How Alex Cora changed the culture of the Red Sox regarding analytics
Mookie Betts has a long list of highlights this year, but one stands out not for any act of brilliance on his part but for the fact that he hardly had to do anything.
On June 21, Twins first baseman Joe Mauer lined a ball to right-center field — ordinarily a hit or at least a ball that would have required a significant run to intercept it. But Betts stood in the path of the ball, barely moving in order to track it.
After he fired the ball back into the infield, Betts grinned at the dugout and pulled a card from his back pocket, waving it triumphantly. A new defensive alignment that had been suggested by the Red Sox analytics department — and printed on a small card for the outfielders to check — had been spot-on.
It was a moment that perhaps best captured the way information has been moved from the analytics department to the field, a change that speaks to the way manager Alex Cora altered the day-to-day functioning of the organization.
“Alex has put the stamp on, ‘This is how we’re going to do it,’ ” said Red Sox assistant general manager Eddie Romero. “He’s kind of reformed the culture of how we’re going to integrate data into decision-making.”
The idea of Cora as someone who has “reformed the culture” of baseball operations flies in the face of a somewhat common (mis)perception. Last offseason, when several contending teams including the Red Sox replaced veteran managers with first-timers, many grumbled that a once-revered position had been reduced to a middle-manager.
According to such views, front offices weren’t so much hiring authority figures as identifying someone who could do their bidding and serve as a conduit for data-driven analysis, all but filling out the lineup cards while offering managers a detailed script for how they were expected to handle a game.
“In my opinion, the role of manager has lessened in importance and the role of general manager and front-office guy has elevated,” former manager Dusty Baker said earlier this year. “If [players] have a beef why they aren’t playing, who do they talk to? Do they talk to the manager or the people pulling the strings for the manager? Some of the autonomy for the manager has been taken away, I think.”
Such a view is likely an overstatement at best and simply wrong at worst. Certainly, in the case of the Red Sox and Cora, the manager is not merely a reflection of the baseball operations department but an agent of change within it.
Perhaps most notably, Cora has been an agent of change for the Red Sox regarding information and analytics, the areas most often caricatured as corrosive to the modern manager. He has been a catalyst for the increased integration of data into the team’s preparation and game management, pushing the envelope beyond even what the front office expected.
Such a development was part of the allure of hiring Cora after his year as bench coach for the 2017 World Series champion Houston Astros. In the words of Boston president of baseball operations Dave Dombrowski, a manager’s potential application of analytics was “a large part of our interview process.”
Though the Red Sox had once been at the vanguard of data and analytics, they recognized that other organizations (notably the Astros) had surpassed them. The Sox committed considerable resources to closing the gap in recent years, hiring several analysts and building more robust systems to handle the explosion of information.
Such additions affected roster moves and pitching instruction, but the analytics department wasn’t much involved with in-game management. When the Sox interviewed Cora, Brad Ausmus, and Ron Gardenhire as potential replacements for John Farrell last October, they hoped to gain insight into how each candidate viewed the role of analytics in running a game.
Cora already was clear-eyed about how to integrate the work of the analytics department into roster management based on his year with Houston.
“I started making up my own game plan,” said Cora. “I don’t know if I expressed it [during his interview] in New York, but I guess I did.”
“He was often talking directly to me about these things during the interview,” said Red Sox vice president of baseball research and development Zack Scott. “I didn’t go into it with any idea that we’d be tightly integrated with what we were doing on a daily basis. He kind of changed that.
“I came away from that process thinking, ‘Wow, he’s really invested in this stuff. He’s really all-in.’ ”
On the day the Sox hired Cora, they were holding meetings with pro scouts to develop an offseason blueprint. During breaks, Cora sought out Scott and advance scout Steve Langone to discuss ideas he had for curating information in preparation for games and soliciting player evaluations from an analytic bent.
“When he did speak up in meetings, he made a lot of points that aligned with a lot of things we thought, even before we asked questions to him,” said Scott, a Red Sox front office member since 2004. “My team was getting very excited about that.”
Cora sought a number of changes in the team’s information flow. Among them:
■ Cora assembled a coaching staff well-versed in analytics. He brought bullpen coach Craig Bjornson from the Astros, hitting coach Tim Hyers from the Dodgers (another team considered among the most sophisticated in the application of analytics), and Ramon Vazquez (formerly a minor league manager in the Astros system, and a coach with the Padres in 2017) as a liaison who could help provide information from the advance scouting and analytics groups to players and coaches.
The presence of uniform personnel to explain the rationale underlying the ideas coming from the analytics department made players more comfortable about buying in.
“Sometimes they see it as guys not involved with the team all the time, they’re not always around, and it’s tough for you to trust that information,” said Vazquez. “Having [coaches] telling them, ‘Trust it, it’s going to work, we’ve gone through it,’ it helps a lot.
“Good example: Phillies game, ball goes through the shift, [Jake] Arrieta is pitching, and he’s just making all these faces and all this stuff. That stuff doesn’t happen here. Everybody’s on board. They trust what we’re trying to do — not just us, but the analytics department.”
■ Cora wanted Langone, who’d spent years on the road as an advance scout watching opposing teams before they played the Sox, to shift to scouting opponents by video. Doing so permitted Langone to remain with the team at all times, communicating face to face about plans of attack and changes that might transpire during a series.
■ The analytics department prepared game plans for both hitters and pitchers that are vetted and compared with game-planning thoughts of the coaching staff.
■ While former third base coach Brian Butterfield had been responsible for bulldozing through video to design infield alignments and defensive shifts under Farrell, Cora wanted the analytics department to handle all of the defensive alignments. That way, coaches were freed to channel more of their time to player instruction.
■ When Cora saw the defensive reports assembled by analyst Greg Rybarczyk in spring training, he loved the visual clarity. So he asked Rybarczyk and the analytics department to start preparing daily cards that the infielders could keep in their hats to reference during games.
■ In April, the Sox had catchers start wearing wristband cheat-sheets, a reflection of the increasingly sophisticated game planning now involved in the batter/pitcher dynamic.
■ While the infielders adopted the cards right away, the outfielders (and coach Tom Goodwin) were initially hesitant. But eventually they embraced them, with the Betts catch a memorable symbol of change in the organization.
“We were watching it in the office at Fenway,” said Scott. “As soon as that happened, we’re laughing. That moment was kind of cool. They’re laughing about something they probably weren’t comfortable with at first.”
■ Cora regularly sought the input of the analytics department on strategy issues such as when to play the infield in, lineup construction, and whom to employ as a spot starter. He’s not solely reliant on Scott and his group to make such decisions, but his frequent outreach is a reflection of his general craving for numerous perspectives.
“The biggest difference is the frequency with which Alex reaches out,” said Scott. “At one point, it was on a daily basis. It’s still very frequent that he’ll shoot me a text or give me a call. I’m not the only person he’s talking to. He’s just trying to get different perspectives as he tries to make a decision.”
Cora isn’t managing by spreadsheet. In his words, he’s “done some things that are old school. We’ve created a balance.” But unquestionably, as part of that balance, he’s changed the culture surrounding information in the Red Sox organization — in a fashion that makes him a tone-setter, rather than a middle-manager.
“One thing I know, I wanted it this way,” said Cora. “If it’s analytics, coaching, players, medical staff, front office [all separated], it’s not going to work. In the era that we play, with all the information and all the different departments, at the end, everyone has to be together.
“At the end, we have really good players, which is really important. It helps them to be better players with the information in hand and the information that’s provided.”