Evan Drellich

Drellich: Still a lot we don't know about Cora's managerial strategies

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Drellich: Still a lot we don't know about Cora's managerial strategies

There aren't many in-game moves to weigh when a team is decimating its opponents. After the Red Sox dropped consecutive games for the first time this season, we have a reminder of how little we know about Alex Cora's in-game managing philosophy.

The 2018 Red Sox have been a wild success so far, and the changes in the atmosphere alone make Cora a success as well. But he may need to reconsider a few things when it comes to that other part of the job, managing the lineup and the bullpen and the X's and O's. (Even if it means sacrificing some good will in the clubhouse at times.)

Managers have to constantly balance keeping players happy, fresh and the present. The present cannot -- and should not -- always be favored. Sometimes, though, the present can be pushed too far aside. Sunday's 4-1 loss to the A's seemed like one of those days.

MOOKIE MUST BAT

The most egregious mistake Cora made on Sunday was leaving Mookie Betts in the on-deck circle, with Christian Vazquez at the plate for the final out.

If Cora were determined to give Betts a full day off for a health reason, that would be one thing. Betts was available, and it's therefore inexcusable to let the game slip by with him in waiting.

"It has to be the perfect spot for him," Cora told reporters in Oakland, including MassLive.com. "He was ready to run earlier in the game. If J.D. [Martinez in the eighth inning] were to get on with two outs and they had the closer, we felt we could run on him and put pressure on him and get the go-ahead run at second. Probably he was going to run there. But besides that, it would have to be the perfect spot for him to change the game.”

Had Vazquez reached, Betts would have represented the tying run at the plate. Is that the so-called perfect spot Cora sought? The chances Betts hits a game-tying home run are not high. The rally needed to continue in some form, and Betts needed to be given a chance to do so.

Looking for a future moment that may not arrive for your best hitter is not sound managing in the ninth inning. 

The same logic that surrounds Betts appears applicable to Hanley Ramirez and Eduardo Nunez, who were both out of the starting lineup as well. There's no indication those two were unavailable, so what were they being saved for?

Both Vazquez and Tzu-Wei Lin batted with two men on in the seventh inning, when the game was tied at 1-1, and did not get the job done. Cora could have pinch-hit then too.

Lin and Vazquez are important defensively. Delaying pinch-hitting appearances until after the seventh came with a leg to stand on: Save the bullets for later to better the defense. But those bullets were never used.

HOW MUCH REST IS NEEDED, AND WHEN IS BEST?

At some point, Cora's strategy of resting players was going to invite wider scrutiny. The concept is great: increase performance by keeping players fresh. Cora recently pointed out that Sox players are physically small relative to some  teams. Their bodies, in turn, may need more downtime.

What remains something of a guess is how much rest is really needed. What's the right number? Probably, for each player, it varies. Not every move made with rest in mind is equally smart.

It's one thing to rest players. It's another to rest three regulars -- and two of your best hitters -- at once. Every game counts, whether you're resting players in April or the day after a division clincher.

Cora before the game told reporters he was resting the regulars to take advantage of the scheduled off-day Monday. Was the trade-off worth it? Did Nunez and Ramirez need the entirety of the day off?

Nunez, coming off a knee injury to end the 2017 season, has been playing complete games regularly. Perhaps he could be pulled sometimes for a defensive replacement to gain rest. 

For example: Nunez played every inning of the sweep of the Angels, during which the Sox outscored Anaheim 27-3. He played every inning of the next two games in Oakland, as well.

Someone who did not play a single inning in the field during that stretch: Blake Swihart, who seems exempt from Cora's plan to keep everyone fresh defensively. Swihart was the designated hitter Sunday, seemingly forced into the lineup more than strategically used.

WAS SUNDAY ALL ABOUT CONFIDENCE?

As speculation: Maybe Cora didn't pinch-hit Betts for Vazquez in the ninth because he wanted Vazquez, his starting catcher, to have the opportunity to earn the right to future big at-bats. Vazquez has been struggling. Maybe the choice was made so that, in a similar spot in the future, Vazquez cannot turn around and tell Cora he feels slighted if someone does bat in his place.

