Alex Cora's approach to J.D. Martinez, lineup proves he's not managing by spreadsheet

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John Tomase
·6 min read
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Tomase: Cora's approach to J.D., lineup proves he's not managing by spreadsheet originally appeared on NBC Sports Boston

The experiment, like most things 2020, was a dismal failure. The Red Sox opened the season with J.D. Martinez -- lifetime provider of thunder to the middle of lineups everywhere -- batting second.

That lasted about a week before the Red Sox pulled the plug with the All-Star DH hitting .222. He returned to the third and fourth spots and proceeded not to produce there, either, finishing with a woeful .213 average before retreating to his Miami "lab" for an offseason analysis of what went wrong.

The decision to bat Martinez second may not have panned out, but it was rooted in numbers. It's now an established practice to bat your best hitter second. That's why sluggers like Mike Trout, Aaron Judge, Christian Yelich, and Pete Alonso have spent considerable time there in recent years; the days of Marty Barrett slapping grounders through the right side are over.

It's also why even basic simulators favor Martinez in the two-hole, with one putting Martinez there in 20 of its 25 highest-scoring Red Sox lineups. The advanced models make a more compelling case, since Martinez's combination of power and on-base ability places him in rare company. If the leadoff man reaches, he bats immediately with an RBI opportunity. If Martinez reaches, then Rafael Devers, Xander Bogaerts, and maybe Alex Verdugo can move him along.

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The game isn't played in a vacuum, of course. Martinez's comfort matters. Speed on the bases matters. Left-right balance matters. And most importantly, Alex Cora matters.

"J.D.'s not going to be hitting second for us this year," Cora said flatly.

The Red Sox manager has visions for the lineup that don't necessarily square with sabermetric orthodoxy, and that's OK! He has opened spring training with Kike Hernandez batting leadoff, despite a lifetime on-base percentage of only .313, because he likes the idea of Hernandez hunting fastballs early in the count and establishing a tone. That might have something to do with Hernandez's six leadoff homers in only 57 plate appearances.

He then envisions a more dynamic and athletic No. 2 hitter. That could be Verdugo, last year's leadoff man, who sprays line drives and is an above-average baserunner. He could hand the keys back to Rafael Devers, who was a monster there in 2019, though he's not exactly a burner. Whomever he chooses, he wants the top of the lineup to apply some pressure before the Martinezes of the world take their hacks.

"We can talk about lineup configuration all we want, but we'll hit J.D. in the middle of the lineup and go from there," Cora said. "One thing, too, the way we want to play, we want those good baserunners in front of him so that when he hits the ball in the gap, they score from first.

"Hitting J.D. second, it was a decision the organization made last year, but for me, it's like, OK, J.D. gets on base by a walk, it's going to take a while for him to score. Nothing against him. He's not getting paid to steal bases or score from first. Yeah. But nah, he won't hit second for us this year."

USA TODAY Sports

Alex Cora will need to figure out how to get J.D. Martinez to bounce back in 2021.

That Martinez belongs in the middle of the lineup may sound like common sense, but it may also surprise some fans who are eternally distrustful of the role of advanced metrics in decision-making since the days of Carmine. Analytics took a beating after the Rays lifted ace Blake Snell in the sixth inning of a two-hit shutout in the decisive Game 6 of the World Series, which Tampa went on to lose.

Since new chief baseball officer Chaim Bloom was reared in Tampa . . . and guilt by association . . . there's a fear that he'll be dictating lineups and strategy to Cora. This is not the case.

"People often describe the use of statistical analysis in decision-making as if it's something out of Goldilocks – you shouldn't use it too little, or too much; you want it just right," Bloom said via email. "I wouldn't think about it that way. Of course we should be using good evidence as much as we possibly can. It's just that no analytical study can cover every aspect of a decision.

"Lineup construction is a perfect example. A study that suggests that certain hitters should be hitting in certain spots probably isn't going to be able to factor in how tonight's opponent might match up their pitchers against you, who could get pinch-hit for and with whom, the different offensive profiles of your players, how their lineup spot might impact their approach or mental state, and so much more. That doesn't mean the study is wrong. It just means that the manager needs to factor in a lot of other things to make the best possible decision, and that's why setting the lineup is part of his job."

Cora didn't like his experience in 2019 when the Red Sox dropped MVP Mookie Betts to the 2-hole and batted Andrew Benintendi leadoff. For all the criticisms Benintendi faced after hitting .256 there, his .355 on-base percentage played just fine. And Betts actually posted stellar numbers (.322-8-24-.946) in 46 games batting second.

The problem is the Red Sox opened the season 3-9, throwing all of their plans into disarray. And so a manager who embraces analytics nonetheless made the switch because he didn't believe it was working.

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"We tried the best hitter hitting second, too, in '19. It didn't work out early. It didn't work out," Cora said. "Everyone was pointing at Benny, that he was struggling as a leadoff hitter, but it just didn't feel like the flow that we had in '18. And we did it for the right reasons. You want your best hitter to get as many at-bats as possible with a man on."

In a vacuum, that would mean penciling Martinez into the 2-hole. But Cora operates in a more complicated reality that can't simply be ruled by algorithm, and for all of the concerns about how "the nerds are ruining baseball," it's reassuring to know he can incorporate numbers into the construction of his lineup without being beholden to them.

"In my time in baseball I've never been a part of the front office dictating a lineup to the manager, and I don't expect I ever will be," Bloom said. "That's the manager's job."