This year, Red Sox had resting players down to a science
The Red Sox are about to see whether a yearlong commitment to changing player usage will pay dividends at the most meaningful time of year.
Alex Cora inherited a team that won back-to-back division crowns but sputtered in the playoffs. For two straight years, an extremely talented group of players had fallen short of expectations in October.
Last year, the Astros reached October cruising on a full tank; the Red Sox entered the playoffs with a tank nearing empty and a blown tire.
“We certainly learned that we don’t want to get to the regular-season finish line and then have nothing left in the tank for the playoffs,” said Red Sox head trainer Brad Pearson.
“This is a marathon and then it becomes a sprint. If you have a little pebble in your shoe at the start of a marathon, the first 10 miles might be fine, but by the time you get to mile 25, mile 26, your foot is going to be ripped to shreds.”
Houston was able to pull the pebbles out while cruising to an AL West title. The Red Sox, meanwhile, had to sustain their push until the final weekend of the season to edge out the Yankees for the division.
As Houston’s bench coach, Cora saw the fruits of how the Astros had sought extra opportunities to rest players. Moreover, he was struck by the information-based decision-making employed in planning for a seven-month season.
“I learned last year that [workload management] is very important,” said Cora. “Coming into this situation, I had a pretty good idea of what I wanted to do with the roster as far as rest.”
He came into an organization that was already interested in changing its approach to maintaining players for the long haul by advancing its sport science program.
“When he was interviewing, it was being reported that some key players were saying they were gassed during the playoffs, so it was on everybody’s mind,” said Pearson.
“The first conversation I had with Alex once he was hired as manager, he said, ‘I’m all about managing workloads with these guys. That’s something that’s very important to me, and we plan on working together with you to find ways to keep these guys fresh and healthy.’
“That obviously put a little wind in my sails.”
Front office members and medical staffers had been meeting informally over a period of a few years to discuss developments in sport science, an umbrella term encompassing in-game and pregame workload management, sleep and rest, nutrition, strength and conditioning, as well as emerging areas such as neuroscouting.
But last year, the Red Sox formed a sport science committee — which included members of both the baseball operations and medical operations departments — to analyze more precisely the efforts to maximize the performance of players and improve both injury treatment and prevention.
The team also made its first official hire in the field of sport science, Michael Cianciosi. Though Cianciosi had no experience in baseball, the Sox felt he had the right background as someone who had worked in a team setting with an Australian rules football team. and also had been employed by Catapult, a leader in the sport science/biometrics industry.
Cianciosi also came at the recommendation of Dr. Johann Bilsborough, the director of sport science for the Celtics.
“You need to understand that the chance of injury is greater if you’re tired — your arm, your body, whatever it may be,” said president of baseball operations Dave Dombrowski. “So, how can you prevent your body from being as tired on a daily basis, monthly basis, yearly basis?
“We’re much more sophisticated now, so the manager and pitching coach don’t have to do that all themselves. They have other people to supply the information.”
In placing a greater emphasis on sport science, the Sox shifted the focus of their workload management from game usage to overall daily workload and recovery time. The training staff took inventory not just of games and innings played but also time spent lifting weights, exercising, taking batting practice, and throwing between starts or outings.
Each of those elements was added to a database that informed conversations among Cora, Pearson, and pitching coach Dana LeVangie throughout the year.
“There’s red flags all over the schedule,” said Cora. “We pay attention to it. The most important thing is to recognize [risk] before [injury] happens.”
Beyond injury risks, Cora and Pearson also agree that a player who is running on fumes might not be as good as his backup on a given day. The goal wasn’t to have the team’s regulars in the lineup — it was to have key players performing at something close to their highest levels. Sometimes, that required rest for one or even several players to stay ahead of the injury risks associated with fatigue.
It started with a season-opening road trip through Tampa Bay and Miami, when nearly every member of the roster received a day out of the lineup.
“I was very surprised, thinking I’m going to play the first month at least without an off day,” said Mookie Betts. “But he said from the beginning that he’s going to give us rest so we can be ready in October. He’s a man of his word.”
LeVangie, who had spent five years (including the World Series run of 2013 and the quick playoff exits of 2016 and 2017) as Red Sox bullpen coach, likewise believed that the pitching staff could benefit from a more concerted effort to limit what they did from the start of spring training.
In an effort to keep Chris Sale from his typical late-season statistical decline, LeVangie scaled back the lefthander’s spring workload and early-season innings. He decided, in concert with Pearson and Cora, to apply that notion more broadly to the staff, beginning with a spring training in which the Sox held their starters out of games through the first week of the exhibition schedule while also reducing pitchers’ fielding practice and defensive drills on days when they threw bullpen sessions.
“It was really important that we took care of all the guys . . . so we could get to this point and be pitching at our best,” LeVangie said. “How do we conserve bullets so we’re pitching for the length of the season and not just the first half? It’s the throwing program, warm-ups, being smarter, and just controlling and being in good routines.”
LeVangie and Cora said the Red Sox have remained true to their processes, diligently avoiding even warming up pitchers or playing position players who are in the red zone for injury risk. They also tried to minimize injury risk by limiting on-field work between games. They reduced the amount of time players spent on the field during batting practice and in the weight room, or established later pregame reporting times so that players could spend more time resting in hotels.
The results were far from perfect. After all, Sale missed most of six weeks with his shoulder injury. Matt Barnes was sidelined for much of September. Rafael Devers landed on the disabled list multiple times for a hamstring injury.
Yet even with those hiccups, the team believes it has followed the right course. The Sox believe they’ve done what they couldn’t do in the previous two seasons: given their players the best chance to perform at their highest level in the playoffs.
It remains to be seen whether that translates to success.
“Maybe changes in April don’t seem like they will impact [the end of the season],” said Pearson. “But they do.”