Four Things Managers Can Learn from Alex Cora

As a Boston area native and Red Sox fan, winning the 2018 World Series in four games was a joyous relief. With first year manager Alex Cora leading the team, the only thing that surprised me more than the near sweep of the series was how he has carried himself and managed the team throughout the year. Listening to him in after game interviews has been a change of pace to the Boston sports team managers we’re used to (see Bill Belichick, Terry Francona, etc.).

Winning the World Series as a rookie manager certainly shows he’s a great baseball manager, but I think there’s lessons every manager can learn from him.

Communication

“The most important thing is you have to connect. The baseball operations, the analytics department, the medical staff — if they don’t get together, what’s the point? How are we going to filter the information from these departments to the coaches and to the players? If you can’t accomplish that, then you’re in trouble.”
 -Alex Cora, Manager of Boston Red Sox

There are many factors that converged to make 2018 the winningest season for the Red Sox since 1998. But a deep bench, high payroll, redemptive pitching, and home run sluggers are things we’ve been used to for years. They won their division in 2016 and 2017, but couldn’t quite bring the Commissioner’s Trophy home. A unity in communication from the front of the house through to the players on the field led by Cora was the spark they needed to become the World Series Champions.

Analytics

Alex Cora brought analytics to the 2017 World Series Champion Houston Astros as a bench coach. He brought this same mentality to Red Sox this year.

“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.”
 -John Henry, Owner of Boston Red Sox

Having information on hand to make decisions quickly is a necessity to keep pace with the changes around us. No one expected an 18 inning game three, but that wasn’t going to stop them from playing the next day. Lineup decisions need to be made and players rested.

They went through nine of their eleven pitching roster over the course of the game. In the press conference after, Cora announced Chris Sale would be pitching the next day while the Dodgers were still TBD as of 1:27 PST. Cora’s front office team crunched the numbers and he was able to make a decision quickly to get Sale the best chance of bringing home a win the next night. Which he did.

This statistics, analytics, and scouting program was something that Cora and Henry built from the ground up when he joined. We can take from this that “we don’t have the data” is not a good answer.

If it doesn’t exist, go get it.

And make sure it’s there next time you need it.

Humility

Sometimes split second decisions need to be made, and no matter what the data says, they don’t go as planned. These should be outliers, and not a normal occurrence, but regardless it is important to recognize them.

Hindsight of Game 4 says Cora should have taken out Rodriguez early, or never had him start at all. Cora talked about it in the press room after the game saying, “I was actually kicking myself for a few innings before the comeback.” And they did comeback, meaning he could have swept this under the rug, but he felt it was important to surface that even in winning scenario it’s important not to wash over the mistakes that were made.

Empathy

This last value I almost broke into two separate points. He is certainly empathetic to his team, but also to the people around him. To understand this is to understand how he got to where he is.

Cora balked at his first opportunity to play in the MLB, choosing instead to play college ball for a few years. He accomplished a lot there and moved onto the minors before entering the MLB seven years later and older. Maybe this made him wiser, but maybe it kept him from being a true elite all star player talked about in every household in America.

After bouncing around to teams including the Dodgers and Red Sox, he worked his way up through broadcasting and then coaching. He was a true man of the players, understanding what they go through — especially players coming from his home of Puerto Rico and other countries. Dustin Pedroia has talked about how Cora would help him and give him advice every day, becoming his mentor.

Cora had an instant connection with the team due to him being quasi-promoted from within. He had their trust almost instantly having worked with many of them before.

In addition to his grinding climb to the top, he demonstrates values to his team that are admirable. In negotiating his contract with the Red Sox, he had them sponsor a service trip to Puerto Rico to help with the relief efforts. He could have easily had the money donated to the efforts, but to go down himself and bring players with him further engrains his position with the team and that there is more out there than just baseball.

Summary

These are four of the prominent things I’ve noticed from Cora during the playoffs. He’s the definition of what a modern baseball manager should strive to be:

  • Cross-Functional Communication — be the liaison between upper management and the people at the ground level.
  • Facts > Feelings — it can be easy to make decisions based off of how you feel, but analytics can surface things you weren’t even aware of.
  • Be Humble and Admit Your Mistakes — it is easy to gloss over small things that go wrong when everything else is going well, but admitting them can make others more comfortable.
  • Be Human — work takes up over a third of our waking hours a week; care about those people and treat them like your equals.

Originally published at Dan DeSimone.