Without question, the model for the manner in which Alex Cora has approached his job as manager of the Red Sox is the Houston Astros, for whom he was bench coach during their 2017 World Series run. Cora has made it clear that he’s taken the good things with him and discarded things he didn’t think worked so well.
“I wouldn’t have this job if it wasn’t for the year I spent in Houston,” he said.
“The learning experience wasn’t just applying the good things, but over the course of the year I had to adjust and say, ‘No, I wouldn’t do it that way.’ And that was huge because I’d never been in a clubhouse as a coach, and [manager] A.J. [Hinch] gave me the green light to oversee a lot of stuff. It was really a learning experience, and I didn’t know what I was getting into.
“Offensively, we’re very similar to them as far as the structure of the lineup. I saw things as a coach where I’d say to myself, ‘That’s the way the game is played now.’ Having George [Springer] leading off. Having [Yuli] Gurriel hitting [fifth, sixth, or seventh] with traffic on the bases. It’s similar to what we’re doing with Xander [Bogaerts] now.”
In talking about defense and shifting he said, “Defensively, they’re more aggressive than us in terms of the shifting. For us, our pitching staff strikes out a lot of people, and they induce fly balls, so we feel we don’t have to be as aggressive in our infield.
“They have different types of defensive players, also. They have a shortstop [Alex Bregman] playing third base. So they took advantage of that type of range at third. So we’ve adjusted to mold our defense the way we feel we need to. But there are a few things that we do similar.”
And then there are the intangible things.
“As far as, like, atmosphere in the clubhouse, I learned a lot, not only from A.J., but from Carlos Beltran,” Cora said. “We had some long conversations after games. We’d go to his suite and talk about ideas. Sometimes we’d agree, and sometimes he felt we needed to make an adjustment.
“This is a guy who played for 20 years and saw it all, and he was the leader of that clubhouse coming into the season. All of those late-night conversations with Carlos and [first base coach] Alex Cintron helped me to plan everything for this season in the clubhouse.”
In Houston, Cora was a conduit between the players and Hinch. In Boston, he thought the Beltran-type leader would be Dustin Pedroia, and he still feels that way, but the long-term injuries Pedroia suffered and his time away from the team made that role more difficult.
I asked him, who is Boston’s version of the Houston Alex Cora?
“Honestly, Ron Roenicke was huge for us,” Cora said. “It was a lot different than Alex Cora in Houston. But he’s the guy who slows everything down for us. We have a young coaching staff and a young third base coach in Carlos [Febles]. Ramon [Vazquez] is young. [Hitting coach] Timmy [Hyers] is young.
“So he’s been able to keep teaching players and coaches and me. He’s like an instructor for us. He helps us out during the game.
“As for the young guys, Ramon thinks the game similar to me. We’ve been together since 1996, and now his role is a lot different from mine. He’s very prepared, and during the game he’s helping everybody out.”
The Houston model also spills into the increasingly important area of analytics. Cora is knee-deep into the numbers and how they apply to what happens on the field during games, anything from shifting to baserunning to the tendencies of hitters and pitchers.
“Yeah, it’s similar to Houston but a different setup,” Cora said. “We’re still getting that area back to a daily game routine for us. Our analytics department knows what I want and what’s important to me for use in a game situation, and they really do a great job providing that information.”
The Astros went to an all-video advance scouting format, and Cora copied that. He felt that having advance scout Steve Langone on the premises rather than on the road scouting the next opponent was more beneficial in that the staff could gather the information faster and have Langone available to answer questions.
But there are advantages to having the advance scouts on the road. For instance, they can pick up on more intangible things such as the mind-set of a certain player or things that are going on off the field that could affect performance. Advance scouts also forge relationships with members of the media, and coaches and even the manager of the next opponent.
“The guys who run [the Astros’] advance department have more of an analytical background,” Cora said. “Ours is getting to a point where we have a nice combination of both analytics and scouting.
“They do an outstanding job baseball-wise. Their scouting background has stolen a few games for us because of their baseball background. Now that I see how it works, it’s created a balance, and I love it.
“I think they’ve done an outstanding job preparing our players to go out and perform on a daily basis, and I think it’s better than Steve being in Seattle and calling the coaches every hour and then we have to communicate to our players.
“Like J.D. [Martinez] will ask them, ‘What do you think about this guy?’ It’s easier to have him in-house rather than all over the place.”
And all the information is relevant only if the players embrace it and learn it.
As he flew around the country speaking with his new players last offseason, Cora found that, much like the Astros players, they had a great baseball IQ.
“We saw the game very similar,” he said, “and the answers I got told me that these guys were smart and similar to the players I had in Houston.”
Cora doesn’t force his players to study the information.
“At the end of the day, it’s their talent that carries the day,” he said. “There are days they’re locked in and they’re not interested in looking at anything. There are days when they’re a little bit off and they want more information about who they’re facing because they need to find something and take advantage of whatever edge they can get.”
Cora recognized the parallels in talent between the Astros and the Red Sox. Not only Carlos Correa and Bogaerts, but Mookie Betts and Springer. And maybe a Sandy Leon and Brian McCann.
“When we played the Astros this year, I was commenting about how many great athletes were on the field,” Cora said. “So we’re similar to them in that respect.
“It was my only experience as a coach there, and it was a perfect one. To be around those guys, not only the front office, but the players was an amazing experience. We had one of the best hitters in the world at second base [Jose Altuve], one of the best international players in Yuli.
“You learn from them. Being around [Justin] Verlander, Beltran, and McCann. They helped me out. How you deal with the veteran players can be a huge thing.”
The lesson of all this is that Cora took many pieces of Houston with him to Boston.
“It’s different than being the bench coach,” he said. “The final decision wasn’t mine. I had my opinions on how we were going to approach things, and sometimes my opinions differed from A.J.’s, but that’s what a bench coach does. Now the final say rests with me.”
And Cora’s decisions gave the Red Sox the franchise record for wins.
Hey, Houston: We don’t have a problem here.