I’ve watched just about every playoff game so far this postseason. If I had kept a list of every manager’s tactical decisions, I would not be surprised if I saw that Alex Cora made the fewest mistakes. To be clear, I am talking about decision-making purely on what was known at the time, never on what actually happened afterwards. Process over results. Always.
It would be perfectly understandable if Cora’s mind was feeling a bit fried after the Red Sox’s disappointing loss in Friday night’s 18 inning marathon. That might be the best explanation for Cora’s tactical choices last night, specifically in the sixth inning.
Starting Eduardo Rodríguez was Cora’s only choice, really. I can’t fault him for that. Friday night exhausted his pitching staff. Drew Pomeranz was another option, but he has had a terrible season. He struggled with injuries, got demoted to the bullpen, and had a 6.45 RA9 this season.
Rodríguez was great the first two times through the order, allowing zero runs while striking out six. Then the sixth inning started with the third time through the order coming. When it was announced earlier in the day that E-Rod would be starting, my thoughts were that he should absolutely not face the lineup any more than two times. If gets into any trouble, he should be pulled promptly.
I would not argue with anybody who believed that Rodríguez should not have started the sixth inning because of the third time through the order; it is a perfectly defensible position. But I do not see anything wrong with Cora leaving Rodríguez in, if only for just two more hitters. Max Muncy was due up second, and he is a lefty. With the bullpen being taxed from the night before, risking Rodríguez versus the right-handed David Freese so he could then regain the platoon advantage against Muncy was a viable plan, as long as he was pulled before the right-handed Justin Turner came up.
Unfortunately, Freese was hit by a pitch, but Rodríguez succeeded in striking out Muncy. Then Cora inexplicably left him in the game to face the Dodgers’ best right-handed hitter. I do not know why Cora did not get Matt Barnes warming up sooner, or at least try to stall for time. Regardless, Turner doubled to left, resulting in runners at second and third with one out.
This is where Cora started to compound his errors. With first base open, he intentionally walked Manny Machado to get to the left-handed hitting Cory Bellinger. I understand the rationale behind setting up a force play and gaining the platoon advantage. The problem is that intentionally walking a hitter is almost never a good idea. The difference between the hitter being walked and the following hitter is never so big that it is worth the increase in run expectancy. Even intentionally walking the number eight hitter to get to the pitcher is questionable. Nobody bats eighth because he is good. Just pitch to him.
Again, it would have been far better to bring in Barnes to face Machado then to intentionally walk him so Rodríguez could face Bellinger for the third time. Barnes would have then lost the platoon advantage against Bellinger, but he is good enough to handle lefties. Cora could have then brought in Price to finish the inning if he really did not want Barnes to face a lefty. Price has pitched quite a bit lately, but he probably could handle just finishing out an inning.
The Red Sox almost bailed out Cora. Bellinger grounded to Steve Pearce, who threw to home for the force out. Christian Vázquez tried to complete the double play by throwing it back to first, but Bellinger literally got in the way, resulting in what was scored as a throwing error that allowed Turner to score. It was tough because there really was not much more Vázquez could have done.
Instead of an inning-ending double play, the inning continued with Yasiel Puig. This could not have been a more obvious spot to pull Rodríguez, but Cora left him in. Many were defending the decision by citing Puig’s reverse splits. He has a career .369 wOBA against righties versus a .328 wOBA versus lefties. Here’s the thing: that is a misinformed argument. Let me say this loud and clear:
No hitter has true-talent reverse splits.
I have written about this time and time again. This comes from research done in the sabermetric tome, The Book. This FanGraphs article summarizes the results. There has been no research done to disprove it. A right-handed hitter needs over 2,200 PA against left-handed pitching in order to determine his true talent splits. Puig has 780. The fewer the plate appearances, the closer you have to regress the hitter’s platoon split to the mean. If someone were to project Puig’s true-talent splits as described in The Book, he would definitely have better projected numbers against lefties than righties. The split would be much smaller than the average, but it would still favor lefties.
I don’t fault fans for not knowing this, but I am surprised that Cora was not made aware of this. The Red Sox are a very smart organization, and Cora has shown himself to be one of the smarter managers in the game. This was a surprising miss.
Process over results, but the results were as bad as can be. Puig crushed a three-run homer, putting the Dodgers up 4-0. Then Matt Barnes finally came in.
Thankfully for Cora and the Red Sox, Dave Roberts has had a poor postseason tactically, and it continued last night. It would not be fair to pin the Sox’s nine unanswered runs entirely on the decisions of Roberts. That being said, it was a factor.
It is difficult to understand why Roberts favors Ryan Madson so much. He had a 5.86 RA9 this year, and while he did have a .340 BABIP, he was not exactly a strikeout machine with a 23.4 K%. Furthermore, he was being brought in to face Vázquez, who was one of the worst hitters in baseball this year. Yes, Scott Alexander is a lefty, but it probably would have been harmless to let him face Vázquez. Roberts should have known that Cora would pinch hit for him if a right-handed pitcher was brought in. It was first and second with one out, and the Red Sox have two other catchers on the bench. Jackie Bradley Jr. flied out, but then Mitch Moreland came in to pinch hit and crushed a three-run homer.
I have no problem with Roberts bringing in Kenley Jansen in the eighth. That was actually smart, because the Red Sox heart of the order was coming up. Jansen still gave up a solo shot to Pearce. His 3.52 RA9 during the regular season was the highest of his career. He just might not be the guy he used to be anymore.
Roberts brought in Dylan Floro to start the ninth. Brock Holt doubled with one out, so Cora decided to pinch-hit Rafael Devers in place of Sandy León. One could argue that Roberts should have brought in Alex Wood here, even if that meant there might not be any lefties to get Andrew Benintendi out should the inning get that far, but I can also understand not wanting to burn through your bullpen too quickly in a tie game after the previous night.
Devers drove in the go-ahead run on a single. Blake Swihart advanced him to second on a fielder’s choice. Reasonable people could disagree, but I think Roberts had managed a good ninth inning up to that point. Then things went off the rails.
Roberts has had a nasty habit of intentionally walking hitters with first base empty, and he did it again when Mookie Betts came to bat. He brought in Alex Wood to face Benintendi in a process that basically duplicated Cora’s sixth inning mistakes. Benintendi singled, and the bases were loaded, so Roberts brings in... Kenta Maeda? He has been fine as a reliever, but he is not the guy you want in such a high leverage situation.
You know the rest. The Red Sox scored four more times in the ninth inning en route to a Game Four victory.
I understand he pitched on Friday night, but how did Pedro Báez not see any action in the ninth inning? Especially when the bases were loaded? At the very least Roberts should have brought him in to face Betts instead of giving him a free pass.
Cora got lucky with one of his rare bad innings this postseason. Hopefully he learned from it. Roberts certainly is not learning from his own mistakes. This sure has been a fun, interesting World Series so far.
. . .
Luis Torres is a Featured Writer at Beyond the Box Score. He is a medicinal chemist by day, baseball analyst by night. You can follow him on Twitter at @Chemtorres21.