ST. PETERSBURG, Fla. — Time didn’t slow down for manager Alex Cora the last two seasons.
He won a World Series as bench coach for the Houston Astros in 2017, then was introduced as Red Sox manager that November. Cora and the Sox went on to win a franchise-record 108 games in addition to a World Series title in 2018. Guest appearances followed Cora throughout the offseason and before he knew it, he was right back at spring training this year.
But with the Sox out of the October picture — much to the dismay of Cora and the team — he admitted he can finally take a step back and make adjustments
Prior to the Sox’ 7-4 win against the Tampa Bay Rays Sunday where Nathan Eovaldi went six innings and surrendered three earned runs in his first win as a Sox starter since Sept. 24 of last season, Cora intimated some of his plans this offseason.
“I’m going to spend time with the family in the beginning,” Cora said. “But they know I am going to be flying all over the place. Or people will be coming to visit us [in Puerto Rico]. There are going to be certain groups that we visit and we’re going to get better.”
The pitching staff — due to injury and underperformance — unraveled this season. But Cora made a point Sunday that he wanted to key in on some of the position players — Andrew Benintendi is one of them — to break some bad habits at the plate.
“We struggle with fastballs up in the zone,” Cora said. “Everybody knows that. Everybody is watching.”
In the age of launch angle, pitchers have adjusted, throwing up in the zone and expanding down. Two of the Sox’ main foes in the division, the Tampa Bay Rays and New York Yankees, pounded that into their pitchers.
“It’s where the game is going,” Cora continued. “It’s not analytics or old-school or whatever. People are adjusting to swings and we have to keep adjusting.”
On paper, the Sox’ offensive numbers are similar to last season. They scored 876 runs in 2018. After Sunday’s win, the Sox now have 860 runs this season. With seven games to go, the Sox could easily pass their total of 2018. They hit .268 last season. Entering Sunday, oddly enough, their batting average was .268. They’ve hit 237 homers this year compared to 208 last year. Their OPS before Sunday was .806. Last season? .792. So, what’s the difference, if any at all?
“We’ve had a good year,” hitting coach Tim Hyers said. “The timing was just off. We’ve had some bad performances when we needed [the opposite]. And had some good performances when the games were blown away.”
This is what Cora and Hyers are getting at.
Last year, the Sox led the league with 190 RBIs in high-leverage moments, according to Fangraphs. They struck out the least in the league in those moments with 104. Their OPS (.796) ranked fourth in the majors.
In those same high leverage situations before Sunday, the Sox ranked 27th in RBIs (130), they struck out 156 times, trailing just the Detroit Tigers, and their OPS (.743) ranked 21st.
Their situational hitting was off this year.
“It’s execution,” Cora said. “All these guys have their hitting guys and swing coaches and all that, but there has to be a balance, too. It’s great that you clean your game, but there’s a certain aspect of all this hitting stuff, that when there’s a man at third and less than two outs we want our ‘A’ swing to hit the ball in the air or do we take a groundball to second and get the RBI?”
Cora noted mentioned the Astros as the blueprint. They struck out the least in the league entering Sunday (18.3 percent) and still led the league in OPS (.848).
“They are leading the league in walks and they don’t strike out,” Cora said. “They’re very talented but they’re doing something probably different than everybody else. We’ll figure it out. We’re not that far off either.”
Said Hyers: “Getting on base and slugging. If you’re successful in those two areas you’re going to have a good year offensively. If one gets above the other that’s when you can have those down years.”
Cora and his staff will have their time to take a breather, but the visits to his players will follow shortly after.
“We have to stay on top of them,” Cora said.