Memorial Day Mailbag: Alex Cora

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Happy Memorial Day, and try to keep in mind the reason why people have today off from work today. And now for something completely different: a letter to the blog.

Hey Patrick,
I was checking out Alex Cora’s stats at baseball reference.com and see you sponsor his page. I was curious, do you like the guy or not? I watched him for a few years in Boston and was sorry to see him go.

- William A.

The 2010 Mets have a handful of players that act as lightening rods for arguments among fans. The combination of smile, arm, and career OPS+ of 91 that is Jeff Francoeur jumps to mind immediately. David Wright and his alarming strikeout total. The true talent level of Jose Reyes. Luis Castillo’s on-base abilities against his defense inabilities. If Fernando Nieve is any good. What to do with Oliver Perez.

And, of course, Alex Cora.

If you were going to go into an underground cloning facility and grow a baseball player for the sole purpose of creating a divide among fans and writers, you would probably come up with someone similar to Alex Cora. It’s almost as if he was placed on the earth solely to give Met fans something to argue about. Depending on who you ask, Alex Cora is either a valuable, veteran part of the team, or he’s the Metropolitan equivalent of Erin on “The Office” and represents everything that’s wrong with the organization’s philosophy. There isn’t much of a demilitarized zone when it comes to discussing Alex Cora. It seems that everyone loves him or hates him. If you read this blog semi-regularly, you can probably guess where I stand . . . well, maybe not, because someone was actually curious enough to e-mail me asking where I stand.

Now, there are good things, and then some less good things to be said about Alex Cora and his abilities as a baseball player. How much you value certain abilities probably determines how you feel about Alex Cora.

Everyone already knows the good things that can be said about Cora: he moves runners over, he’s a bilingual clubhouse presence, he’s now an experienced pinch bunter, and he positions himself well defensively. He puts up surprisingly non-terrible defensive numbers for someone with seemingly little range. The Mets themselves seemingly stand on this side of the Alex Cora debate, seeing that they signed him. They believe in the value of his tangible, as well as intangible, skills.

On the other hand, everyone also knows the really not-so-good thing that is often said about Alex Cora: he has a .249/.321/.311 slash line and a .625 OPS with the Mets. Or, to put it in words, he “can’t hit” or “he retains few tangible offensive skills.” For comparison’s sake, Cub pitcher and over-caffeinated angry man Carlos Zambrano has a career OPS of .630. I will point out that almost all of Zambrano’s OPS is made up of slugging percentage, and Cora is probably a better offensive player because of that. Still, Zambrano is a pitcher and Alex Cora is hitter, and the pitcher has the higher OPS. For full disclosure, some of Cora’s offensive struggles probably have to with not possessing working thumbs for most of last season . . . but it’s not like he’s tearing the cover off the ball this season with presumably healthy thumbs. He’s actually hitting for a lower OPS this season.

Also, I should note that I suspect part of the reason he’s so good at moving runners over is because he hits a lot of balls on the ground and is a left-handed batter. So he tends to hit grounders to the right side of the infield, even when he isn’t trying to.

Me, talking to myself: You haven’t answered the question yet.

PJF: Oh right. So how do I feel about Alex Cora?

Well, middle infielders that can’t hit and play average-y defense are abundant in Triple-A baseball — that description probably fits every single middle infielder over the age of 25 in AAA right now. If they could hit, they’d be in the majors, and if they weren’t capable defenders, they wouldn’t be middle infielders. The biggest and most common knock against Cora is that the Mets are paying him $2 million to do something that could probably be done for less money by one of those Triple-A guys.

