clock menu more-arrow no yes mobile

Filed under:

Alex Cora tells us what we want to hear

The introductory press conference is a paint-by-numbers exercise, so why do we take it seriously?

MLB: Boston Red Sox-Press Conference Greg M. Cooper-USA TODAY Sports

I am happy the Red Sox hired Alex Cora to be their next manager. He ticks off every box you’d want for a “contemporary” manager, as Dave Dombrowski called him during Monday’s press conference and, as Tim Britton wrote for the Projo, his return to Boston is more or less a homecoming. “The picture of Boston’s 47th manager didn’t need to be Photoshopped with a navy hat, a white jersey and a red undershirt,” Britton wrote. “It was from Cora’s time as a player at Fenway, and the entire message crystallized the dynamic on a cloudy November Monday.”

We should all be so lucky to look at 42 like we did a decade prior, but only Cora is lucky enough to have hit the genetic lottery and been named the manager of the Boston Red Sox. That he did so just after winning a World Series with the Houston Astros is icing on the cake.

Soon enough, though, the cake will be headed in Cora’s direction. We can rarely have two things at once without conspiring to ruin them both, and we will throw the cake at his face. For everything the Red Sox have done to turn around the organization under the Henry regime, only David Ortiz left the team fully unscathed, and all he had to do to earn that right was produce 5-10 of the most 100 iconic moments in baseball history. Even Pedro J. Martinez himself left on more or less bad terms before returning in an advisory role.

For that reason, I am less happy with the way we’ve slowly just accepted that Boston is a tough sports town without acknowledging why it’s a tough sports town -- which, I’d argue, is largely due to the voraciousness of some arms of the local media when things go poorly. No one wants to think about stuff like that on days like Monday, during an expensive metaphorical dog-and-pony show, but the old adage of “plan for the worst, hope for the best” applies. My basic question is why the press feels entitled to ask Cora if he’s up for the challenge of them potentially making his life a living hell in bad times, when the best thing to do would be to *not* make his life a living hell in the first place in the dark days that will, inevitably, come.

At the same time, this is just the way it is. I understand the need for beat writers and analysts to explore the obvious narratives at times like this, because they have to write something whether anything interesting happens or not. The idea behind hiring a smart Red Sox reporter isn’t that she will write brilliant stuff all the time. It’s that she’s on retainer for when something interesting really does happen.

A new manager’s press conference is not interesting. You cannot convince me that it is interesting. It’s just words, words, words, and it’s not exactly Hamlet. It’s considerably more call-and-response. The whole affair can be boiled down to this:

REPORTER: Can you say the thing we want to hear?

NEW MANAGER: Not only *can* I, I’d love to!

PR REP: Next question!

(repeat as needed)

To wit, Britton followed his introductory column with one “breaking down Cora’s managerial philosophy” into six categories:

1. Connect with the players

2. Embrace analytics, but don’t be enslaved by them

3. Pay attention to detail

4. Hunt to do damage

5. Be aggressive on the bases -- but do it wisely

6. Play good defense

It’s not Britton’s fault that this is half pablum, half fanservice after John Farrell’s runnin’ regime. It’s the nature of the press conference, and the role of the press, to turn the information therein into easily digested content. The wider problem, if you can call it that, is that Britton, who’s one of the three best and smartest Sox writers around, if not the smartest, has to parse a group of non-answers for real information. It’s like trying to turn a plate of celery into a full meal; you can actually learn less by digesting the whole thing than you can by simply leaving it alone.

There is nothing toxic about this per se, but it doesn’t mean anything if you don’t believe it. It’s when you start believing the silly narratives that things go sideways. Witness:

Alex Speier a very good reporter. He’s probably the Red Sox reporter of record. NESN certainly thinks he is. But this is a silly-bordering-on-inane way to frame this “dilemma.” It’s like asking why the Red Sox might think 50 is a larger number than 33, or why they think Venus is closer to the sun than Mars. It’s asking “why” in response to a question for which there is no “why.” The reason the Red Sox would prefer J.D. Martinez to Eric Hosmer is that Martinez is a better baseball player, full stop. He put up 3.8 WAR, per FanGraphs, to Hosmer’s 4.1 in two-thirds of the plate appearances.

