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Alex Cora’s decision to pull Tanner Houck was defensible

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Hard to say it was right given the results, but there was good logic behind it.

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Boston Red Sox v Toronto Blue Jays - Game Two Photo by Cole Burston/Getty Images

There was a lot that went wrong on Tuesday, which you probably don’t need me to tell you. As Boston dropped both ends of the doubleheader and lost their sole possession of a postseason spot, you can point to several different areas. The offense didn’t get a whole lot going, and when they did get something going they squandered their chances. The bullpen was disastrous in the first game. Nathan Eovaldi gave up two home runs. (Though it’s hard to put that second loss too much on him.) It was a huge day on the calendar for this Red Sox team, and as they have in many other recent huge days on the calendar, they failed. It’s as simple as that.

Looking around the interwebs, it seems that there are some that point to one decision from the manager that really turned the momentum of the day and helped lead to the two losses. That would be Alex Cora’s decision to pull Tanner Houck from the first game after just four innings of work. It’s obviously understandable why people would second-guess this move. While Houck wasn’t great all day, he looked to have turned things around in his final couple of innings and was at only 58 pitches on the day. After he left, neither Garrett Whitlock nor Josh Taylor could find the zone, and the Yankees took a lead. Boston would not lead for the rest of the day.

But even with that said, I think it was a perfectly defensible decision for Cora to make in that moment. I would certainly hesitate to declare it definitively correct, but there was solid logic behind it. And in fact, before the inning even started and I saw who was coming in to pitch my thought was that Houck should be lifted for Whitlock. I’ve seen some people say that Houck should have been allowed to start the inning with Whitlock coming in at the first sign of trouble. That also seems reasonable to me! But Cora’s decision was defensible in my eyes as well.

Boston Red Sox v New York Yankees - Game One Photo by Adam Hunger/Getty Images

There are a few different short points I would make in favor of the call from the manager. And first and foremost, it starts with just how important this day was. The Red Sox were reeling for so long, but after a sweep of the Orioles they had a chance to really get back on the wave and start a new upward trajectory. With the Yankees entering the day two games back in the standings, it was a day that called for urgency and called for aggressive managing. It wasn’t a postseason game, but it wasn’t far off. Starters get shorter leashes in postseason games. The last thing I wanted to see on Tuesday was complacency and a feeling like this was a day like any other in the season. It wasn’t, and Cora managed as such.

And along these same lines, these seven-inning games lend themselves to more aggressive managing. Someone made the argument to me yesterday that the very fact these games lend themselves to these decisions is why they shouldn’t exist, and I 100 percent agree with that stance. That said, the Red Sox can only play with the rules they have in front of them. Getting through four in a seven-inning game is essentially the same as getting through six in a normal game. You are only leaving three innings to get through for the bullpen, and that should not be a tough ask.

It’s also very important to remember who Houck is as a pitcher right now. There is still development to happen, but right now he just isn’t the kind of guy you want going deep into games. The Yankees were sending the top of their order around for a third time, and while his sample size facing batters for a third time is tiny, the numbers are poor. But even if you want to throw those numbers aside — reasonable, given the sample — he has a larger sample with his pitch count climbing over 50, and the OPS against him nearly doubles, all the way up to an OPS of .875 on pitches 51 through 75.

This isn’t a new issue for him, either. While there aren’t as clear splits for his minor-league career, his ability to go deep into games has always been a concern. His delivery is such that his stuff can fall off as he throws more pitches, and his repertoire of only two pitches for the most part — his splitter is improving, but is still not a super reliable third offering — becomes a more significant barrier the more times he is seen. I’m certainly sympathetic to the argument that he will never improve in these areas if not given the chance, but I’m not sure the chance to make those improvements should come in a game as crucial as this one.

And finally, it’s not as though Cora was turning to Hansel Robles or someone in the bottom tier of the bullpen after pulling Houck. In that case, sure, he would deserve all of the criticism in the world. But Whitlock has been their second best reliever all year, and you want him facing opponents’ best hitters. If they don’t have someone they can turn to in these moments, then there are bigger issues afoot than a single managerial decision. Whitlock didn’t come through this time, but to me that’s on him, not the manager. (The decision to pull Whitlock for Taylor was actually more surprising to me, but given how bad Whitlock looked in those final two at bats I’m not sure keeping him in leads to a better result.)

If we’re being honest, whether the loss is on the relievers failing to do their job or on the manager for his decision is essentially besides the point. The loss was frustrating and crucial for their postseason standing. And as I said above, given the results it’s very hard for me to sit here and say Cora’s decision was absolutely the right one to make. But I do think it was made with good logic, and it was a perfectly defensible move. There are other issues I have had recently with Cora’s decision making, one of which I’ll get to a bit later today, but with this specific decision, the process seemed right. The results? Those were not right.