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An Analysis of the Cardinals’ Firing of Assistant Hitting Coach Mark Budaska

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A problem that could have been easily avoided

MLB: St. Louis Cardinals-Media Day Steve Mitchell-USA TODAY Sports

The Cardinals announced yesterday that they have fired Assistant Hitting Coach Mark Budaska. Budaska was a switch-hitting OF/DH as a player, and was signed as an undrafted free agent out of Pierce College in California by the Oakland Athletics on May 11, 1973. He spent 10 years in the Oakland Athletics organization as a player, getting into 2 games in the outfield in 1978 with 1 start in RF and 9 games as a DH in 1981, then closed out his playing career in Japan in 1982. Budaska worked in the biomechanics field, then spent 1998-2000 as a hitting coach and first base coach for a professional team in Taiwan. In 2001, he was the hitting coach for the Angels’ AA Affiliate Arkansas Travelers where the team won the Texas League Championship. He then spent the next 6 years in the Boston Red Sox organization, serving as the hitting coach in 2002-2003 for AA Portland and 2004-2007 for AAA Pawtucket. He joined the Cardinals organization as the hitting coach for AAA Memphis for the 2008 season, and stayed in that capacity until he was named the Hitting Coach for the Cardinals on July 15th, 2018 after Hitting Coach John Mabry and Assistant Hitting Coach Bill Mueller were fired along with Manager Mike Matheny the previous day. George Greer was named the Assistant Hitting Coach of the Cardinals at the time, but he was returned to the minor leagues for this season with the hiring of Hitting Coach Jeff Albert and Budaska being named Albert’s assistant. Budaska had also spent 3 off-seasons coaching in Venezuela, and had a stint in 2017 with the Cardinals as Assistant Hitting Coach while Bill Mueller was on personal leave.

How has Mark Budaska done on the job? We will likely never know the answer to that question, as we don’t know his specific duties as an assistant, other than to help with the hitters. The Cardinals in many respects have had a disappointing offensive season in 2019, exemplified by the Cardinal’s National League ranking out of 15 teams in several offensive metrics:

wRC (89)+: 12th

wOBA (.308): 13th

OBP (.316): 12th

SLG (.407): 13th

Runs scored (518): 13th

HR (145): 12th

ISO (.163): 12th

Hits (950): 15th

Doubles (175): 13th

The Cards’ 1000 strikeouts are the 5th fewest, their 368 walks are the 9th most and only the Nationals beat the Cards’ 78 stolen bases. They’ve been a bit unlucky, as their .290 BABIP is also 14th worst, but there is no sugarcoating it. The Cardinals’ offense has been bad this year, and if they miss the playoffs again, this will likely be the primary reason assigned.

Now of course, the question is why blame this on the assistant Budaska instead of Jeff Albert, who is supposed to be the main man? In fact, why blame the hitting coaches at all? They’re not the ones letting first-pitch get-me-over fastballs go, then swinging at sliders outside the zone. Indeed, instead of examining the Cards’ offensive performance relative to other teams, let’s take a look at the individual performances of players who have received the most offensive playing time both last season and this season.

The Blame Game is a Red Herring

Dexter Fowler, Marcell Ozuna and Paul DeJong have improved. It was hard for Fowler not to improve on his season from last year, where he had a negative fWAR and a 62 wRC+. Nobody really knows what happened with Fowler last year, and for all we know emotion had as much to do with hit as anything. I don’t agree with a remark Jim Leyland made years ago that chemistry is just a subject you take in school. Mike Matheny’s communication issues with Fowler combined with Fowler’s initial struggles might have allowed the situation to fester. In any case, Fowler’s walk and strikeout rates are a tad worse, but his ISO climbed almost 60 points, his BABIP bounced back from .210 to .307, and two of his three slash stats have increased by over 100 points.

Marcell Ozuna had a hurt shoulder last year that obviously affected his throwing, and almost certainly affected his bat, whether anybody wanted to admit it or not. He still doesn’t throw very well, but his power has greatly increased since last year. Despite being on the shelf for over a month this season, he already has 22 HRs in only 358 PA compared to 23 HRs in 628 PA in 2018, with over 100 points of extra ISO. While his strikeout percentage has gone up 2.5%, he’s more patient with an increased 4% walk percentage. Ozuna has made all these gains despite a 40 point drop in BABIP.