Instead, we get this:

While Jon Heyman of Fanrag Sports suggested that “there’s an expectation” that the Red Sox will target Royals first baseman Eric Hosmer, multiple evaluators around the game believe that the Sox are more likely to prioritize Diamondbacks outfielder J.D. Martinez for a number of reasons.

Because he was traded mid-year, Martinez cannot receive a qualifying offer from Arizona, and thus will cost “just” money (to be sure, a lot of money) rather than negatively impacting draft pick position for a team that needs to refill its farm system. His offensive track record as a true slugger is more consistent than Hosmer’s. He is as good a hitter against lefties as there is in baseball, potentially addressing a Red Sox lineup deficiency.

Moreover, as spectacular as Hosmer’s 2017 season was (.318/.385/.498 with 25 homers), his extreme groundball rate (55.6 percent last year, fourth highest in the majors) and career-high .351 batting average on balls in play (well above a career .316 mark) raises questions about whether his career-best 2017 campaign represented a new baseline or an aberration.

The main tell here is that Speier uses weasel words to explain away Hosmer’s success how “raises questions” while flat-out declaring that Martinez is “as good a hitter against lefties as their in baseball.” How “as good a hitter against lefties as there is in baseball” only potentially addresses a lineup deficiency is beyond me. He’d be an asset on any team, even one that already pounded southpaws, and especially one as flaily as last year’s Sox. All of this is before we unpack the not-credible idea that Hosmer’s sky-high BABIP could actually represent a “new baseline,” which we will not do for the same reason we wouldn’t have expected Kobe Bryant to score 81 points per game after doing it once. Even if he repeated it, there’s no reason whatsoever to expect him to, and it defies credulity to even suggest as much.

The main question is of agency. Speier largely eschews it, portraying the Martinez vs. Hosmer “debate” as a matter of competing factions a la politicians arguing over a tax bill. This approach works well at times and poorly at others, like this one; it would be perfectly suited to a nonsense press conference — but, of course, that’s not what we got. The other reporters fawning over Cora while asking him how he’ll manage the rough Boston media -- i.e., the very people asking the questions -- are expressing their agency in full. They’re in control of the narrative now and they will be later, and they’re showing their hands. Their cards are forever on the table.

I prefer this way of doing things, but I’m still not sure it has much actual value on a day like Monday. Cora’s value to the club is best captured, I think, by these declarative grafs from Britton’s first story:

Cora is here to be the connective tissue between the different branches of the organization. He will be its public face, day-in and day-out throughout the course of the eight-month season. He will be its liaison between the clubhouse and the front office, incorporating Boston’s analytics department as well. It was notable that Cora’s interrogators during his Red Sox interview included not only Dombrowski and his frontline executives, but also Zack Scott and Jared Banner — the former to represent the club’s analytics department and the latter to get a younger voice in the room.

A modern manager has to master different dialects. He must be fluent in the vernacular of the clubhouse and well-versed in the formal language of the front office. There’s a reason, in the wake of a World Series that matched Hinch and Dave Roberts, that so many teams on the verge of contention are picking first-time managers in their 40s to lead them.

This is probably as succinct as you can make it without being unbearably wishy washy on one end or disingenuous on the other. I don’t necessarily believe that the Dodgers and Astros gained significant advantages by having younger managers, given that last year’s finalists were helmed by then 57-year-old Terry Francona and then 62-year-old Joe Maddon, but I want Britton’s claim to be true, and it passes the smell test. As fun as Jim Leyland would have been, the Sox were overdue for a younger manager, and to that end, Cora insisted baseball was designed to be fun.

This is easy to say and harder to do, especially in Boston, but if anyone’s up for the challenge, it’s probably Cora. Dombrowski remains the most important person in the organization no matter what the manager does. Cora’s there to take the lumps and answer questions for narratives that have nothing to do with him, but will inevitably paint him in a bad light. He promised a ring, and that’s good, but it’s dangerous to give the Boston press corps enough rope to hang you with. It doesn’t matter how many dialects you speak, or how nice they were to you at your introduction, when they’re out for blood. At that point, they are certain to “raise questions” for which there aren’t any honest answers, and it won’t be Cora’s fault when he invariably finds himself under the wheels of the bus they’re driving.