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Analytics, scouting, money and Alex Cora: How 2018 Red Sox became one of history’s great teams

Rookie Manager Alex Cora "did everything right, on every level,” Red Sox owner John Henry said. (Jeff Gross/Getty Images)

LOS ANGELES — One of the beautiful things about modern baseball is the divergent paths available for teams seeking to claim the sport’s biggest prize. A year ago, the Houston Astros clinched a World Series title at Dodger Stadium using the most aggressive and all-encompassing embrace of analytics the game had ever seen.

And Sunday night, also at Dodger Stadium, the 2018 Boston Red Sox reached the same apex — winning the World Series and cementing their place as one of the best teams in recent baseball history — at the end of a three-year cycle that began with a sudden and public disavowal of the analytics-based approach.

The approaches, though, were not as different as they appeared. Where the divergent paths of the 2017 Astros and 2018 Red Sox crossed was at the happy medium in between two seeming extremes, with the former’s self-described “nerds” coming to recognize the value in unquantifiable assets such as character and culture, and the latter’s brain trust capably bridging the gap between a strategy based on analytics and one based on scouting.

And in both cases, at the center of the transformations sat Alex Cora. As the Astros’ bench coach in 2017, he was tasked with synthesizing the reams of information coming from the front office and disseminating it in easily digestible chunks to the players. And as Boston’s rookie manager in 2018, he became the rare skipper who didn’t resist the intrusion of analytics in his job — but rather, pushed his bosses to do more.

“I give him all the credit in the world,” Red Sox owner John Henry said on the Dodger Stadium field late Sunday night, following the 5-1 win over the Los Angeles Dodgers in Game 5. “We have a unity that was unlike any I’ve ever seen. And it was Alex. Alex brought that. He did everything right, on every level.”

To be clear, the Red Sox authored the most dominant season since the 1998 New York Yankees — winning 108 regular season games and running 11-3 through the postseason over excellent teams from the Bronx, Houston and Los Angeles — because of their great collection of players and their brilliant performances over the past four weeks: the redemptive pitching of David Price, the home runs by out-of-nowhere World Series MVP Steve Pearce, the suffocating defense of their all-homegrown outfield, the tireless work of a half-dozen or so heavily taxed pitchers, and on and on.

Even among World Series champions, this Red Sox team stands out for its greatness

They won because they spared no expense in assembling a deep and pedigreed roster, running up the game’s highest payroll by far in 2018, highlighted by the $110 million they gave free agent J.D. Martinez in February. Martinez hit 43 homers and is expected to finish a couple of spots behind teammate Mookie Betts in American League MVP voting next month. They won because two of Dave Dombrowski’s trade-deadline pickups, Pearce and pitcher Nathan Eovaldi, became indispensable contributors in October.

But the Red Sox also won because of its remarkable organizational unity, flowing from ownership and the front office down to the clubhouse, and its seamless melding of old-school and new-school concepts about how a baseball team should be run.

In the winter after the 2015 season, on the heels of the franchise’s first back-to-back last-place finishes in 85 years, Henry and the Red Sox undertook a massive retooling, one predicated upon the old-fashioned notions of shrewd scouting and massive spending.

That winter, Henry, himself a numbers man who had made his fortune by applying self-discovered algorithms to derivatives and futures trading, publicly repudiated the heavily analytics-oriented strategy that had made the Red Sox front office an industry trendsetter since the early 2000s and led to World Series titles in 2004, 2007 and 2013 — but that had recently left the team, in Henry’s mind, too rigid and soulless.

“Baseball is a complex, dynamic, living thing that has to be nurtured on a daily basis, 12 months of the year,” Henry told the Boston Globe in February 2016. “I think we were reliant too heavily on analytics.” In the future, Henry said, the team’s philosophy would be “more holistic and with a broader approach.”

That was the first winter after Henry hired Dombrowski as president of baseball operations. Dombrowski had been working in baseball front offices since the late 1970s and had earned a reputation as a scouting-first talent evaluator and an aggressive dealmaker. With Dombrowski at the helm, the Red Sox began to spend heavily that winter, making Price the highest-paid pitcher in baseball history, among other moves.

But after winning division titles in both 2016 and 2017, the Red Sox flamed out in the division series both years, leading the team to fire John Farrell as manager. Among the first candidates they reached out to as a replacement was Cora, holding their interview with him in New York during an off-day in the Astros/Yankees AL Championship Series and coming away convinced he was their man.

“He was a top candidate even before we spoke with him,” Henry said. “We felt our approach [to running a team] was wrong. We needed a different approach. He had ideas. He told us from his perspective what we did wrong against [the Astros] last year, and it was just what we wanted to hear.”

In that interview, the Red Sox brought along vice president of baseball research Zach Scott, the head of their analytics department, and Cora began peppering Scott with questions about the Red Sox’ processes and how they secure buy-in from the players. Cora’s implication: the Red Sox could and should be doing more.

