Well, it didn’t take long for there to be a little bit of controversy and argument in Red Sox nation, as we have some manager second-guessing just one game into the season. It’s not a huge surprise that this has happened to a first-year manager — or any manager, really — but it’s a certainly one way to jump right into the season. I don’t think I really have to say how we can’t read too much into one game and that things happen in small sample sizes in this sport. It’s obviously magnified in the first game of the year, but that doesn’t mean we need to overblow everything. With that in mind, I won’t respond to people complaining about the bullpen being garbage. Either that’s an opinion formed on a one-game sample, which come on, or it’s been a belief for a while, which is more defensible but there’s not enough new information to rehash that argument at this point. Alex Cora’s performance, however, is a different story. This is the only data point we have over the entire history of time as Cora as an in-game manager, and he had some high-profile decisions go wrong already. It’s worth discussing at the very least.
It didn’t take long for the Red Sox manager to find himself right in the middle of everything among Red Sox fans and it didn’t take long for him to find out how quickly the court of public opinion can turn on you. After a mostly relaxing game for seven-and-a-half innings, things turned sour in the blink of an eye because of poor performances from Red Sox relievers. As we know, poor bullpen performance can always lead to manager criticism, fair or unfair. Since its the manager’s job to put his players in the best position to succeed, it’s always worth considering the process by which each reliever entered the game. That said, in this specific case, I think most of the criticism against Cora is either too harsh or entirely unfounded. I’ll go through each criticism of the new Red Sox manager from this game.
First, though, it’s worth quickly going through exactly what happened. The Red Sox were up 4-0 heading into the bottom of the eighth, and Joe Kelly came in. Kelly walked the first batter he saw, then recorded a strikeout, then allowed an RBI double. He then walked two more batters and was taken out of the game with one out and the bases loaded in a 4-1 game. Cora called upon Carson Smith with the left-handed Brad Miller coming up to pinch hit. Smith walked Miller to cut the lead to two, got a strikeout for the second out of the inning, then allowed a bases-clearing triple to Denard Span. Smith would allow one more insurance run on an infield single before finally escaping the eighth. It wasn’t great.
So, to start, let’s go with bringing Kelly in in the first place. It obviously didn’t go well, but I’m not sure you can put that on Cora for calling upon the righty at all. It was a four-run game, the Rays hadn’t done anything on offense all day, and Tampa had their bottom two hitters and Matt Duffy coming up. This wasn’t a tremendously high-leverage situation, and Kelly is at worst the fourth-best reliever in a bullpen that already used their third-best. Simply put, it’s a situation in which Kelly needs to come through, and he simply didn’t.
Which brings me to the next point. Cora allowed Kelly to face five batters in this game, and that was a mistake. Criticizing the Red Sox manager for this point is totally fair in this writer’s humble opinion. It was pretty clear from the start that Kelly couldn’t locate his pitches in this outing, and while the umpire was squeezing him the control was a bigger issue than the strike zone. We know by now that Kelly has a tendency to lose the zone at times, and Cora needs to learn to be more proactive when this is the case. Ideally he would have been removed after the Duffy double, but he certainly should have been lifted after he walked Kiermaier.
Next, we have Cora going to Smith rather than going to Bobby Poyner with the left-handed Miller coming up. The manager’s reasoning for this was that it would have been too big of a spot for Poyner to make his major-league debut, and it’s a fair point. However, it does lead one to wonder why he was warming in the first place. I suppose it wouldn’t have been as bad if Kelly had gotten Carlos Gomez out, leaving two on in a three-run game with two outs against Miller compared to bases loaded and one out. It’s also fair to wonder why you’d put Poyner on the major-league roster in the first place if he’s not ready for this kind of outing, but that’s also not entirely on Cora. I think it probably would have been fine to go with Poyner, but at the same time Smith is a groundball machine who has never shown big platoon splits. He should be able to handle that spot, and arguably was a better choice than Poyner even if you don’t worry about the latter being ready for his major-league debut.
The biggest criticism of Cora, though, was not bringing Kimbrel in at all for the eighth inning. One of the Red Sox manager’s biggest talking points this winter has been a more aggressive usage of his closer and not being afraid to use Kimbrel before the ninth inning. However, according to Cora after the game, he and the Red Sox closer talked before the game and decided he would only pitch in a clean inning for Opening Day. That’s a bit strange, but once he and Kimbrel talked about it I’m fine not going back on that decision. Communication is key between relievers and a manager, and Cora needs to earn trust early in the year.
As for the decision to only use Kimbrel in a clean inning, Cora insists that this won’t be the case all year but only early on. My guess would be that this has to do with the closer not having a full spring, having spent much of camp back in Boston to be with his daughter. If they brought Kimbrel in for the middle of that inning, they likely would have sent him back out for the ninth, and that’s a lot of early-season work for the Red Sox closer. I’m fine with not overextending one of the team’s biggest stars early in the year when he didn’t have a normal spring to build himself up.
In the end, it’s natural to question the decisions of a manager after the bullpen so fantastically blows a game. It’s especially natural when the best pitcher in said bullpen didn’t get to appear in said game. That being said, I think most of what Cora did was something we can defend, particularly so early in the season. I thought Kelly certainly should have been removed earlier from the game, and it’s weird that Poyner was declared not ready for the moment, but overall the majority of the blame here, in my mind, goes to the pitchers not performing. Hopefully everyone learns from what went wrong and Cora and the Red Sox bullpen comes back strong.