There has been much talk around Jeff Albert in relation to the firing of Mike Shildt. The Cardinals are right to commit to their hitting coach.
Jeff Albert was hired by the St. Louis Cardinals in 2019 to not only be the team’s hitting coach, but also to overhaul the hitting approach throughout the minor league system. This gives him a lot of sway in the organization. If the rumored tension between him and Mike Shildt is indeed true, then it is worth examining the “analytical” approach that Albert has communicated to Cardinal hitters.
If you have watched any playoff baseball, or really any baseball this year, you have probably been annoyed by commentators using the blanket term “analytics” in just about any conceivable situation. To avoid repeating that mistake, I will not say that Jeff Albert “uses analytics”, whatever that means. What I will say is that he is clearly a proponent of using data, and as a result, he is in tune with the modern trend of hitting balls in the air, specifically to the pull side.
Since he arrived in St. Louis, the Cardinals have been in the bottom third in ground ball rate every year. This season, the team finished 25th with a 40.5% ground ball rate. This was the team’s lowest rate under Albert’s tenure. In his previous two seasons, the Cardinals still had a lower ground ball rate than they did in any season under John Mabry. In the five a half seasons of Mabry and half a season of Mark Budaska, the team’s highest ground ball rate was 46.5%, while the team’s lowest ground ball rate was 42.9%. For comparison, the highest ground ball rate under Albert’s tenure was 42.4% in 2020.
Albert has also instilled a focus on pulling the ball. The Cardinals finished the 2021 season with the second highest pull percentage in the league (42.0%). This was an increase from 40.5% and 41.0% in the previous two seasons. Under Mabry, the team’s pull rate was under 38% for each of Mabry’s first three seasons, and then between 41.4% and 41.8% in each of his final two and a half seasons.
The 2016 season did seem to mark a change for Mabry and the Cardinals as they began to pull the ball more and hit the ball more in the air. Jeff Albert has furthered this approach, and turned the Cardinals into one of the most pulled fly ball focused teams in the league.
The question is – has it worked? There is not a simple answer. Jeff Albert critics point to the mediocre offensive numbers of the team since he took over. The team finished just 15th in wRC+ (95) this season despite adding Nolan Arenado to the roster. The Cardinals finished 19th in wRC+ the year before, and the team finished 16th in 2019.
Consistent middle of the road finishes are not super impressive for a team that consistently has enough talent to be a playoff contender. It helps to keep context in mind, though. This year’s team did have established stars like Paul Goldschmidt and Nolan Arenado. However, it also gave over 1,400 plate appearances to Yadier Molina, Matt Carpenter, and Tommy Edman. Paul DeJong also took over 400 plate appearances, and even Justin Williams had 137. Despite the amount of talent in the lineup, it is difficult to overcome giving such a large quantity of plate appearances to below average hitters.
This should improve in 2022. Matt Carpenter will no longer be with the team, Justin WIlliams may not get another at-bat in St. Louis, and Paul DeJong may be the subject of trade talks in the winter. Even Edman may move back into a utility role. These plate appearances could be taken by players like Juan Yepez and Nolan Gorman and Lars Nootbaar, who have much more offensive upside.
This brings us to our next point. Jeff Albert has done a phenomenal job of developing young players. Under Albert, Tyler O’Neill broke out, Harrison Bader was an above average hitter two years in a row, and Dylan Carlson posted a 113 wRC+ as a 22-year-old rookie.
In the minors, former first rounder Nick Plummer bounced back after a disappointing minor league career largely due a power surge accompanied by a surge in fly balls. The same is true for Juan Yepez. The 23-year-old had career high fly balls rates and was arguably the best minor league player in the system this year. Nolan Gorman has also progressed well, hitting 25 homer runs between Double-A and Triple-A as a 21-year-old. The list goes on.
Player development is the most important part of coaching, especially for a team that emphasizes homegrown talent. Albert has proven that he is good at that. Though the on-field results have not been there, production is coming in the near future. The Cardinals are right to stick with Jeff Albert and see if his approach can bear fruit in the coming years. Pulled fly balls are typically a hitter’s most productive type of contact, so it makes sense to hit more of them.
The top five offensive teams in 2021, in terms of wRC+, were the Astros (124), Yankees (117), Twins (116), Dodgers (110), and A’s (107). Three of those teams – the Twins, Astros, and A’s – finished in the top five in pull percentage. The same three teams, plus the Dodgers, also finished in the bottom seven in ground ball rate.
There seems to be value to this approach. Letting Albert implement it across the organization has already yielded results for many younger players. The offense also heated up a bit in the second half of the season, with a 100 wRC+, good for 11th in the league.
There are some things to criticize Albert for. Paul DeJong has taken a step back at the plate, though his two highest ground ball rates have actually come in the last three seasons, Tommy Edman failed to build on his strong rookie season (although that rookie season came under Albert) and the minor league system struggled overall. Albert may take some of the blame for these things, but there were plenty of other factors. DeJong is difficult to understand, Edman’s rookie year success was statistically unsustainable, and the lost 2020 minor league season and lack of general depth in the system made the Cardinals struggle in all aspects of the minor leagues this year.
Albert has certainly not been perfect, but below the surface he has made great progress with the Cardinals. The player progression that he has overseen should lead to more success in the near future, and a roster without as much dead weight should lead to better overall results in 2022. The Cardinals are smart for keeping Albert in place while hiring a new manager. The organization seems to have a lot of trust in Albert’s approach, and his ability to develop young players seems to be why.