medical situation. “We’re trying to do the same thing.”
We do know that Red Sox head trainer Brad Pearson has a lot of say in who plays and who doesn’t based on how a player feels that day. If you’re seeing more days off for regular players, well, Astros regulars got a decent amount of days off last year.
Cora remembers his conversation with Betts well.
“Part of the conversation I had with him was that through the season I saw what George did from Day One putting pressure on the pitcher. I told [Betts], ‘That’s why you’re gonna lead off and if the first pitch of the season is down the middle, swing at it.’
“I still remember that. Mookie said, ‘So you’re telling me you want me to lead off and you want me to swing more? I said, ‘Yeah, that’s exactly what I want.’ He said, ‘OK I’ll do it.’ That’s what George did with [the Astros] last year. He’s one of the best leadoff men in the game.”
Cora knew that Bogaerts is as athletic and powerful as any shortstop in the game.
“Everyone thinks talent-wise Xander is up there,” he said. “When you see how strong and athletic he is, I do believe he can hit for power. I’d rather him hit .300 and hit the ball out of the ballpark or into the gaps than hit .330 without the power. I think he’s gotten back to taking a few pitches more than I’d like, but we’ll see if that changes.”
It’s not so bad a plan to mimic the team that won it all. Cora was able to see how players were put in the best possible position to succeed. He looked at his old team, looked at his new team, and said, “Why can’t we duplicate that here?”
And so when Astros manager A.J. Hinch spoke pregame about how the Red Sox look much different offensively this season — going from a grind-it-out, see-a-lot-of-pitches type lineup to the aggressive hitting team they are now — he was really saying the Red Sox had become the Astros.
And that’s not a bad thing.