On the other hand, I think it’s quite clear that the Mets aren’t paying Alex Cora $2 million dollars to provide no offense, average defense, and the occasional pinch-bunt. They’re paying Cora $2 million dollars to provide no offense, average defense, the occasional pinch-bunt, AND to be the veteran, the clubhouse psychologist, the player-coach and whatever else it is they feel he brings to the team. I would guess that those other things must have SOME sort of value, even if there’s no way for us to measure them. Maybe there’s no change in Cora’s own stat line because of those skills, but if he’s keeping everyone else on an even keel, which in turn makes them play better . . . okay, I can buy that. Maybe he makes everyone else better through his wit, or head-shaving tips, or he always knows which hand wins in poker and can resolve clubhouse disputes. Or whatever. I don’t know if Cora actually does any of that, and if it actually helps on the field, but the Mets seem to think so. Just because there’s no way to measure those effects doesn’t mean they don’t exist.

On the other hand, saying those skills are worth $2 million dollars to a seemingly cash-strapped team can seem a bit pricy. It’s hard to put a fair price on things that can’t be measured.

Me: You still haven’t really answered the question.

PJF: Okay, okay, okay. How do I feel about Alex Cora?

I guess I fall somewhere in the middle. I have no problem with Cora, but I’m not enamored with him either. He is what he is, a AAA level player with teammate testimonials of intangibles making a decent amount of money. I see how that bugs some people, but I have no problem with the 25th man on the roster being the designated hugger. Plus, the money seems insignificant when compared to what Oliver Perez is taking in.

At the same time, I don’t know if raving about the little things he does on the field to help a team win makes much sense, because he’s doing a lot of big things on the field to not help the team win. Such as: not hitting. I strongly suspect that the inability to hit outweighs the ability to move a runner over from second to third over the course of a season, especially considering that getting a hit would do the same thing — move the runner over — and would not use any of the non-renewable resource of outs in the process. Raving about the little on-field things he does might be a bit much.

While I take no issue with Alex Cora and his abilities to play baseball, I’m not sure if the Mets utilize him in the correct way. I can understand having Cora on the team; I don’t understand the ways in which the Mets use him.

For example: Luis Castillo can get on-base enough to be a decent hitter, but is a below-average fielder; Alex Cora can’t hit, but is probably a better fielder than Castillo; lastly, Castillo and his achy knees and foot appear to need a decent amount of rest. There seems to be a sensible solution here to all the problems. The Mets could maximize the number of defensive innings Cora plays, but give Castillo a majority of at-bats. Maximize each player’s ta
lents — Cora does what he can do, Castillo does what he can do. Maybe something like removing Castillo after he has an at-bat in the seventh inning and bring Cora in for defense makes sense. Castillo is still playing less than full time and getting rest, but Cora doesn’t have to get so many plate appearances.

Instead, what the Mets have taken to doing is playing Cora two or three times a week in place of Castillo — meaning each player is getting plenty of innings in the field, and times at the plate, and no one’s skills are being maximized. Cora, who should be the 25th player on the roster, has been playing a LOT more that the 25th player should probably be playing. That’s not something I’ve been thrilled about. I don’t know if it’s Cora’s fault.

Maybe the way the Mets are doing it makes more sense than my suggestion — and really, having never been a manager, I’m just throwing things out there — but I don’t see how their way makes more sense.

Me: What about the second baseman always hitting second thing?

PJF: Yeah, Cora is inexplicably batting second every time he plays. Well, not inexplicably. I guess I can see why Cora is hitting second. The traditional baseball lineup has a contact hitter in the two-hole. I assume Willie Randolph batted Paul Lo Duca second for this reason. Alex Cora has more walks than strikeouts over the past three seasons, and is definitely a contact hitter. He puts the ball in play, so he should be the two-hitter. It makes sense if you think about it that way, sort of like how it makes sense to say that Kingdom of the Crystal Skull must be the best Indiana Jones film because it made the most money. You can see the “logic” behind it.

But Alex Cora is also the worst hitter in the lineup, and making sure he gets more trips to the plate than David Wright and Jason Bay maybe doesn’t make all that much actual sense. Continually hitting Cora second is an odd choice by the manager who makes plenty of odd choices. It’s an attempt to maximize his skill set, but not the good one.

