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Coaches, Approaches

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Alternate title: "Mabry: Not just a great Ink Spots A-Side"

Joy R. Absalon-USA TODAY Sports

Wow, thank god the Cardinals traded away valuable assets for Justin Masterson and John Lackey, right? I mean, otherwise this rotation could have been a real problem.

Break for laughs

Okay, now that the levity portion of the program is out of the way, hi there, folks. I'm Aaron, also known as the baron of red, here to enlighten and embiggen your Sunday morning. I'm not the normal Sunday guy, I know, but since our evil overlord was nice enough to step in with a well-timed cover post this past Wednesday when computer issues rendered me as impotent as a (joke redacted in the interest of good taste and possible legal ramifications), I'm taking this here Sunday slot and going to write it until it can't walk straight, if you know what I mean. (I don't, by the way.)

Can I just tell you right out front how sad I was to see Joe Kelly leave? No more cat dance, no more pitching spectacles, no more fun. This Cardinal team seems so utterly joyless so much of the time; seeing one of the few real personalities on the team walk out the door was almost more than my heart could bear.

But, that being said, let's face it: Allen Craig is really the more interesting piece of the puzzle, isn't he? Joe Kelly may end up a very good pitcher, but it won't be a surprise if he does or doesn't, really. If Joe Kelly can figure out how to nail down his command and turn those 96s on the radar gun into something resembling efficiency, you've got yourself a very nice peak Chien Ming Wang starter kit. If he continues to struggle finding consistency in the zone, though, you could see him relegated to relief duty again, or even just washing out entirely if things take even a small turn for the worse in certain ways. There are multiple outcomes for Joe Kelly (who, I like to remind people, has still really only been pitching about seven or eight years at this point, and starting for less than five), and you can see a path to each of them. They all make sense.

Allen Craig, on the other hand, has now officially become Enigmatic. Sure, players have down months, or even down seasons. But players who do the things Allen Craig has done in the very recent past don't often just turn into different players entirely and then...disappear. We can see the paths that get Joe Kelly from where he is to where he's going to be, whatever it is he ultimately becomes. The road from Allen Craig of 2011, when he hit for a .154 wRC+ and 2.4 WAR in just 219 plate appearances, socking eleven home runs in very limited playing time, to Allen Craig of 2012, when he socked 22 dingers in 514 plate appearances, posting a .138 wRC+ and 2.7 WAR despite losing over ten runs of value on defense, to Allen Craig of 2013, when the power virtually disappeared, with just thirteen home runs in 50 more plate appearances than 2012 but still a wRC+ of 134 fueled by a truly remarkable show of batted-ball fortune, to Allen Craig of this season, with the 81 wRC+ and .111 ISO, not to mention the -0.5 WAR number, on the other hand, is as difficult to make out as a black-out drunk Saturday night, all just vague impressions, almost assuredly false memories, and a body curled up beside you in bed you can't, for the life of you, quite place.

The Allen Craig of his first two seasons in the league just doesn't up and turn into the Allen Craig of 2014. But somehow he has. Which leads to one of two thoughts.

1: Man, Craig just fell off a cliff. I guess there's just no telling when injuries and time are going to catch up to a guy, is there?

or

2: God, I really hope Craig doesn't go to Boston and turn into the next David Ortiz. I don't think I could handle watching that guy turn back into a stud somewhere else, you know?

It is, of course, that second sentiment that kept flying around my head in the days following the trade; the idea Craig just might somehow go back to being the guy he was his first couple years in the league is absolutely terrifying to me. And depressing. And, honestly, queerly attractive, in that way expected disappointment never fails to satisfy, the bitter pleasure of being right about being let down never failing to provide a sardonic sliver of miserable joy.

It all coalesced for me one day last week, when I was looking up Matt Holliday's season numbers on FanGraphs. His performance since the All-Star break has been fantastic, of course, and on this particular day I was curious about where exactly his current season numbers fall.

I was encouraged by the numbers, as one would be, seeing how far the Lego man has come since, say, mid-May, when it seemed as if the old Holliday was now just old Holliday, and there was precious little slug left in the slugger.

But what really caught my eye on this particular day was the listing of articles under Holliday's name. In case you aren't familiar, on FanGraphs, the most recent articles written that involve the player whose page you're currently viewing show up under his name, in reverse chronological order. It's a nice little feature, to have pieces you might want to read for further context and information on a guy right there at your fingertips, easily accessible.

The piece that caught my eye was, in fact, the most recent article about Holliday, a RotoGraphs article from the end of June entitled "Matt Holliday Searching for His Pull Power." Penned by Chris Cwik, the thrust of the article is this: the big difference between Matt Holliday in 2014 (which isn't so good), and Matt Holliday pretty much every other year (which is really good), is primarily the fact he isn't pulling the ball for any kind of power this season. You should read the full piece; plenty of good info, including the fact there are some statistical reasons for optimism, as well as the caveat that it's possible Holliday is just getting older and declining, specifically in terms of bat speed.

