Let’s talk about Jeff Albert.
I’m not here to take sides.
I’ve taken jabs at the Cardinals’ lead batting coach. I’ve made fun of the “hitting lab” and the gizmos. Like many of you, I’ve wondered about his ability to get the most out of hitters. And I’ve questioned whether his approach was working, or if the players understood him. Was the message getting through? Was anyone paying attention?
That said, I’m fatigued by the fan-media tendency to blame everything on Albert. It’s so easy to do. And if you work in the St. Louis media, you can score cheap points with the fans and gain Twitter approval by blasting Albert.
In my experience covering baseball in St. Louis, I’ve always had this opinion: we overrate hitting coaches, and it works both ways. When the offense is clicking, the batting coach is great. Awesome job, dude! When the offense is sputtering, the batting coach is a joke and should be caned and then fired.
What about the players? Do they have much to do with, well, you know, their own hitting performance? Are they responsible for their batting average, onbase percentage and slugging? Do they have the self awareness to make adjustments that will lower their strikeout rate?
Or when times are bad, is it all on the batting coach? With Albert, our normal batting-coach obsession has reached abnormal levels. Fans and the media are absolutely obsessed with this guy.
— When the Cardinals slogged through much of the season with an underwhelming offense, it was Albert’s fault.
— When the Cardinals slugged .480 and averaged a brawny 5.3 runs per game in winning 23 of their final 32 games — well, who is Jeff Albert? Never heard of him.
Credit goes to Katie Woo of The Athletic for reporting and writing how the Cardinals had recommitted to the Albert approach, which became a factor in the late-season surge. Finally, some clarity.
And there’s the infamous June 24 meeting. Manager Mike Shildt reportedly initiated an intervention to alter the Cardinals’ hitting process. This meeting has taken on mythic proportions; when I read about it, I’m reminded of the 1986 summit between Ronald Reagan and Mikhail Gorbachev in Reykjavik — and other legendary meetings. The Yalta Conference — Franklin D. Roosevelt, WInston Churchill, and Joseph Stalin during WWII — may have been just as important as the now-legendary summit conducted by Shildty. But I kinda doubt it.
(Just kidding; pardon my sarcasm.)
Since July 1, leading into the All-Star break, the Cardinals DID improve their two-strike hitting performance. They DID improve their numbers against defensive shifts. They DID show an upturn in many offensive categories including batting average, onbase percentage, slugging, OPS, and hitting with runners in scoring position.
Bottom line: over the first three months of the 2021 season the Redbirds averaged 3.9 runs during their 81 games, batting .226, with a .675 OPS. And in their final 81 regular-season games, the Cards averaged 4.8 runs with a .260 average and .773 OPS.
As you can see, the enhanced results were dramatic. Part of this was the general increase of offense in the majors when the weather heated up — and after MLB banned the sticky substances used by pitchers to put more zip on the spin rate.
A bigger part of this was batted-ball luck. The Cardinals had a .268 average on balls in play in the first half, ranking 29th. Over their final three months, the Cards’ .305 average on balls in play was 5th in MLB. But here’s the thing: they didn’t really hit baseballs in different directions. Their pull percentage and opposite field percentage changed by just a minor amount. Sometimes, it really is just hard luck that holds your offense down for a while. Until the batted-ball luck changes to your favor.
And over the final three months there was no real difference in their pull rate and oppo rate against shifts. Their batted-ball luck against shifts in the final three months reflected the batted-ball numbers from the first three months. The Cardinals benefited from a favorable turn in batted-ball luck, and that’s OK. That’s what usually happens over the course of a season.
One way or the other the improvement was significant and a positive factor in the late-season turnaround offensively. And if it is right to give credit, the credit goes to a lot of Cardinals: Shildt, the players, and the batting coaches including Albert. Yes, Albert. It’s not like he went away and was vacationing in Palm Beach when the Cardinals began thundering on offense. He continued to work with the players. And his system was working in the minors, with more than a few Cards hitting prospects putting up eye-opening numbers at every level of the farm system.
But I’ve come here today to introduce another theory. It isn’t profound, but I do believe this factor has been overlooked to some extent … and perhaps overlooked to a large extent.
The Theory: The Cardinals got their best dudes in the lineup on a pretty regular basis during the final three months. That wasn’t the case during the struggles over the first three months.
Points and Observations:
1) I’ve mentioned this before but it’s worth repeating. Because of injuries to Harrison Bader, Tyler O’Neill — and to a lesser extent, Dylan Carlson — the starting outfielders were in the same lineup only 68 times in 2021. But when O’Neill, Bader and Carlson were in there together, the Cardinals averaged 4.8 runs per game and had a record of 45-23.
2) And this really mattered. We should not downplay the magnitude of all of the games missed to injury during the first three months of the season.
Here’s what I’m talking about.
With Bader and O’Neill missing so much time, here’s where the Cardinal OF ranked over the first three months: 21st in batting average (.234), 25th in OBP (.308), 22nd in slugging (.396), 25th in OPS (.704), 11th in homers (31) and 25th in RBI (100.)
