July 11, 2021
The Red Sox are careening toward the All-Star break on pace to win 100 games and the American League East title. What most people thought of as a bridge year to prepare for 2022 has become a bona fide hunt for another Boston Red Sox championship. General Manager extraordinaire Chaim Bloom deserves a ton of credit for putting this team together, but the key to Boston’s surprising resurgence to the head of the table in the American League is Bloom’s reacquisition of Alex Cora.
I admit that the following is a bold statement to make. After all, he has only managed the Red Sox for a total of 2 1/2 years thus far. But by the time Alex Cora’s career is all said and done, I have little doubt that he will go down as the undisputed greatest Red Sox manager of all time.
Let’s begin with the obvious: there is an incredibly narrow field of competition when deciding who is the best Red Sox manager of all time. In my book, you need to have led the Red Sox to at least one championship in order to be considered. Disregarding all candidates whose tenure pre-dated World War I leaves us with a grand total of three legitimate contenders.
John Farrell caught lightning in a bottle during a magical run with the 2013 Boston Strong team, but let’s be honest. The game he called from the dugout wasn’t nearly as impressive as the game he spat at the reporters who covered the team.
Any Red Sox fan will tell you that this contest is a two-horse race between Alex Cora and Terry Francona.
Francona is a sacred cow in Boston, and for good reason. Tito was at the helm for the championship that broke the Curse of the Bambino in 2004. For that alone, he shall remain a Boston legend for centuries to come.
He was said to be a great player’s manager who was always well-liked and respected in the clubhouse. He also handled the media exceptionally well (not as well as Farrell though, am I right?). But the way I see it, that is pretty much where his managerial strengths end. When it comes to putting players in the best position to succeed and managing the game on the fly, Francona can’t carry Cora’s jock.
Terry Francona’s lineups always made me scratch my head, even during that magical 2004 season. Bill Mueller won the American League batting title in 2004 … from the ninth spot in the batting lineup. Francona had the American League batting champion … the guy with a better statistical chance of getting a hit than anyone else in the league … batting last in his lineup all season long.
Wouldn’t it seem like a good idea to slot a guy that is hitting well over .300 in front of the legendary 3-4 combo of David Ortiz and Manny Ramirez to give them even more opportunities to drive in runs? Mark Bellhorn, the guy who led the league in strikeouts, batted second all year, for God’s sake.
Bellhorn may have walked a lot, but Mueller’s on-base percentage was still twenty points higher since he, you know, led the league in hitting! Shouldn’t the batting champion be getting more at bats every game than the strikeout champion? There was no excuse whatsoever for not switching those two guys in the order halfway … even three quarters of the way through the season.
Cora’s lineups always make perfect sense because he seems to know both the game and his players inside and out. This year, he has left the one through five lineup slots mostly untouched, while shuffling the back end of the order depending on matchups and recent performance. He has an amazing feel of when to play the numbers and when to follow his instincts.
When Hunter Renfroe started raking in June, Cora changed the lineup accordingly. Renfroe, a platoon player hitting seventh or eighth in the order, soon became the everyday right fielder and number six hitter. Seizing this opportunity, Renfroe continues to contribute, giving Cora a potent righthanded bat to protect Rafael Devers.
On the other side of the coin, Cora has stood firm with Kike Hernandez as his leadoff hitter despite the centerfielder’s early offensive struggles. Cora did try out a couple other leadoff options like Arroyo and Alex Verdugo, but soon enough he went back to his initial instinct and reinserted Hernandez at the top of the order. Now, Kike is channeling his inner Rickey Henderson, leading off five games with home runs so far in 2021 and permanently cementing himself in the leadoff spot.
In a world where managers make way less money than the players, managers need to tread lightly regarding how to handle the considerable egos these players have. Francona was the prototypical player’s manager. He never called anyone out in public and always gave “his guys” the benefit of the doubt.
The downside of this philosophy eventually manifested itself, occasionally in full view of the public. You’d think that a player would hesitate to do something like this to a well-respected manager.
Another drawback to being so player-friendly was Francona’s tendency to stick with certain players for too long. Nowhere was this more evident than in the case of first baseman Kevin Millar.
