“It's a human phenomenon that there has to be a reason for everything. There almost never is. Inexplicable ****, like flipping a coin or the outcome of a baseball game, we need to tell ourselves a story: This team has great chemistry. This team is tough. You know what? That **** all matters, but it's never the full answer that people want it to be. It's why we have stories about the stars in the sky, and the planets and the seas and gods and mythology. We evolve to a point where we can tell and understand the stories. Some are real and some are not, but we attach meaning to all of them.” — Theo Epstein, to ESPN The Magazine, 2016
FORT MYERS, Fla. — Alex Cora has changed Red Sox culture for the better. The good vibes are flowing like Andrew Benintendi's old hair. Cora's time shaping his first clubhouse is just beginning, so even more synchronicity awaits.
Let's get out in front of this now, then: in 2018, we’re going to give clubhouse culture more credit than is due.
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Cora, his staff and the environment they create will deserve credit if the Red Sox have expected success. Plenty. But the narrative has already become too singular, too easy.
Can’t you hear it coming? If the 2018 Sox start raking again… “Well, what changed from 2017 to 2018? One big bat named J.D. Martinez and the manager.”
It is true, in some way, that the ’18 Red Sox are the closest thing you’ll find to a controlled experiment measuring the value of a manager. Mostly unchanged roster, new voice in the big chair.
But you could run the exact roster out there two straight years with different managers and still see performance differences that cannot be ascribed to the manager, or anything but randomness.
Here’s the annoying truth: if Mookie Betts, Xander Bogaerts and Jackie Bradley Jr. all hit well in 2018; if David Price is happy and pitching well; if Chris Sale shows longevity through October; if absolutely anything at all changes for the better compared to a year ago; the reasons will be multiple. Layered and complex.
Cora and his staff will be contributors, prominently so. But happiness does not hit home runs.
The conversation around the Red Sox for so long has centered on clubhouse culture and what went wrong in 2017 and how John Farrell no longer fit. That conversation has been relevant for a long time. Dustin Pedroia reaffirmed as much Monday on WEEI, when he discussed how Farrell's style wore on the team.
But when it becomes virtually the singular focus — and I suggest to you we’ve reached that point — we lose sight of reality, or rather, the whole reality.
Part of the allure of the culture topic is the presence of debate. At a time when everything on the field is measured and therefore devoid of uncertainty, we cannot measure the impact of what Cora is doing. You can’t disprove its effects, or how far its effects go. You just know they’re there, and they work.
But talented bodies are still doing the actual work.
Here’s a hypothetical: Betts this year hits more home runs. He thinks he’s hitting more home runs because he feels more relaxed. He thinks he’s more relaxed because of Cora. He tells the media that, or he tweets it out, and fans and media discuss it.
Does Betts' belief, or the media’s belief, that X led to Y come close to a complete explanation? Cora surely — undoubtedly! — will help Betts. But to say that's why Betts then hit more home runs...
Players like to find plausible reasons and explanations just as those watching the players do. The reason for X may involve Y, but Y may not be the heart of the issue, or close to it. No, Y is just what's easiest to discuss.
“Ultimately, it comes down to guys being healthy and performing no the field,” Brock Holt said Monday. “It helps that we all get along and root for each other. ... That chemistry that we build in the clubhouse is going to go out in the dugout. But ultimately, at the end of the day, it’s guys staying healthy and having your best nine guys out there as much as you can and them doing what they’re capable of doing.”
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No one can tell you how many home runs a more pleasant environment will add to Betts’ bat. No one can tell you exactly how much of that pleasant environment will be owed to Cora and his staff or to things like good health, mechanical changes, or annoyingly inexplicable things like year-to-year fluctuations. But we need to remember the 18 other factors.
Cora's fixing something that was broken. The repair is important and not to be undersold. Strangely, we’ve hit a point where it could be oversold.
“The manager makes the lineup and puts the guys out there that he thinks give us the best chance to win, but it’s the players that go out and do it,” Holt said. “If we go out and don’t perform. We lose the game. If we go out and we do what we’re supposed to do, more times than not, we win. I mean I think, the clubhouse culture, the chemistry, that’s very important. Because it translates to being on the field with each other and rooting for each other and playing for each other. But guys being healthy and performing is a big part of it too.”