Peter Gammons: Cora and Red Sox in search of identity for 2018 and beyond

It wasn’t as if the Red Sox 2017 season was 1965 all over again. They won 93 games and the division for the second year in a row. But even as they tried to battle back against the World Champion Astros in the ALDS, there was something that felt as if the team had some off form of the flu that they could not shake.

It wasn’t just David Price and the Cold War with the media. Dustin Pedroia somehow took blame; he was hurt. Period. It wasn’t just John Farrell’s use of the bullpen or the debate over aggressive vs. ill-conceived baserunning.

Oh, there were injury problems, to Pedroia and Price, Hanley Ramirez and Xander Bogaerts and Brock Holt and Steven Wright, but, most of all, somehow the reset button never worked, and with the Yankees on the brink of a run similar to the one that began in 1996—do not forget how close they were to the World Series—they knew the time had come to turn in the comfortable car, get a 2018 model and head back on the highway. A friend this week said college presidents have a shelf life of ten years, another that no governor can effectively govern past three terms. The storm warnings change every few months until 50 months becomes untenable.

Alex Cora brings with him an energy, a different kind of style, a different view. At his press conference, there were, at times, gasps of horror when he talked about analytics, which he’d learned to respect over the last few years, and learned to dissect and implement in his year with A.J. Hinch in Houston. Cora would sift through all the information the Astros front office made available—a front office that privately conceded that the Dodgers and Yankees may be more analytically-driven (and noted that Boston had noticeably declined)—and created what one Dodger executive advancing the series called “the most unusual and effective” in the game right now.

Houston employed 1522 shifts during the season, most of any team; Boston used 677, second fewest, and anyone who knows Brian Butterfield knows no one did more work preparing, every day. Did it help that Houston had two really good shortstops on the left side of the infield in Carlos Correa and Alex Bregman they could move? Of course. That’s figuring out what one has and best employing them in situational baseball.

The Red Sox will have analytic conduits at home and on the road, working together to break down and get the information to the players in manners that the players understand, which Sandy Alderson says is one of the most important jobs of the club’s collaboration that runs from the front office on through the organization.

They will have that again on the pitching side with Dana Levangie, whose scouting background has been an important factor in bullpen preparation and usage, and Brian Bannister, and now advance scout (and former minor league pitcher) Steve Langone. “Pitching isn’t just about velocity and command, it’s about how that pitcher’s stuff and command plays to hitters, and how they put the ball in play makes the pitching that much more effective,” says one general manager. “Defense is pitching, it is skill, it is preparation, it is constant positioning. That requires hours of video, reams of statistical data…” It is interesting that when Brad Ausmus was hired by Dave Dombrowski, the Tigers’ analytics were essentially the press notes. That changed, and now while Dombrowski may not go through Pitch F/X and Statcast every morning at 4:30 a.m., he has made the input of information and people who can take it from laptops to the field a major priority moving forward. The days of managers drooling tobacco juice onto their uniforms and general managers with dip cups in their box are long gone. There is no need for media members to live in fear. The Astros wouldn’t be World Champions had Hinch not combined the human (Brian McCann, Carlos Beltran, breaking media analytics experts’ hearts by hitting George Springer where he best fit, in the leadoff spot) and the sabermetric.

What Cora talked about in his press conference was one of the elements that took the enormous talent of the first five hitters in their lineup and made them the highest scoring team in the game. For a generation, taking pitches and trying to get deep into counts was vital to getting into bullpens in the fifth and sixth innings. That has changed, from 2003-2004. Bullpens today do not consist of sinker/slider failed starters. They come in throwing 97-99, in case you missed what Brian Cashman assembled. Starting pitchers will throw breaking balls early in counts, especially curveballs, in tandem with high four seam fastballs that change eye levels.

