There have been people who have spent the entire regular season saying that lineup construction doesn’t matter, which is really shorthand for “in-game decision making is an overrated aspect of a manager’s skill set.” I disagree with that, but the larger point that the soft factors of a manager’s job are more important over the course of a regular season is something I do agree with. That said, when they enter the postseason, in-game strategy becomes paramount and can swing an entire series.
For example: Tuesday night was a relatively easy going ball game. The one moment of tension was when Nathan Eovaldi, who had been cruising to that point, was pulled in favor of Ryan Brasier, who has been up and down since coming back from his season-long injury issues. I think Brasier deserves a spot in the pen, but Cora’s inclination to use him in high leverage spots when he shouldn’t be quite in that group has me thinking they shouldn’t roster him at all. This is a managerial tick that could swing the series from the Sox to the Rays.
This isn’t a post designed to dump all over Cora, though. I thought he was one of the best managers in baseball during his last run here, and I didn’t mind taking out Eovaldi there, even if the home run he gave up was a pop up and the single to Judge was an infield hit. Giancarlo Stanton and Joey Gallo are bad, bad dudes, and in a tight game I’d rather be careful and not let them see Eovaldi for a third time. I had a slight quibble with Houck over Whitlock in the 7th, but both are great pitchers so I can’t get mad there. Once the lead widened I had no problem with Robles (who I’ll never fully trust no matter how long this scoreless streak lasts.) I didn’t think you needed to burn Whitlock there, but this is a minor complaint. But the Brasier choice, I did not like.
Brasier was demoted on the 18th and recalled on the 21st after Whitlock hit the injured list. Given that, you’d think he’d be one of the last arms in the bullpen, but he’s routinely working high leverage innings. It’s worked, too, so he’s going to be incentivized to keep doing it even if the sample is not large enough to be making that choice. The fastball doesn’t have the zip it used to,and it’s ineffective in drawing swings and misses at the level a modern fastball needs. His whiff rate on the pitch in that small sample is below 20 percent. Brasier needs to be able to miss some bats with the heat, and his cheese hasn’t been able to do that this year. We saw an example of it on Tuesday, too, when Stanton smoked a fastball up in the zone against him. Brasier was bailed out thanks to a great relay from his defense, but that was a bad pitch that was crushed by a good hitter.
There’s going to come a moment in this series where one of the core pieces (Houck, Whitlock, Richards, Taylor, and Robles I guess) are needed, and Cora will call upon Brasier instead. I like Brasier and I believe there’s a spot for him in this bullpen, but we just haven’t seen enough this year to put him among that group. If Cora’s going to insist on using him like this at the expense of one of their aforementioned top relievers, I don’t think you can roster him because he could blow the whole series open with one bad fastball to Wander Franco.
And it’s not just bullpen usage to think about. Lineup construction is important, too. It’s something a lot of people, especially myself, have been critical of this year. There was a time when the leadoff spot’s OBP was in the depths of the league with the likes of Texas, and they finished 23rd with a .319 OBP. It could be a lot better this postseason if they keep hitting Schwarber there as they did on Tuesday. Since he made his Red Sox debut on August 13th, Schwarber is third in baseball in OBP, only behind NL MVP candidates Juan Soto and Bryce Harper. His 19.6 percent walk rate since then is tied with Harper and only trails presumptive AL MVP Shohei Ohtani and once again, Juan Soto. Schwarber can hit anywhere in your lineup, but a guy who walks that much is begging to be hit leadoff. Enrique Hernández has done a serviceable job there and has been a good hitter this year, even against right-handed pitching, but his skill set would be much better utilized in the bottom half of the order. But this is all moot to complain about since Cora is likely to drag out his regular season lineup.
What will be a departure from his regular season tendencies will be the leash he gives starters. The Sox are specially secure to yank starters early in games with multi-inning weapons Tanner Houck, Garrett Whitlock, Garrett Richards, and in a pinch Nick Pivetta. That’s a staggering amount of good relievers who can give you length, so there’s no need to be like Aaron Boone and leave a guy in one batter too long. Cora should be aggressive here, but balance it out by not using guys like Houck and Whitlock in the late innings if there’s a six-run lead. Managers fall into a trap in the postseason where they treat six-run leads as if they’re save situations. That’s where guys like Brasier can and should be trusted to hold bigger leads in the late innings. You don’t want to burn out your relievers by wasting their bullets in low leverage division series innings as to avoid the Nick Anderson situation the Rays had last October, where your best set-up man is blown up before the later rounds. If they’re close games, use your best guys, but there’s no need to burn bullets in five and six run games.
Cora and his staff need to play these games smart. Aside from my questions about Brasier’s usage, I’m pretty confident in how he’ll use the bullpen. How Whitlock and Houck are used will be key. Those two could be leveraged like right-handed Andrew Millers, weapons for whom teams give up lots of talent at the deadline. And they have two of them at their disposal. I think now that it’s the postseason, Cora knows to tighten up the leash on his starters. He’s shown an aggressiveness with pinch-hitting, too. I’m pretty sure Cora carries a four-leaf clover with him during the postseason as well, so that should be accounted for. This staff has all the right tools at their disposal to put themselves in favorable positions this postseason, and it’s just about properly deploying them. I can’t wait to yell on the internet about all of the decisions!