After good seasons in 2003 and 2004, Millar nosedived in 2005. The mouthpiece behind the 2004 Idiots PR campaign saw his average drop 20 points and his home run total drop 50%. Yet Tito consistently batted him in the middle of the order all year long. It wasn’t until the playoffs that Francona finally dropped him to the seventh spot in the order, even though it was obvious by May that Millar’s only contribution was nostalgia and he belonged either in the nine-hole or on the bench.
But Francona liked the guy, and the team suffered because of it. Francona went so far as inexplicably citing “other things” beyond on-field performance when asked why the perpetually scuffling Millar was still batting fifth. It was as if Tito treated 2005 as a victory lap around the league rather than another attempt to win a ring.
Nick Pivetta is far more important to the 2021 Boston Red Sox than Kevin Millar has ever been to a team in his life. Pivetta has been Boston’s most consistent starting pitcher and, in my opinion, the closest thing they have had to an ace this season. He’s also a high-strung headcase that pounds on benches and water coolers between innings … and that’s when he’s performing well.
Yet Alex Cora is ballsy enough to remove Pivetta from a game that he is leading 5-2 with two outs in the fifth inning, costing his best pitcher a win for his stat line. A few starts later, Cora even took him out in the seventh inning of a no-hitter in order to preserve his arm.
A lot of managers would be terrified of being cussed out, skewered in the media, or physically assaulted by a pitcher for taking the ball out of his hand in those situations. But Cora’s team, Pivetta included, knows and respects the fact that he is all about winning, first and foremost. To hell with the stats and egos of individual players, because the manager’s job is to win ballgames.
I’ve already gone on record with my thoughts on Christian Arroyo’s potential value to the 2021 Boston Red Sox. This became solidified in my mind with Arroyo’s pinch-hit game-winning grand slam during a slog-fest of a game in Atlanta.
As Arroyo pimped his way around the bases that night, I couldn’t help but think of another huge pinch-hit home run that was orchestrated by Cora.
With two outs in the bottom of the seventh inning in Game 1 of the 2018 World Series, Eduardo Nunez pinch-hit for then-rookie Devers and delivered a clutch three-run homer off Los Angeles Dodgers lefty Alex Wood to put the game out of reach.
Nunez later explained that Cora had called him the night before to explain that the Dodgers would bring in Alex Wood to pitch to Devers late in the game, at which point Cora would summon Nunez to pinch-hit. Nunez spent all day studying film on Wood and preparing for that very situation. He knew Wood would throw him a slider down and in during the at-bat. Nunez waited for that pitch and deposited it into the monster seats to win the game, all because his manager had put him in the best position to succeed. Thanks to Cora, Eduardo Nunez was a hero.
I can’t help but think that Cora had prepared Arroyo before that game in Atlanta in much the same way he prepared Nunez. Arroyo knew that he’d come in to hit in the pitcher’s spot late in the game against A.J. Minter. So he spent all day preparing for that at bat, which led to the Red Sox winning an important game that they probably didn’t deserve to win.
Francona always managed the bullpen well, but Cora is undoubtedly superior in that respect as well.
Until Josh Taylor’s streak of 26 consecutive scoreless appearances was snapped Saturday, the Red Sox had seven relievers with earned run averages below 3.00. It’s pretty rare for a team to have three relievers with ERAs below 3.00, let alone seven of them.
Cora has been masterful at consistently deploying the right relief pitcher for the right situation. Taylor, Matt Barnes, Darwinzon Hernandez, Brandon Workman … these guys have all struggled mightily in their careers. Yet they have all figured it out this year under the direction of Alex Cora. That’s not a coincidence, especially when you consider that this bullpen has enjoyed its best run of the year to-date smack dab in the middle of sticky-gate.
And 2021 is not the first year where Cora has worked miracles with an unimpressive looking bullpen. The 2018 Red Sox had a horrendous lack of talent in the pen. Everyone was sure that relief pitching would be their undoing in the playoffs.
That is, until Cora came up with the brilliant strategy of using starting pitchers on two-days-rest as setup men to pitch the eighth inning. This magnificent move created a secure bridge to closer Craig Kimbrel and, ultimately, a World Series title.
There will always be a place in my heart for Terry Francona. However, his legacy in Boston can be summed up thusly:
He stayed out of the way while two of the greatest teams ever assembled could win championships in 2004 and 2007.
Alex Cora is more of a head coach than a manager. He is an active participant in preparation, analysis, and playing the game on the field. He is a baseball visionary; a prototype that aspiring managers will study for decades to come.
He is the greatest Red Sox manager of all time.