It might be surprising to some, but Paul DeJong has improved a bit as well, although his gains are a little less noticeable, as his wRC+ is just 1 point higher than last year. DeJong missed significant time last season to a broken hand, and at this point in the 2019 season, DeJong has had just about the same amount of playing time he had all last year. Today he will almost certainly play in his 115th game, and that’s how many games he appeared in last year. His 19 HRs are the same, his ISO is up just a little and his slash stats are up a tad, His biggest improvement is reducing his strikeout percentage by 5% while increasing his walk percentage about 1.5% more. No, he hasn’t been the offensive force that some hoped he would be and his gains are not dramatic, but they’re something. At the very least, he’s no worse than he was.

Kolten Wong is the same offensive player in a lot of ways. The stunning thing about Wong this year is that he has a reverse platoon split for the first time in his career since 2014, his first full season. This year, he has slashed only .252/.344/.369 in 320 PA against RHP, but has socked lefties to the tune of .318/.372/.459. In 2014, his wRC+ was 40 points higher against lefties, and it’s 31 points higher this year (120 to 89). But for the last 4 seasons, he couldn’t hit left-handed pitching much at all, with a 67 wRC+ last season and a 53 wRC+ in 2015, with seasons of 80 and 89 wRC+ thrown in between. This year Mike Shildt has not platooned Wong, and by this point, he already has 94 PA against lefties, when he only had 96 all of last year. Some of it is BABIP related, as his .324 BABIP against lefties is 60 points higher than last year. But aside from that anomaly, his walk and strikeout rates are a tad better, his AVG and OBP are 18 points higher, and his SLG is 2 points higher. His ISO is down 16 points, his wRC+ is down 2 points from last year’s 98, and his .297 BABIP is 22 points higher. From an overall offensive standpoint, he’s really not that much different.

Four players, however, that were in the top 6 in plate appearances for the 2018 club have declined significantly. Jose Martinez has crushed left-handed pitching since he started to get playing time with the Cardinals and has continued to do so this season, with a 171 wRC+, 1.049 OPS and a .297 ISO. But this year, all of a sudden, he can’t hit right-handed pitching. He’s slashing a career-low .246/.318/.339 against righties, and his power against them has cratered, as evidenced by his .093 ISO. His wRC+ against righties is down 51 points to 77 from last year’s 128, and still almost 30 points down from his previous low of 105 in 2017.

BABIP may have a bit to do with it, as Martinez’s is down 55 points to .304 from last year’s .359. Martinez’s strikeout percentage has increased by 4%, but his walk rate has gone up about 2%. He’s hitting fewer line drives, more ground balls, and his HR/FB% has dropped 6% to 10.6%. His Hard% is down 4%. Martinez still crushes fastballs, although he’s done a bit worse this year against sinkers with his GB% on them increasing by 14%. The biggest difference I can see is his struggles against sliders and cutters. They’ve always been his weakness, but this season Martinez is slashing .194/.234/.264 with a 39 wRC+ and .069 ISO against the slider, and hurlers are now throwing it to him 21.8% of the time, the 2nd most frequent pitch he sees. It’s tough to figure out why he’s having so much trouble, and it could really be a fluke. His strikeout and walk percentages against the pitch are close, although his strikeout percentage is about 5% higher. His line drive rate on the pitch is about the same, but his GB% has gone up 5%, with a 4% or so drop in FB%. His BABIP has dropped 48 points on the pitch to .289, but that hardly explains the total collapse. His HR/FB rate has gone down from 25% on the pitch to 10%. Martinez’s chase rate on sliders outside the zone has increased by about 5%. Martinez has only been thrown 86 cutters out of 1,443 pitches, but he has done absolutely nothing against them with an .059/.111/.059 slash line and a -45 wRC+. It was his worst pitch last year too, but Martinez destroyed the 68 cutters he saw in 2017. It’s so far out of line than anything else in his career, that you might call it noise.