And now the final three months: 2nd in batting average (.283), 5th in OBP (.347), 3rd in slugging (.502), 5th in OPS (.849), 4th in homers (47) and 9th in RBI (131.)
3) The difference in the outfield performance was stark. Once the Cards got O’Neill and Bader and Carlson in the same lineup on a consistent basis, their eye-opening improvement boosted the entire offense. We can talk about batting coaches and managers until our voices give out, but much of the success or failure depends on this: do you have your best hitters in the lineup? And you don’t want a “NO” answer there. The YES is far more preferable. The YES made a major difference from the start of July until the end of the regular season.
4) About the impressive change in two-hitting performance. It was clearly impacted by the names on the lineup card. In the first three months, when Bader or O’Neill were out because of injury, the fourth outfielder was Justin Williams. He became a de facto starting outfielder for a while, and had 137 plate appearances through the end of June, batting .160 with a 34 percent strikeout rate.
5) But when Williams faced a two-strike count over the first three months, he batted .063 with a 64% strikeout rate. And on two-strike counts that didn’t go to a 3-2 count, he batted .048 with a 70% strikeout rate. Lane Thomas was in the outfield rotation here and there during the injury-related shortages, and he had a two-strike batting average of .032 with a 50% strikeout rate. There were other examples, but you get the point.
Is it any surprise that the two-strike hitting got better when the Cardinals restored their starting outfield, moved WIlliams and Thomas to the minors, and turned to rookie outfielder Lars Nootbaar? Pretty obvious, right? The front office is at fault here; this team needed a legitimate fourth outfielder at the start of the season but that hole was never filled until Nootbar came up from Triple A to become a pleasant surprise.
6) Another problematic area was shortstop. In the first first half of the season Paul DeJong batted .098 with two strikes and struck out 48 percent of the time in two-strike situations. The performance at the position improved when Edmundo Sosa began playing shortstop more frequently.
7) But do you know how many games Sosa started at shortstop through the first 40 games of the season? The answer: two games. WIth a suggestion from the front office, Shildt gradually worked Sosa into the lineup for regular duty at short. His offensive showing topped DeJong’s and that included a much lower strikeout rate and stronger two-strike hitting. Again, we can see why the Cardinals struggled to salvage at-bats on two-strike counts. They didn’t use their best shortstop enough for much of the season. And with the injury issues, the Cardinals couldn’t play their starting outfield as often as hoped and planned.
8) This one made me wince. How many times did Shildt and the Cardinals have this combination in the lineup? Here’s the combination: Sosa at short, O’Neill in left, Bader in center, and Carlson in right. Here’s the answer and it’s a little depressing: ONLY 27 GAMES. And in the 27 games the Cardinals averaged 5.3 runs and posted a winning percentage of .667.
Pardon my redundancy but here I go again:
You gotta have your best dudes in the lineup.
9) Paul Goldschmidt had a remarkable final three months. He batted .334 with a 1.022 OPS, 20 homers, 57 RBI and 61 runs scored. He likes Albert and I’d guess they found some things to work on. But Goldschmidt has been a terrific hitter for a decade or more, and I don’t think a manager or batting coach needs to take a bow when Goldy hits like Goldy.
10) And the lineup certainly went bashing after Shildt placed O’Neill at No. 3 in the lineup, after Goldschmidt and before Nolan Arenado. That was a good move by Shildt. But why not do it sooner? Same with the big meeting in June: why wait until 75 games elapse on the schedule for having a meeting to adjust the hitting approach?
Jeff Albert isn’t the best hitting coach in the majors, and he ain’t the worst hitting coach in the majors. He isn’t as bad as his loudest critics insist. And I don’t know if many people actually defend him — simply because it isn’t the popular thing to do. If you like him, fine. If you hate him, fine.
The point of this piece was to raise some awareness: a lot of factors can influence the effectiveness of a lineup, and that begins with the players themselves. The front office has the responsibility for putting better hitters and quality depth on the roster. The manager has the duty to put his best hitters in the lineup — sooner rather than later. And your best players must stay healthy. If all of those things happen, then I think we can turn the focus to the batting coach. But too many people are looking to snarl at the hitting coach first instead of concentrating on more important considerations.
Thanks for reading and have a wonderful weekend!
Bernie invites you to listen to his opinionated sports-talk show on 590-AM The Fan, KFNS. It airs Monday through Thursday from 3-6 p.m. and Friday from 4-6 p.m. You can listen by streaming online or by downloading the “Bernie Show” podcast at 590thefan.com — the 590 app works great and is available in your preferred app store.
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* All stats used here are sourced from FanGraphs, Baseball Reference, Stathead, Bill James Online, Fielding Bible, Baseball Savant and Brooks Baseball Net unless otherwise noted.
For the last 35 years Bernie Miklasz has entertained, enlightened, and connected with generations of St. Louis sports fans.
While best known for his voice as the lead sports columnist at the Post-Dispatch for 26 years, Bernie has also written for The Athletic, Dallas Morning News and Baltimore News American. Bernie has hosted radio shows in St. Louis, Dallas, Baltimore and Washington D.C.
Bernie, his wife Kirsten and their cats reside in the Skinker-DeBaliviere neighborhood of St. Louis.