In any MLB playoff game, where the stakes are as high as ever, a manager’s bullpen decisions are going to be heavily scrutinized. Especially since, in today’s game starters are lasting shorter than ever, it’s essential that a manager has a game plan for different situations and different hitters. This is something Alex Cora was exceptional at during the Red Sox’ 2018 World Series run; every guy Cora went to seemed to get key outs and there were rarely head-scratching moves that came back to bite the Sox. However, I can’t help but question a few of his bullpen decisions in this year’s ALCS. This isn’t a gripe about a bunch of specific situations, but more so about Cora’s general approach.
To me, the biggest mistake has been seemingly giving up in close games. I understand it’s not a given that your team will get multiple runs across in the ninth, and it’s certainly not easy to decide whether to “waste” your top relievers in a potential loss or use one of your worst relievers and hope for the best. But you also have to give your team a chance, and twice this series, Cora has brought in some of the team’s last options out of the bullpen at pivotal times in the game.
Let’s talk about Game 1 and Game 4 of this ALCS, the only non-blowouts where Alex Cora had to make difficult decisions. In the ninth inning of Game 1, Alex Cora went with Hirokazu Sawamura – someone who was left off of the ALDS roster – down just one run. Now, going with Garrett Whitlock here would’ve been aggressive for sure, but it was a major surprise for me to see arguably the team’s worst reliever in this situation. Sawamura proceeded to give up a run, which ended up being the decider in a 5-4 loss.
Again in Game 4, Cora had to make the tough decision of who to turn to in the ninth inning of a tie game. This time, however, he was very aggressive and brought in starter Nathan Eovaldi. Unfortunately, Eovaldi struggled a bit, gave up a run, and left the bases loaded for the next reliever. To try and keep the deficit at 1, Cora turned to Martín Pérez, a decision that was even more puzzling than the Sawamura one, especially when you consider that guys like Tanner Houck, Ryan Brasier, and Hansel Robles were available in the ‘pen.
The argument for bringing in Pérez there is that Michael Brantley struggles against lefties, although that didn’t end up mattering as Pérez laid a fastball right down the middle on the first pitch of the at-bat. I’d be more willing to bet on someone with better stuff in that scenario, like Tanner Houck, over what may have been a preferable matchup with a worse pitcher.
I’ve also been confused with the way the team has dealt with Carlos Correa. In both Game 1 and Game 4, Josh Taylor was removed after facing the minimum number of batters so a right-handed reliever could face Correa. However, Correa is a very similar hitter when he’s facing a righty or a lefty (131 wRC+ vs. 138 wRC+, respectively). It just doesn’t make sense to force one of your better relievers to leave the game so quickly for a matchup that may not even make a difference.
Which leads into my next point, which is that it feels like Alex Cora doesn’t have a clear vision for how the team is going to reach the end of the game. Letting Taylor face just three batters in both games, and letting one of Ryan Brasier and Adam Ottavino throw single digit pitches (and get only one out) in both games seems crazy to me. The Sox already don’t have the deepest bullpen around, and utilizing your top guys so sparingly is a recipe for disaster. I’m fine with taking out Chris Sale in the third inning in a big spot or Nick Pivetta in the 6th inning before his third time through the order. There just needs to be a plan for the bullpen so major outs aren’t required from Perez and Sawamura at the end of games.
The Sox are on the brink of elimination now, and there isn’t any margin of error left. There’s no better time for Alex Cora to rely on his best relievers.