The struggles of Harrison Bader on this site have been discussed in articles here, here, and here, and it’s not necessary to recapitulate those analyses, other than to say that one of Bader’s primary strengths last year was his performance against lefties, which he has not been able to replicate this year, and that has BABIP has dropped almost 100 points. He may have pitch selection problems, or it could just be a severe case of bad luck.

Yadier Molina’s offense has gone completely in the tank, but let’s be honest. He’s been cheating Father Time for years now, has just turned 37, and for years running continued to catch more games every year. At some point age and injuries have to catch up with him, and they may have done so. His power has disappeared this year, but you have to believe that his problems with his thumb have had a major impact. The last player is Matt Carpenter, who has gone from a near-MVP season with a 138 wRC+ to an 85 wRC+ this year. His power has also vanished, with his Hard Hit% dropping 14%, and his ISO dropping over 100 points. But he’s also not getting any younger, and has dealt with lower back problems for a lot of the year.

Is the hitting staff to blame for all this, to the point where Mark Budaska had to be the fall guy with 46 games left because John Mozeliak was not willing to ditch his choice for the job? Not a chance. A few of last year’s regulars have healed from their injuries and have improved, and others have remained about the same. Of the 4 regulars that have seen significant decline, 2 are aging veterans with injury problems, and the results of the other two are so confounding that there might not be a clear answer. And do you really believe that Carpenter and Molina have either changed or not changed their approach according to the dictates of the hitting staff?

A Rift is the Culprit and the Front Office’s Answer is Likely True

In reality, there must have been some sort of serious rift in the coaching staff for something like this to happen with 46 games left in the season. Cardinals’ MLB.com beat writer Anne Rogers quoted John Mozeliak in a breaking article yesterday on the Cardinals’ home page as follows:

“It really came down to philosophical differences in what we’re trying to do.”

“As the season wore on, we just didn’t feel like it was clicking.”

“Ultimately we had to make a decision.”

“I’ve really enjoyed my time working with Buddha, but we felt like for the better good, we had to make a change.”

Rick Hummel of the Post-Dispatch last night quoted Michael Girsch as saying:

“It’s really a matter of we wanted a consistent voice for our hitters from our coaching staff and not having mixed messages.”

“There’s no blame.”

“We felt we were better positioned to have a more uniformed voice for the players.”

“Jobel and Jeff will be a good mix together.”

“The whole organization is accountable for how we’ve done offensively.”

Taking the comments from our top front office people together, that’s about as complete an answer as you’re going to get from sports executives these days. “Philosophical differences.” “Mixed messages.” We may never know what the exact problem was, but it was clear that at a minimum, Albert and Budaska could no longer work together. Consider the following. Budaska had been the hitting coach at AAA Memphis since 2008, and you can bet the farm that he thought he deserved the job when John Mabry was fired last year. Having held the job for half the season last year, he likely didn’t feel like he had done anything to lose it this year. Can imagine the conversation Budaska had with Mozeliak when he was told that the Cardinals would go outside the organization to get a hitting coach, but he could stay on as the assistant? Budaska had to be furious. He almost wouldn’t be human if he wasn’t. After toiling in AAA for over 10 years, it’s a pretty natural progression to get the job with the big club.

Also consider that Budaska was the hitting coach in AAA for Carpenter, DeJong, Bader, Wong, Jose Martinez, Tyler O’Neill, Rangel Ravelo and Yairo Munoz (for a month). As far as I can tell, he never had Lane Thomas, but he did have Tommy Edman at the tail end of the 2017 Memphis season for the playoffs. It is true that Jeff Albert used to be a hitting coach in the Cardinals’ organization, serving for Short-Season A Batavia in 2008 and Class A-Advanced Palm Beach from 2009-2012. The only player on the Cards’ 40-man roster that Albert ever had under his tutelage was Carpenter for right around 30 games each for Palm Beach in 2009 and 2010. For the other players, if they’re struggling, it’s only natural for them to seek out the coach with whom they are most familiar if he’s available, and that might even include Carpenter, as he was with Budaska for almost the whole 2011 season at Memphis. The advice may have been contradictory. This was a problem waiting to happen, and Albert must have felt it the whole time.

