By-the-numbers managing is out the window. October is a time when in-game strategy requires a distinct blend of art and science, when teams often ask players to perform in roles that are unfamiliar.
During the Division Series, Red Sox manager Alex Cora proved creative. He deployed Rick Porcello and Chris Sale out of the bullpen as eighth-inning setup options.
He set in motion an aggressive offense that stole bases and used hit-and-runs.
Yet he also proved analytical. In Game 3, Cora ignored the small-sample noise of batter-vs.-pitcher numbers in favor of the larger evidence of batter and pitcher strengths to start Brock Holt and Rafael Devers against Luis Severino.
Then, one day after Holt hit for the cycle, Cora sat him in favor of what he viewed as a superior matchup option in Ian Kinsler, who rewarded that choice with a key RBI double.
That sort of adaptability — and the ability to synthesize data from the analytics department and to trust his feel for the game — proved a difference-maker. In a way, the work Cora did during the ALDS echoed what he had witnessed one year earlier, as bench coach to Astros manager A.J. Hinch.
Hinch was similarly creative, adaptable, and intelligent in stewarding a wildly talented 2017 Astros team to a title. His creative deployment of his pitching staff — using starters Brad Peacock, Lance McCullers, and Charlie Morton to close out games when Ken Giles and a successful regular-season bullpen crew proved unable to lock down the late innings — may have offered a loose template for Cora.
“Be prepared to make adjustments throughout — that’s the most important thing,” Cora said. “One thing I learned last year, to win a World Series is going to take 25, 27 guys to do it, regardless of their roles.
“In a perfect world, the starter goes six. You have the seventh inning guy, eighth inning, and ninth inning, and you move on. To get 27 outs at this stage right now is very difficult. And sometimes you have to go to Plan B or Plan C.”
Cora and Hinch have remained in touch throughout the season, and have talked on a number of occasions this month.
Both managers rightly point out that it is the players who will determine whether the Red Sox or Astros advance to the World Series. But the decision-making by Hinch and Cora will be a fascinating game within a game, at a time when the willingness of managers to veer from blueprints can make the difference.
Managers have to understand the information they receive from analytics departments to identify potentially favorable matchups. Yet they also have to understand when to look beyond such information.
“Not everything is all scripted out perfectly,” Hinch said last month. “Not everything is mapped out in an answer key. There is a combination of what you see and what you know.
“Everyone enters the postseason at different levels. The projections will take you so far, but fatigue level, sharpness, delivery, the ability to spin a breaking ball — you have to apply so much context at the time of the postseason that it can be originated in a projection system or analytically driven philosophy, [but] the application has to have some human element in it that applies what the pitcher says.
“Say I have Pitcher A who’s dominant in the style in which he pitches but he’s a shadow of himself entering the playoffs. Do I want to trust the information on what he should do or do I want to trust what he’s doing currently at the moment? That’s the decision on who’s going to face a Mookie Betts or Nelson Cruz or a Matt Chapman.
“There’s only so much where the numbers can take you. How you apply it is what’s going to matter.”
There is an element of unpredictability in how managers will apply information to shape their postseason matchups. While there is a chance that the familiarity of Cora and Hinch will provide each a window into what the other might do, Cora tried to downplay the notion, noting the difference between the two rosters and between the 2017 and 2018 Astros.
Moreover, Cora insisted that the American League champion will be determined between the lines, not from the dugout.
“There might be a few things that I said that he’ll use against us, and maybe he said a few things that I learn, and we might use it for our benefit,” said Cora. “But . . . it doesn’t make that much difference. I think at the end, [Xander] Bogaerts, [Carlos] Correa, [Jose] Altuve, Kinsler, all those guys, they’re going to decide who wins this series.
“At the end, honestly, A.J.’s not throwing the ball, I’m not throwing a ball. It’s all about talent on the field.
“Obviously we have to do our job to put them in positions to be successful. But at the end, my last at-bat was 2011, and A.J.’s was a while ago. It’s not about us.”
Nonetheless, with both Cora and Hinch already having shown a willingness to depart from regular-season convention, their decision-making — and their ability to anticipate the decision-making of each other — will be an undeniably fascinating subplot, in which unexpected roles seem likely to emerge.
“It seemed like fate we’d meet again,” Hinch told USA Today. “The story is almost too good not to happen.”
The same can be said of a number of the subplots that will be contained within a Red Sox-Astros matchup of star-studded rosters. NBC Sports Boston looked at some of the other story lines in play, which range from the front offices to the coaching staffs down to the mascots.