And maybe that's why Swihart was not asked to bunt with men on in the seventh inning.

Same goes for David Price in the eighth inning. Perhaps Cora was trying to give Price some confidence and leeway when he left him in with two on, the Nos. 3-4-5 hitters up, one out and a tie gamed at 1-1. Going forward, after Price did not come through, perhaps Cora will have an easier time taking Price out in a key spot.

Would that be worth the loss on Sunday?

Even if Cora boosted Price's confidence by letting him stay in, he might have sent the opposite message to others in the Red Sox bullpen, who were kept away from a key moment.

The Sox have been careful with workload all April. As a jam developed Sunday, it felt a perfect moment to establish some confidence in the eighth-inning crew. The inning was high stress and Price was creeping up on 100 pitches. Plus, between the relievers and Price, who needed the moment more?

Carson Smith was warming. Once Price got the second out of the inning with a strikeout of Jed Lowrie, Cora went with a gut feeling rather than something pre-planned.

“We had Smith ready, but it doesn't matter,” Cora told reporters, including NESN. "The way [Price] got [Jed Lowrie] out, you know, you could see, you know, he still had his fastball was good enough, and the pitch to Jed was probably the one that made me make the decision.”

In other words: One pitch to Lowrie made Cora think Price was better equipped than a fresh arm. Gut feelings are fine for a manager occasionally, but this seemed a textbook moment: go to the 'pen. Pulling Price was an easy first guess, not second guess:

KIMBREL'S BEING SAVED FOR SAVES, NOT BIGGEST MOMENTS

The Red Sox can win the division with Craig Kimbrel as an old-school, saves-hungry closer who does not want to pitch in the eighth inning -- and only the eighth -- if the game is on the line. They've shown they can do that. But their chances are worse for it.

Brewers manager Craig Counsell on Sunday had a former traditional closer, Jeremy Jeffress, escape a bases-loaded jam in the sixth inning of what wound up being a 4-2 Milwaukee victory.

"Today's sixth inning by J.J. was absolutely incredible. You can't do any better than that," Counsell said. "We make a big deal about the ninth inning but that was the game right there."

Counsell's not talking about the eighth. He's talking about the sixth.

Entering Tuesday, Kimbrel will have pitched once in eight days, in a blowout in Anaheim just to get work in. He did not warm in the eighth inning Sunday. There is no argument to be made that using Kimbrel on Sunday for two outs in the eighth would have tired him out. 

Here's what Cora said during spring training about Kimbrel in the eighth: "We'll sit down with him throughout spring training. People think it's a big adjustment. If you start looking at the numbers, you don't lose too many saves if it's the way you want to use him. We're not talking about the lower third of the lineup. We're talking the middle of the lineup, eighth inning, certain situations. What I feel is the game on the line . . . We'll sit down and talk about it and he'll understand where we're coming from. And as long as he's healthy he'll do it.”

He's healthy. He's not doing it. The pitcher appear more concerned with saves than what's best for the team, and the manager appears at the pitcher's mercy.

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The Baseball Show Podcast: How should Red Sox be using Craig Kimbrel?

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The Baseball Show Podcast: How should Red Sox be using Craig Kimbrel?

Here is The Baseball Show Podcast, brought to you by Twin River Casino.

1:11 - Evan Drellich and Lou Merloni break down the Red Sox most recent loss to the Oakland Athletics and debate how Alex Cora should be using Craig Kimbrel.

7:28 - With Mookie Betts off to a roaring start to the season, Lou and Evan are left wondering if he has reverted to his 2016 form or if he'll fall off as the season progresses.

12:13 - With the weather wreaking havoc on teams' schedules in April, Lou and Evan look at some potential adjustments the league could make to the schedule: less games, more double headers and even longer playoffs.

