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Who to blame for the Cardinal's struggles?

The Cardinals have had a lot go wrong this season.
The Cardinals have had a lot go wrong this season.
Photo by Dilip Vishwanat

The Cardinals offensive woes have been well documented this season, from the lack of power from Allen Craig to the demotion of Kolten Wong. Other than losing Carlos Beltran, the offense hasn’t changed too much. Craig has shifted to right field to replace Beltran, which has allowed Matt Adams to join the everyday lineup; this should be a slight loss to the offense for this year. Jhonny Peralta has provided offense at short, which was absent last year with Pete Kozma as the incumbent. Peter Bourjos was added but hasn’t done anything. So, is there another issue?

John Mabry is in his second season as the team hitting coach. Prior to that, he was the assistant hitting coach to Mark McGwire; McGwire left the team to become the hitting coach for the Los Angeles Dodgers, which would put him closer to his family.

Since Mabry became the hitting coach, the team has seen a drop off of hits, home runs, batting average, on base percentage, slugging percentage, and OPS. The team did see an increase in runs and RBIs though.

Since 2009, the last year Hal McRae was the hitting coach, the team has gradually become one of the better offenses in baseball. Let’s look at the progression by stat.

During McRae’s last season, the team scored 730 runs, just below the league average of 747; that ranked 18th in the MLB. Over the 3 years of McGwire’s tenure, the league average fluctuated from 710 to 694 to 701. The Cardinals saw a steady increase from 736 to 762 to 765; that had them as 14th, 5th, and 5th each year in the league. Once Mabry was promoted to hitting coach, the Cardinals jumped to 783, good for 3rd in baseball; the league average dropped to 675. A good sign, right? Well, 2014 has the team on pace for 552 runs, or the 24th best in the game; the league average would be 687. A graph of runs can be found here.

Again, McRae had the team below average in the hits department during his final season; the team notched 1436 hits, while the league averaged 1451. The team ranked 16th. When Mac started working with the hitters, the numbers jumped from 1456 to 1513 to 1526; the league went the opposite direct, from 1418 to 1409 to 1402. The team rank rose from 10th to 5th to 1st in baseball. Mabry’s first year saw hits drop to 1494, good for 4th in the game and still well ahead of the league average of 1403. This season, the team is on pace for 1320, well below the projected average of 1400; the team currently ranks 13th in hits. A graph of hits can be found here.

Power is much of the same. McRae’s hitters knocked 160 balls out of the park, good for 18th in the league; the league average was 168. When Mac took over as hitting coach, the numbers fluctuated from 150 to 162 to 159, ranking 16th, 13th and 17th each year; the MLB average over that span was 154, 152, and 164. Mabry’s first year saw the homers drop to 125, good for 27th; that’s 30 home runs below the MLB average. The team is continuing the downward trend in 2014, as they are currently on pace for 96 long balls; the league is projected to hit 149. The team currently ranks 27th in homers. A graph of homers can be found here.

Runs batted in followed the same trend as runs scored. The team was below average in the final year of McRae’s tenure; they batted in 694 runs (good for 19th in the league) versus the league average of 712. The team under Mac saw the number rise from 689 to 726 to 732 over his 3 years, good for 15th, 5th and 5th in the league; the MLB averaged 676, 660 and 667 RBIs during that time. Mabry’s team increased RBIs to 745, which was 3rd in the league; the average dropped to 642. For 2014, the team is on pace for 534 RBIs, ranking 24th in the league right now; the league is projected to be at 648. A graph of RBIs can be found here.

The most alarming trends come in the slash stats – batting average, on base percentage, slugging percentage, and on base plus slugging.

Batting average is the least alarming, since it’s only dropped .004 since McGwire left. Under McRae, the team batting average was .262, a point below the league average; that had the team ranked 12th in the game. Under McGwire it rose to .263, peaked at .273, then dropped to .271; the team was ranked 9th, 5th and 4th over those years. The league average over that time was constantly dropping, from .257 to .255 to .254. Mabry’s first season as hitting coach saw the down trend continue to .269, staying ranked 4th in baseball; the MLB average dropped again to .253. This season, the team is hitting .242 and below the league average of .248; the team is currently ranked 24th. A graph of batting average can be found here.

The team on base percentage follows a similar trend. The team got on base at a .333 clip under McRae, good for 16th in the league; the league average was a point higher. Under McGwire, they stayed at .332 before jumping up to .341 and .338 in the 2 following years; they ranked 11th, 3rd and 1st during those years. The league on base steadily decreased during the period, from .325 to .320 to .319. Both downward trends continued during Mabry’s first season, as the Card’s OBP dropped to .332 and the league to .317; the Cardinals ranked 3rd. This season, the Cardinals have dipped below the league average (.316) to .308; they rank 20th. A graph of on base percentage can be found here.

McRae’s team slugging in 2009 was slightly below the average for the majors; the Cardinals were at .415 and ranked X while the rest of the teams were at .418. This was the same in 2010 when McGwire took over; the team was ranked X with a .402 slugging while the league was at .403. 2011 saw a spike when the team slugged .425 and was ranked X; the rest of the league slugged .399. From there, the team came down; McGwire’s 2011 team slugged .421 and ranked X while the league slugged .405. Mabry’s team followed with a .401 slugging, 5 points over the rest of the league, and ranked X. 2014 has been a disaster for slugging; the team is sitting at .355, below the league average of .387. They rank X. A graph of slugging percentage can be found here.

On base plus slugging (OPS) follows the same trends as OBP and Slugging, since it’s a combination of the 2. A graph of OPS can be found here.

What does this show us? Something has changed when there was a switch in hitting coaches. McGwire was known for working with players before he took on the position; the team responded by increasing all areas of their games within 2 season of him taking the position. Since he’s left, everything but run production has dropped. While there is no public knowledge of the hitting philosophy of the organization, it appears that the drop in power is a result of the team going in more of a slap hitting approach; this can be seen in Matt Carpenter and Allen Craig. The problem with this approach comes with a guy like Craig, who has natural power; slapping at the ball doesn’t generate much power and decreases his home run total. Craig looked like a power hitter before Mabry took over the hitting coach position.

Changing a hitting coach mid-season is a drastic change, and I don’t see Matheny making a change here himself; if a change comes, it’ll be from the front office and under protest from Matheny.

These projected numbers are all going to change throughout the season though, as the team will get hot at some point and bring up the projected totals. The Cardinals have been a streaky team for years, so it’s very probable that they’ll go on an 8 game winning streak and have some monster offensive numbers. If the approach doesn’t change though, having a guy like Craig hitting singles will cripple the offense.