Of course, the recent outburst from Holliday has likely done a fair amount to ameliorate these concerns. However, bear with me for a moment, will you? I promise I'll keep the column short today.

The moment I read that Holliday piece, a whole bank of lights went on in my head, and I immediately Googled "Allen Craig knew left field", and returned the result I was looking for right off the top. Another FanGraphs piece, this one from mid-July by the always-excellent Jeff Sullivan, entitled "Allen Craig, Who Once Knew Left Field." Beyond the oddly poetic title (which is why I recalled it, making the initial Googling much easier), there's a ton of info to digest on the subject of Allen Craig's disappearing pull power.

Of course, it wasn't the first time someone had taken notice of Allen Craig's lack of thump to the pull side. Ten days earlier, Ben took a look right here at what was going on with Craig in 2014, complete with tons of numbers and even a table, showing in black and white Allen Craig's biggest issue this season was, as Ben put it, Punchless Pulling.

So, do you see why these two articles caught my attention in conjunction? We have two sluggers, both suffering from the exact same malaise: a lack of power to the pull side. Which led me immediately to think of the other player the Cardinals have in the lineup who could legitimately be called a slugger: Matt Adams.

Much was made of Matt Adams's overhauled approach to hitting early in the season this year, when Adams appeared to be deliberately eschewing his power stroke in favour of a higher contact approach designed specifically to beat the infield shifts which have become so prevalent against hitters of Adams's ilk.

Less was made (but, to my mind, it was just as big a deal, when Matt Adams came off the disabled list and made some very pointed comments about how he was planning on going back to his earlier approach, which wasn't nearly so opposite-field heavy and produced far more power.

Bernie Miklasz wrote it up specifically in one of his Bird Bytes columns at the time Adams was coming back, with his biggest point being this: who was telling Adams to change his approach in the first place? And if there wasn't anyone telling him to change, if he had come to the shift-beating conclusion on his own, then who was it who should have stepped in and corrected his course, nudging him back toward the power production most of us expect from him?

So, I'm sure by now you get why I'm looking at these three things specifically together, don't you? These three situations all pretty neatly paint a picture of what's wrong with this Cardinal offense. We have three sluggers, all three of whom seem to be lacking in pull power in 2014 -- at least, until Matt Adams decided to scrap the early-season approach and go back to destroying baseballs on a fairly regular basis and Matt Holliday apparently remembered he's the guy who always does huge special things in the latter half of the season.

Three sluggers, all suffering from the exact same issue. And a hitting coach that, along with the manager, emphasizes situational hitting and using the middle of the field. Interesting, wouldn't you say?

Of course, I freely admit that three hitters isn't really enough to conclude anything concrete. But, I would also like to toss Matt Carpenter onto the pile. When Carp was coming up through the minors, he was a high-walk, virtually no power approach guy with solid but not spectacular batting averages. Once he got to St. Louis, though, the hitting coach at the time, Mark McGwire, took Carpenter firmly under his wing and got him to concentrate on tapping into his power potential, largely through being aggressive on pitches in the zone you should be able to pull with power. The result of the new approach? The doubles machine we all came to love last year and who competed for the NL MVP.

Now, this year, Carpenter's power numbers are way, way down, his ISO having dropped from a .163 mark last year to just .111 this season. And, while I don't honestly know if the numbers support me in this or not, anecdotally it feels as if Carpenter has gone back, at least somewhat, to the Sean Burroughs impersonation he did for much of his early career. Lots of soft line drives to left field, that sort of thing.

Like I said, there just isn't the kind of evidence I would like to point toward some problem with the team's hitting approach. When speaking of Allen Craig and Matt Holliday in particular, you could certainly make the case each of them is a player moving into the age where reaction times begin to fall off, and most of the issues each of them have had with the power numbers this year are the product of natural decline. But then, neither Matt Adams nor Matt Carpenter are in that age demographic, and they've both seen big drops in power production this season, as well as a penchant for hitting the ball to the opposite field in a big, bad way.

Jhonny Peralta is, of course, a great counterpoint to all of this, but then again, he's also only been here for this one season. Make of that what you will.

So, VEB, am I way off base here, trying to connect the dots in such a way they resemble a picture? Or, do you think it's possible, just possible, that there may be something in the current Cardinals' approach that might be negatively effecting the clubs' power potential?

In other words, I'm not saying John Mabry is telling the players not to hit for power. But something in the way these hitters are taking at-bats under Mabry just might be limiting them all the same. Or maybe not. But maybe.

I'm definitely going to look into it further in the future. For now, though, let's call it good, and I hope you all have a lovely Sunday. And I hope we don't see a repeat of the last two days in the game today. I'm just not sure I could take a third ass whooping in as many days, to be quite honest.