Drellich: Dombrowski deserves credit for Sox' hot start no matter how expensive the roster is

Drellich: Dombrowski deserves credit for Sox' hot start no matter how expensive the roster is

BOSTON — In this unmitigated age of tanking, it’s important to recognize teams and executives who not only strive to make the playoffs annually, but actually do so.

Money is a prerequisite for those teams, naturally. The Red Sox are case in point. And what’s the skill in winning with a large pile of money, you wonder?

Well, turn the question around: what’s the skill in tanking? If you can’t win after losing for several years, if you can’t find success after stockpiling talent and shedding contracts, you probably aren’t cut out to be a general manager in any circumstance.

The Red Sox’ 13-2 start is owed to many people, many choices. New manager Alex Cora has the right brew so far. New hitting coach Tim Hyers is the conductor on the launch-angle train. There’s good health and improved chemistry and the LeVangie Advantage. 

You've even witnessed some good luck. Three grand slams to begin this season compared to zero for all of 2017 has something to do with the Baseball Gods.

Yet, no matter how you build your pie chart for April’s bloom, the boss who put the pieces in place, Dave Dombrowski, needs credit. Who hired the manager, after all? Who presides over all of this?

The money discussion is relevant, but just one part of the picture. 

Four years ago, Yankees general manager Brian Cashman misheard a question I asked him. Perhaps I mumbled it. Either way, it leads to a poignant quote.

I was trying to ask if Cashman ever looked at the tanking teams and said to himself, boy, I wish I could do it that way.

Cashman didn’t hear that question — probably because, for so long, he’s heard people say they wish they could do it his way. Meaning, with a ton of money. 

He told me what he would tell those people.

"This is a very fast-moving Ferrari," Cashman said. "And in many cases, those same people who talk that talk would be an insect smashing against the windshield and getting splattered all over the place because they can't believe the amount of velocity that this car is moving at."

(If you're keeping track, the GM of the Yankees suggested some GMs are bugs whose guts would explode everywhere were they in his shoes. Carry on.) 

"You have to manage and deal with expectations, and that's a big thing," Cashman continued. "It's a lot of pressure when you're expected to win on a daily basis. So yeah, it's an easy thing to throw around all the time about, 'I wish I could do it that way.' We have the ability because of our market. If something's broke, you go out and fix it. And we're lucky for that; I'm thankful for that. But it doesn't come without heavy lifting.”

Dombrowski’s driving a pretty fast car too.

His Red Sox are carrying the highest payroll in baseball. He had high-priced teams in his time in Detroit as well.

Cora’s success is still Dombrowski’s. After the clubhouse issues that arose a year ago, Dombrowski chose not to make major changes to the roster aside from adding J.D. Martinez. He appears to have read the situation, and solution, correctly.

Dombrowski has not spent every dollar he’s been allotted with the greatest efficiency. But Dombrowski also hasn’t made any major gaffes. He didn’t sign Pablo Sandoval, or Rusney Castillo. He inherited them. (The jury is out on David Price’s $217 million deal.)

Dombrowski arrived in Boston with a mandate to get the Sox back into contention. The day he was introduced, he harped on adding pitching. He came through, with moves that hurt the farm system but also carried serious upside — not only in terms of performance, but flexibility.

Look at Craig Kimbrel and Chris Sale, whom Dombrowski acquired on team-friendly contracts. Dombrowski may not be a wizard at creating roster flexibility, but adding some stars on below-market contracts goes a long way. Those acquisitions allow for others. Even the new clean-up hitter, Martinez, was a relative bargain.

A lot can change. Dombrowski built a good bullpen a year ago, but this year’s is likely going to need a midseason upgrade. The holes don’t disappear because the Sox are off to a scorching start. But the success shouldn’t either. 

Dombrowski’s spent a lot of money. He hasn’t spent it perfectly. The Sox don't appear as well positioned as the Yankees in the long run. But if you look at the team's 13-2 record and look past the president of baseball operations, you’re forgetting how fast that Ferrari can go — and that not every GM is equipped to drive it in the first place.
 

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