photo: Jeff Albert (Jeff Curry/Imagn)
The first installment of our countdown of the top 10 St. Louis Cardinals stories of 2019 is one that was in the news at varying times of the year and in varying forms.
It all began with a resolve by the organization to modernize its hitting instruction, a commitment made from top to bottom. In general terms, how it might be done was understood.
As Baseball America trumpeted in March 2018, “The Hitting Revolution will be Computerized”.
Tools and technology far beyond traditional video can tell players and their coaches what is working and what is not. Exit velocity and launch angle have become mainstream, facilitated by the analysis of Statcast and Trackman data along with Rapsodo tracking and Blast Motion bat sensors, not to mention K-vest technology linking with high-speed video to fine-tune swings.
“If you are hitting the ball hard and one is on the ground and one in the air, the value of the outcome is very different,” then-Astros assistant major league hitting coach Jeff Albert told BA. “I do think hitting has made some progress, but it’s still low-hanging fruit. There are several significant areas of improvement out there on the offensive side.”
As the Cardinals were to go new-wave in making these hitting improvements, what better choice could they make than to re-hire Albert? The 39-year old had previously spent five years coaching and learning in the Cardinals system before becoming a part of the Jeff Luhnow-driven exodus to Houston.
Albert’s professional pedigree is as follows: “MS Exercise Science, CSCS, TPI, USAW, M|WOD”. I readily admit that I do not know what all those degrees and certifications mean, but he clearly has a bio-mechanics focus and is also a strength and conditioning specialist, such that the technology can be used as a support tool.
With the Astros, Albert was promoted multiple times, with his longest-tenured job being the minor league hitting coordinator before he became the big-league assistant hitting coach for the 2018 season. Albert was named St. Louis’ new major league hitting coach in October 2018.
In his first year in his new role, change did not always come easy.
The two old-school coaches he replaced, Mark Budaska and George Greer, have left the Cardinals organization. Budaska, 66, Albert’s assistant to open 2019, was released in August after a series of disagreements over approach had reached the breaking point. Greer, 72, who returned to his prior role as hitting coordinator for the minor leagues, was replaced for 2020 with a 34-year old coach who is fully aligned with Albert’s program, Russ Steinhorn.
When the organization announces its team minor league hitting coaches for next season, I would not be surprised to see further changes as Albert fully puts his fingerprints on player development.
In his primary job, to lead the major league hitters, 2019 was a challenge.
The team’s key offensive leaders, including Paul Goldschmidt, Marcell Ozuna and Matt Carpenter, did not perform to their career norms. In fact, Kolten Wong is the only Cardinal regular who had an above-average season offensively, based on their own prior standards. Ironically, Wong was also the player who was publicly most disappointed by the in-season firing of Budaska.
There was grumbling from some corners of the fan base as the inconsistent offense finished 10th of 15 National League teams in run scoring, down from sixth the year before. Even with the high-profile addition of Goldschmidt in 2019, the Cardinals had the lowest run scored total of any playoff team in either league. Yet, with pitching and defense leading the way, the 2019 Cardinals as a unit exceeded the expectations of most.
The club won 91 regular season games and put on an unprecedented offensive display while dispatching the Braves in Atlanta in Game 5 of the Division Series. Still, the nagging inconsistency carried into October as the Cardinals had scored just one run combined in their Games 2 and 3 losses.
Then came the highly disappointing Championship Series in which the offense was totally dominated by Washington pitching, striking out 48 times and scoring just six runs on 15 hits in the Nationals’ four-game sweep.
This winter, Albert was one of over 60 individuals interviewed by MLB investigators looking into the Astros sign-stealing controversy. Though Albert was still in the minor leagues in 2017 when the known evidence is most compelling, the team’s actions in subsequent seasons are also part of the ongoing probe. Albert reportedly assured his St. Louis bosses that they have nothing to worry about.
So, as noted in the opening, the Cardinals hitting and their leader were in the news quite often in 2019.
The Cardinal Nation’s top 10 stories of the year countdown
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