In fact, sometimes it feels like you could lock Jerry Manuel in the room with a couple of instruments and The Beatles, and when you came back five minutes later, he’d have Ringo singing all the songs, John on drums, George playing tambourine, and Paul would be dead, buried back in Double-A ball. Fernando Nieve would be the warm-up act. (See what I did there? Warm-up has multiple meanings and Nieve is always warming up.)

Me: What are you even talking about?

PJF: I don’t know anymore. Watch the Mets for long enough and things start to seem loopy. Start to write about them and it’s like trying to figure out a Coen brothers’ movie. You wind up talking to yourself and doing all sorts of other crazy things.

Me: Yeah . . . what the heck was “A Serious Man” about, anyway?

PJF: I have no idea. It was like all their movies to me — it got good reviews, everyone said it was really good, so I don’t want to seem like an idiot for not really understanding it . . . but I didn’t really understand it. All I know is that I shouldn’t have watched it just before trying to sleep. I mean, what was that? At least the Book of Job sort of has a happy ending . . .

Me: Hey, isn’t this supposed to be about baseball? Plus, how many people even saw that movie, read your blog, and are going to know what you’re talking about? Like, six, maybe? Severely narrowing your audience — that’s a great plan.

PJF: Right. Anyway, this isn’t a problem of misuse isolated to Alex Cora. This Mets team has it’s stars, and then a whole bunch of pieces, and I’m not sure if they’re using the pieces in the best way. Jeff Francoeur can play defense and hit lefties; Chris Carter can’t play defense, but can hit righties. It certainly looks like there’s a solution there, at least on the surface. But Chris Carter starts two games in a row, and then never again; Francoeur plays everyday. Pedro Feliciano can get lefties out, but not righties; he pitches to both anyway. Fernando Tatis barely plays for two weeks, and then hits cleanup.

Me: So, wait . . . do you like Alex Cora or not?

PJF: I’ve got no problem with Alex Cora, the baseball player. He seems to be a smart guy, the other Mets seem to like him, and he can do some useful things on the field. If the Mets need a bunt, he can bunt, and if they need average defense, he can do that too. He’s not the worst 25th man ever, even if other Mets are pushing him to something like the 23rd man on the roster.

I do have a problem with the way he’s used. He’s not being put in a position where the Mets maximize his strengths, and I think that’s a bigger problem than how much his intangibles are worth. He can’t hit, so he shouldn’t be getting this many at-bats. The inability to properly utilize their entire 40-man roster has been an issue. The Mets have a decent number of pieces with which to mix and match. They just have trouble finding the right ones. That’s not Alex Cora’s fault, so I’m not going to hate him for it.

Me: If you’d like a 2,000 word blog-post-response to your three sentence email, feel free to send questions by email, or by at tweeting me @PatrickJFlood. They don’t just have to be baseball questions, either, though I assume you like baseball if you’re reading this, so they’ll probably be baseball questions. But they don’t have to be. If you’re curious what I think the best Led Zeppelin album is . . .

PJF: It’s Physical Graffiti.

Me: No, it’s clearly IV. “When the Levee Breaks”, dude. Anyway, I have no idea if I have enough interactive readers where I can actually make this a regular thing — I’ll get the occasional random email, but not that often — or if I’ll talk to myself in all of them, but, hey, let’s see. Send me your questions, if you so please.

Photo of Alex Cora courtesy of Keith Allison’s flickr photostream.

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2 Comments

Filed under Columns, Mets, Words

2 responses to “Memorial Day Mailbag: Alex Cora

  1. section518

    >Excellent article. While I'm tempted to email you questions about the other 24 guys on the roster, I'll settle for asking a follow up question: do you think Alex Cora was one of the two Mets who gave anonymous quotes about Oliver Perez to Mike Puma?

  2. Patrick Flood

    >@ Section518I love trying to guess anonymous players, but I never really feel like I could guess who they were. If someone told me it was Alex Cora, I would believe them — but if someone told me it was Elmer Dessens or someone else random, I would also believe that. It would be hilarious if it was Elmer Dessens though.

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