Cora talked about hitters going to the plate with an idea of what he needs to look for from each opposing pitcher (more data, sorry). George Springer gets a fastball on the outside half first pitch? Drive it. Ditto Bregman. Or Jose Altuve and Correa and Yuli Gurriel. The Astros had hitters who made contact, hard contact when they got their pitch. They led the majors in runs, OPS, hit line drives and hit them hard.

The Red Sox also have a half-dozen players, most approaching prime career ages, who make contact. But as Tim Britton in the Providence Journal pointed out, they took more first pitches than any of the 30 major league teams. They were in the top third in hitting the ball on the ground. And everyone knows that they were last in home runs.

And it wasn’t only the loss of David Ortiz, as much as he was a monumental loss. The answer is not having everyone drop his back shoulder, shout “launch angle” and try to be Mark Reynolds. Enter Cora’s pitch hunting mantra, which happens to be what made Dwight Evans such a great offensive—as well as defensive—player in the 1980’s.

We get the facts: Mookie Betts was in the top six in WAR, but his OPS dropped from .897 to .803. Bogaerts dropped from .802 to .746. Jackie Bradley, Jr. dropped from .835 to .746. Hanley Ramirez’s shoulder wasn’t right.

Enter hitting coach Tim Hyers, who had Betts, Andrew Benintendi, Rafael Devers, Bradley, Christian Vazquez and others in the Boston organization before spending two years with young Dodger hitters like Cody Bellinger and Chris Taylor.

Hyers doesn’t talk launch angle. He talks about the way Astros and Dodgers “look for a lane”—a pitch they could drive. He believes in hitters getting their feet in good, firm position, then allowing the hips—which he calls “the engine”—to fire and connect the hips with the hands. One sees the strong, quick hands of Betts, Bogaerts, Benintendi, Devers, Blake Swihart (well over .400 in the Dominican, and a possible breakout now that he’s recovered from two years of bad ankles).. “It’s all about how they work together from their feet to their hands,” says Hyers.

If you read or listened to Ted Williams, that is what he preached, beginning with the hips. Kris Bryant’s swing is the closest in the game right now to Williams, the hips, the natural slight uppercut…Bryant was raised by his father Mike, who worked with Williams in the Red Sox system, to learn everything Ted.

Will Dombrowski go get a J.D. Martinez as a DH? Will he get an Eric Hosmer, who when he takes BP at Fenway has what seems to be the perfect left-center loft. Ortiz will be around, because of Cora. So will Mike Lowell, to help Devers. Evans could be invaluable. When Hyers mentions how Vazquez “has really cleaned up his approach and swing,” he knows Levangie has been a guiding force, and that during the winters Cora hooked Vazquez up with Yadier Molina.

Manny Ramirez, who had the pronounced left leg kick, used to say “when I go into a slump, it’s usually because I lose the connection of my right shoulder to my left foot.”

The Red Sox can be better in 2018 and still finish second. What’s important is getting better, especially considering almost all their young position players are approaching their prime years. In the end, their real improvement may not depend on a $140M contract (yes, Martinez had the second highest hard it percentage in the majors), but in regaining that joy and childlike enthusiasm for everyday at the park. And clearing their heads with thoughts about hunting pitches and looking for lanes and taking the defensive approach that expectations can create in the Boston market and making it about not being wary of being overly offensive.

No matter how much money they spend this winter, the Red Sox aren’t pulling into Fort Myers supposed to win. What John Henry, Tom Werner, and Sam Kennedy are counting on is that when they get to March 20, the reset button has been working for five weeks and they’re focused on what it’s like to win in Fenway Park, not, as has been the case, what it’s like to lose in Fenway Park. When you don’t want to, it can make you forget about winning.

Every time I mingled with the Astros and then watched them take the field, I thought about Richard Thompson’s “I Feel So Good I’m Gonna Break Somebody’a Heart Tonight.”

The way it oughta be.

Comments

  1. William F Beck says:

    Great article. Out with the old and in with the new. Life is always about change.

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