On Sunday night, the Boston Red Sox defeated the Los Angeles Dodgers 5-1 to win the World Series in five games.
This finished an 11-3 playoff run in which the Red Sox dispatched the New York Yankees, the Houston Astros and the Dodgers. They were widely recognized as the three best non-Boston teams in baseball, so much so that the Red Sox were underdogs for most of their postseason games. And that came after a stellar 108-54 regular season record, the highest win total in team history. There are serious debates about whether this is one of the best teams in baseball history. The data suggests that the 2018 Red Sox are, at a minimum, the best baseball team of the 21st century.
How did the Red Sox do so well this year? As my Washington Post colleague Dave Sheinin writes, talent and resources are the biggest reasons. The team from Beantown had the largest payroll, signing high-priced free agents such as J.D. Martinez and David Price in recent years. The team cultivated homegrown talent as well, such as likely MVP Mookie Betts, Xander Bogaerts and Andrew Benintendi. They used their farm system to trade for perennial Cy Young candidates Chris Sale and Craig Kimbrel.
For a social scientist, however, it is worth noting that most of these causal factors existed in 2016 and 2017 as well. The Red Sox won the American League East both those years but were then eliminated in the first round of the playoffs. What, besides luck, made 2018 different?
At Over the Monster, a Red Sox blog, Matt Collins noticed something about this year that I had, too, as a devout Sox fan:
“Watching some of the postgame coverage, one theme stood out among all of the player interviews,” Collins wrote. “The way these guys talk about Alex Cora is unlike any way I’ve heard players talk about a coach in my life. Every single one of these guys felt a strong, personal connection to Cora and talked about how great his communication skills were. We already knew this, but it really hammered home that the Red Sox have a special manager.”
It’s not just sports bloggers and sportswriters who feel that way. The players were very upfront about it. Red Sox owner John Henry said about Cora: “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.”
What did Cora do, exactly, that made him so special? It is worth considering this seriously because there are ways in which Cora faces an environment just as hostile as our elected officials in Washington. If you think the political press is tough, let me introduce you to Boston sports talk radio.
Indeed, this season I used to listen to WEEI at times just to laugh at the new and innovative ways some of the hosts would find to rag on this team. So anyone who can thrive as a Red Sox manager probably has developed some leadership tools that apply to other arenas, including politics.
What did Cora do that was so special?
1. He knew when to prioritize the long term and the short term. Beginning in spring training, Cora made sure to prepare his team for October baseball, holding back his starters from throwing aggressively in March and April. As the regular season started, Cora also made sure to give his regulars multiple days off, so that they would still have something in the tank come the playoffs. It says something that by October, all of his key players save Dustin Pedroia were healthy enough to contribute.
Cora also showed tremendous patience with players who struggled in the first few months of the season. Jackie Bradley Jr. was hitting below .180 well into May, and Cora stuck with him. He rewarded Cora with tremendous fielding and above-average offense for the second half of the season.
At the same time, once the playoffs started, Cora did not hesitate to be more aggressive. After rarely pinch-hitting in the regular season, Cora pinch-hit frequently during the playoffs, which led to this and this and this. More important, he compensated for a taxed bullpen by using his starters as “rovers” in key relief situations. Sale, Price, Rick Porcello and Nathan Eovaldi all pitched in relief, and pitched brilliantly.
2. He was transparent with his team and with the media. As the Boston Globe’s Chad Finn noted earlier this month, Cora’s experience as an ESPN commentator prepared him well for handling the media during his first year as manager. Despite the harsh nature of Boston media, I cannot think of a single stretch during the season when Cora faced a barrage of media criticism. Part of that was because the team was winning, but part of it was also because he was honest when he made the occasional mistake. Even during the World Series, Cora admitted when he had messed up, such as keeping Eduardo Rodriguez in Game Four for a batter or two too long.
That kind of candor buys a lot of goodwill from reporters, fans and players. All of the Red Sox players talked about how Cora kept them in the loop for their responsibilities, which meant that even if they were not starting, they might be asked to contribute at the right moment. Cora’s Puerto Rican background also helped, as it allowed him to communicate fluently with both the American and Latino players on his roster. And it also meant that in those rare moments when a motivational speech might have been called for, he could deliver.