In the third inning of Saturday afternoon’s 5-1 victory over the Cincinnati Reds, the St. Louis Cardinals scored three runs. In the forty-three innings since, the Cardinals have scored just one run, and even that run came via a throw hitting the scoring runner, who himself only reached base via the zombie runner, the automatic base runner assigned to second base at the start of extra innings in the regular season (let this be yet another example of why zombie runner is a superior term to ghost runner–a ghost does not consist of matter and thus a throw would go straight through them, but the zombie Andrew Knizner, undead after his seeming demise as the final out of the 10th inning, is capable of absorbing a throw, but that’s besides the point). The Cardinals’ offensive woes have resulted in three consecutive shutout losses, the latest coming in the form of a two-hitter in which the Cardinals only reached via a pair of seventh-inning singles.
The Cardinals’ recent offensive struggles probably will not matter from a postseason perspective–FanGraphs still has the Cardinals as a 99.3% favorite to win the National League Central and with a 99.9% chance of making the postseason one way or another–but the aesthetics are admittedly terrible. In a world in which Albert Pujols was not chasing 700 career home runs, I’m probably not bothering to stay up until way past my bedtime to watch the Cardinals unable to score a run on consecutive nights. But as it stands, the Pujols factor makes the Cardinals must-see TV every single game and therefore when the offense struggles this badly, it’s easy to notice it.
Since the Cardinals’ issue is not the struggles of a single player but rather on the team as a whole–of the sixteen players on the Cardinals to have taken plate appearances in the last week, only Paul Goldschmidt has an above-average wRC+, at 109–much of the attention has instead focused on Cardinals hitting coach Jeff Albert. Albert, the youngest “Albert” in the Cardinals clubhouse at 41, has been the team’s hitting coach for the last four seasons, having previously served as the assistant hitting coach for the 103-win Houston Astros in 2018.
Prior to Jeff Albert, the Cardinals’ hitting coach was John Mabry, who was roundly criticized for the performance of the team’s offense. Prior to Mabry was Mark McGwire, who was criticized in 2010 and for much of 2011 for the team’s offensive struggles, though he is now remembered more favorably. Prior to McGwire was Hal McRae, not exactly beloved as the team’s offensive performance dropped following the 2006 World Series victory. As with a team’s field manager, the job of a hitting coach is largely away from the view of the fans, but at least with a manager, fans can complain with at least some knowledge of the situation about lineup decisions or sacrifice bunts or reliever usage.
I knew what John Mabry, Mark McGwire, and Hal McRae looked like because I remember how they looked during their playing careers; I just had to Google Images search the current hitting coach of the baseball team about which I own and operate a blog because Jeff Albert is so anonymous. I’m pretty sure I could have put a picture of any white guy in a Cardinals jersey as the photo for this post and gotten by just fine. Truthfully, I’m not even entirely sure what a hitting coach does–it’s not as though professional baseball players need to be taught how to hit a baseball. In the broadest sense, criticizing Jeff Albert because the offense has struggled recently seems completely absurd–what am I to think he did, told his players to make weak contact?
None of this is to say that Jeff Albert is doing a good job as hitting coach of the Cardinals, but rather to note that I would have no way of knowing what impact he specifically is having. Evaluating his performance based on the overall performance of the Cardinals’ offense, however, is at the very least fair, if not an accurate representation of what is within his control. And since Albert was hired as hitting coach prior to the 2019 season, the Cardinals are tied for ninth in baseball among non-pitchers (a relevant caveat, as looking at overall offensive numbers gives a material bump to American League teams that were not weighed down by pitchers batting for two full seasons) by wRC+, in the top half of teams by walk rate, and in the bottom half of teams by strikeout rate (as in the team is walking and avoiding strikeouts reasonably well).
In 2022, the Cardinals are tied for fourth, trailing only the Los Angeles Dodgers, Toronto Blue Jays, and New York Yankees and equal to the New York Mets, by wRC+, and that includes the Cardinals’ recent struggles. And it’s not as though the wRC+ is some underlying statistic that is not being reflected in the team’s results–the Cardinals rank fourth in the sport in runs scored per game, averaging 4.8 runs per game. The 2022 Cardinals have already outscored the 2021 team, and are on pace to be the highest scoring Cardinals team since 2016. The Cardinals have the 9th-highest walk rate in the sport and are one of just four teams in the Majors with a strikeout rate below 20%.
There is something transparently silly about ascribing all positive events to Jeff Albert (or Oliver Marmol, for that matter), as though his job is telling Paul Goldschmidt to hit a home run like he’s Mr. Burns coaching Darryl Strawberry at the Springfield Nuclear Power Plant’s softball championship game. Obviously, Jeff Albert did not turn Paul Goldschmidt or Nolan Arenado, both of whom have a track record of being good hitters independent of Albert (though neither as good prior to this year). But in terms of tangible metrics, the Cardinals offense in 2022 is firmly above-average (whether to give credit is a separate question, but Jeff Albert isn’t materially harming the results). Anecdotally, well, you’d have to ask the team. Maybe the players hate him, and in that case, maybe his future employment is worth questioning. But based on individual cases, beyond just assuming that Goldschmidt and Arenado are probably just really good hitters anyway, there are a number of cases of Cardinals hitters far outpacing expectations.
- Albert Pujols is probably the most obvious case–a guy who has spent the last half-decade as a below-average, borderline unemployable hitter is now having the best offensive season he has had in over a decade in his first season under Jeff Albert? I guess giving Jeff credit for the resurgence of Pujols means not crediting the overwhelming fanfare of a hero’s welcome in St. Louis, so I guess I get wanting to ignore this one.
- Brendan Donovan was a 25 year-old mostly non-prospect, and 422 plate appearances into his MLB career, he has the seventh-highest on-base percentage in the sport among players with at least 155 plate appearance, and bear in mind he has way more than that. Has Donovan gotten a little bit lucky in terms of batted ball luck? Sure, but his 12.6% walk rate shows a level of patience far beyond his years.
- Tommy Edman, like Donovan, wasn’t considered a high-end prospect when he joined the Cardinals in 2019, the same year Jeff Albert joined the Cardinals organization, but now he’s batting well enough to be a down-ballot MVP candidate. No, Jeff Albert doesn’t get credit for his fielding and base running, but a 108 wRC+ at the Majors from a guy who only got up to 108 as a AA/AAA player in 2018 isn’t nothing.
- Lars Nootbaar was a meme the moment he got drafted, but he wasn’t considered a prospect of any particular note. And now he has a 15% walk rate and a 117 wRC+. Yes, he’s been terrible lately, but if you want to put that on Jeff Albert, you also need to give him credit for his early results, which on the whole have far outweighed the bad ones.
- Corey Dickerson was unplayable early in the season. But after dedicating actual time with Jeff Albert, he is now an above-average hitter on the season. And just as you can’t give Albert credit for Tommy Edman’s defense and base running, you can’t blame him for Dickerson’s deficiencies in those areas.
I’m not even sure that I believe Jeff Albert should receive credit for these positive developments, but they have happened under his watch. The Cardinals offense has been good under his watch, and this despite a group of players that most fans were insisting just under two months ago needed Juan Soto to truly take form. And if there is some facet behind the scenes at which Jeff Albert is struggling, it certainly isn’t something that a fan watching games on television is going to uncover.