A week after the interview, on Oct. 22, 2017, Cora was named the 47th manager in Red Sox history. And one year and six days after that, on Sunday night, he was hoisting the World Series trophy on a makeshift stage in the infield dirt at Dodger Stadium. Though careful to deflect credit to his players — “It’s all about the players; they’re the ones [who] make managers look good,” he said after Game 4 — Cora, who became just the fifth rookie manager to win it all, emerged from this championship run as the undisputed, beating heart of the franchise.

“We have an unbelievable leader,” veteran left-hander Chris Sale said.

“He always seems to make the right moves,” Pearce said of Cora. “Whatever he says, we listen and we do it. We jelled together behind him, and everybody knew their roles because he was such a great leader.”

While Dombrowski’s anti-analytics reputation is unfair and incorrect — with the Florida Marlins in the mid-1990s, he was one of the first GMs in the game to work with an upstart data firm called Advanced Value Matrix to evaluate players — until Cora’s arrival, the Red Sox under his reign were middle of the pack at best in terms of its embrace and application of analytics.

“We had a strong analytics department,” said assistant GM Frank Wren, a longtime Dombrowski lieutenant. “Where we were lagging was in getting the players to buy into it.”

That, of course, had been Cora’s specialty in Houston. It helped, too, that he was rarely if ever forced to throw up a stop sign as Boston’s data conduit, as he perhaps had in the face of the copious information coming from the Astros’ front office. The Red Sox are among the few top teams that still let the manager run a game the way he wants, from the starting lineup on down. The harmony throughout their organization all month stood in contrast to the tension throughout that of the Dodgers, where the rifts between uniformed personnel and the front office, with its massive analytics department, were scarcely disguised, especially as things unraveled.

“You need to let [the manager] run the club,” Dombrowski told Fox Sports late Sunday night. “We communicate every day [but] when it comes to making the lineup out or running a game, he gets all the information he wants, from all the analytics and statistics — he’s very open minded to it. That’s his job. How do you gain the respect of your clubhouse if they know upstairs you’re making those decisions and sending those decisions down [to the manager]?”

Never was Cora’s leadership more needed, or more effective, than in the aftermath of the 3-2 loss to the Dodgers in Game 3, an 18-inning marathon that left Boston’s pitching staff in tatters and had the feeling of a devastating blow. At its conclusion, as Eovaldi walked off the field in defeat at the end of a heroic, 97-pitch relief effort, his teammates, led by Price, met him almost halfway to the mound, engulfed him and practically carried him down the tunnel.

For the first time, the Red Sox, despite still leading by a game, could see a clear path to losing the series, with Games 4 and 5 the next two nights on the Dodgers’ home field.

Cora isn’t big on team meetings, but he called one in the wee hours of Saturday, in the aftermath of Game 3. And rather than implore his team with empty words of encouragement, he highlighted the sacrifice of Eovaldi and told his players the loss was the greatest loss in baseball history, because of how hard they made the Dodgers work to beat them. By the end, the players spontaneously rose for a standing ovation — less for Cora than for themselves.

“A loss like that — 18 innings, seven hours long — stinks,” workhorse reliever Joe Kelly said. “We got in that clubhouse, and there were a lot of tears in people’s eyes [from] watching Nate.” Cora’s speech and its aftermath, Kelly said, was “one of the coolest things I’ve ever been a part of. A lot of teams could have folded. But we were fired up. It took the Dodgers — and they’re a very good ballclub — but it took them 18 innings to beat us. And we weren’t going to let that happen again.”

As hitting coach Tim Hyers told reporters, the players “left a whole lot different than when they came in.”

They would go on, of course, to win Games 4 and 5 to close out the series — though not before falling behind by four runs in the former, prompting Sale’s now-famous dugout tirade and leaving Cora to go around begging his players to “pick me up” for the mistake he felt he made by leaving starter Eduardo Rodriguez in the game too long.

There were many different final impressions left by the Red Sox during their title run: the relentless at-bats and two-strike approach of their hitters, the selflessness and tirelessness of their pitchers, the contributions they got from superstars and role players alike. But the overarching impression was of a franchise in perfect harmony, from the top down — its yin and yang intersecting in the person of Cora.

The final image of the World Series was of Sale, arms raised in triumph, after striking out Dodgers star Manny Machado for the final out. But for symbolism, it should have been what happened just before Sale entered.

Like all the Red Sox starters, Sale made relief appearances between several of his starts — in Sale’s case, despite a shoulder issue that had kept him on the disabled list for much of August and September. He and Eovaldi were both warming up in preparation for the ninth, but it was Sale who got the call.

And now, as the gates to the visitors’ bullpen opened, the rest of Boston’s relievers stood to the side, near the door, and applauded Sale’s entrance on to the field, a chilling moment captured by Fox Sports’s cameras.

So to the lengthy list of things Alex Cora’s Red Sox did extraordinarily well this month, on their way to completing a memorable, historic campaign, you can add one more item: standing ovations.

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