The confounding part is us learning now that the two coaches have apparently been delivering mixed messages to the players. Why wouldn’t something like that be sorted out way back in October before Albert was hired? Remember that the Cards announced that Budaska would return as the assistant on October 16th, 2018. It wasn’t until October 29th that Albert was named the new hitting coach. There are so many questions, many of which we will likely never get the answers to. When Budaska was told he was losing his job, was he informed of the potential candidates for the head job before he agreed to stay on as the assistant? Before Albert was offered and announced, did all the parties get together to make sure that Budaska was on board with the new “Albert innovations,” whatever they might be? Was Budaska less than honest with himself in thinking that he could serve under Albert, despite the fact that the two men started in the Cardinal organization the same year with Budaska instructing the higher level? As the former Spring Training Coordinator, Mike worked with both men, and Budaska was his hitting coach for Memphis from 2015-2016. What’s his take on all this? And of course we’re all dying to know what exactly the “mixed messages” and philosophical differences were, and whether Budaska was either latently or patently undermining Albert’s instruction. How did it all come to a boiling point?

Two things are clear. If Budaska and Albert had different philosophies and approaches, the two men working together presented a dire risk. It was imperative that Mozeliak ensure that those differences, if they existed, were ironed out long before now. And the second is that the head man had to be able to get his message across without it being contradicted by his assistant. Regardless of whether it was the right move to demote Budaska and hire Albert, having made the choice, Mozeliak had to let Albert stand or fall on his own ideas. If Budaska wasn’t with the program, he had to go.

Your New Assistant Hitting Coach

Promoted to take Budaska’s place with the Cardinals is Jobel Jimenez, who had been the hitting coach for AAA Memphis, and is in his 13th season in the Cardinals organization. Jimenez’s bio page is not yet up on the Cardinals’ website. The Memphis Redbirds’ Media Guide is a tad inaccurate (largely because of double counting) and incomplete, but according to that guide and other sources I have compiled, including past press releases, Jimenez has held the following positions in his coaching career:

  • Outfield instructor and Venezuelan scout in the Los Angeles Dodgers organization (1994-1998)
  • Outfield instructor and Venezuelan scout in the Miami Marlins organization (1999-2000)
  • Outfield instructor, scout and hitting coach in both Venezuela and the Dominican Republic in the Boston Red Sox organization (2001-2006)
  • Hitting coach, VSL (Venezuela Summer League) Cardinals, Rookie Ball (starting before the 2007 season, continuing through the 2009 season)
  • Hitting coach, DSL (Dominican Summer League) Cardinals, Rookie Ball (2011)
  • Hitting coach, GCL (Gulf Coast League) Cardinals, Rookie Ball (2013)
  • Hitting coach, Peoria Chiefs, A ball (2014-2016)
  • Hitting coach, Springfield Cardinals, AA ball (2017-2018)
  • Hitting coach, Memphis Redbirds, AAA ball (2019-present)

Other than confirming that he had been in the Cardinals organization in 2010 and 2012, I have been unable to determine exactly what his role was. The 2011 media guide doesn’t list his job for the prior year, and the 2013 press release announcing his position only reflects that he was a returning coach in a new job. My best guess is that he was a roving instructor of some kind or helped out at the Jupiter complex. The Memphis media guide also noted that Jimenez was a minor-league player in the Los Angeles Dodgers organization for the 1993 and 1994 seasons, but he had no listing in the comprehensive baseball-reference.com minor league database that I could find.

Interestingly, Jimenez worked with Bader and DeJong in 2015 when they were 21 years-old playing for Class A Peoria. He was the hitting coach for Lane Thomas from the beginning of the 2018 season until July 29th of that year, when Thomas moved up to Memphis. Out of all of our players, Jimenez has the most experience with Tommy Edman, who he had under his wing since June of 2017 until Edman’s recall to the big club this year. He also has quite a bit of time with newly-recalled OF Randy Arozarena. Since Jimenez is presumably happy to move up the chain and has seen 3 assistant hitting coaches be let go within 3 years, you can expect that he will know not to rock the boat.

Conclusion

It is, of course, unknown what impact, if any, this episode has had, or will have, on the season. It might be nothing more than a fly speck. But all can agree that the Cards do not need this mess in the middle of a pennant race, and that any potential problem should have been avoided long ago, possibly by Budaska just moving on once he realized he was being passed over.