Thursday, June 24th, 2021.
Go ahead and mark that down as the defining point of the season for the Cardinals’ franchise.
The club entered the game against the Pirates in a tailspin. After barely scraping out a sweep against the hapless Marlins – a feat which required two walk-off hits – the Cardinals went on the road, winning only one game in six against the Braves and Tigers.
Still, there was optimism as the club returned home. The stadium was expected to fill up as vacationers were more willing to brave crowds post-COVID shutdowns. The punchless Pirates, one of the worst teams in the game, were heading to town. Manager Mike Shildt was ready to energize the flagging offense by making changes.
There was hope. Hope in the energy of a crowded stadium. Hope in what Shildt maintained was a consistent and strong approach. Hope in players that were resilient and knew how to win. Hope that if the team stayed the course, the results would come. Hope that shifting of the lineup would unlock the offense once and for all.
On Thursday, the club lost to the Pirates 8-2. Shildt’s advertised change was dropping Tommy Edman from first to sixth in the lineup and shifting everyone else up. The ever-consistent Carlson, now in the one spot, did his job, going 2-4. The rest of the roster supplied just 2 hits against Chad Kuhl, a pitcher with a negative fWAR on the season and a FIP over 5.50.
Like every pitcher the Cardinals have faced over the last half-month, the St. Louis batters made Kuhl look like Jacob DeGrom. It’s funny how the Cardinals always get an opponent at his best.
The critical moment was not the game, however. That came during a post-game press conference that could come to define not only this season but this era of Cardinals baseball.
Mild-mannered Tommy Edman took the podium and said this in response to a question by the Post-Dispatch’s Derrick Goold:
Tommy Edman: "I don't think we've necessarily done the greatest job of making a gameplan for how guys are gonna throw us day by day and working on things pregame. ... I think we're going to start to implement a few more of those things."#STLFLY pic.twitter.com/YYmuMqE0hC— Bally Sports Midwest (@BallySportsMW) June 25, 2021
I know not all of you can watch the video, so here is the full quote, as provided by MLB Cardinals reporter Zachary Silver:
I don’t know that Edman intended to throw his coaches under the bus and then toss in a live grenade. But he did.
Before the Thursday series opener against the Pirates, the Cardinals held a team meeting where they discussed their frustrations and some of the mental adjustments the club needed to make. Edman volunteered two critical changes that came out of that meeting.
First, he claimed that Cardinals batters were not making in-game adjustments based on the way that they are being pitched. He stressed the need to stay “engaged” and “aware” of how a team is pitching each hitter individually so they could perform better in run-scoring situations later in a game.
Then, Edman backed up. The preparation problem, he said, was not limited to in-game adjustments. Pre-gaming planning was also an area that the club had to address.
“I don’t think we’ve necessarily done the greatest job making a game plan for how guys are going to throw us day by day,” Edman said, “and working on things pregame that are specifically tailored to prepare ourselves for that.”
Let me get this straight, Tommy.
The coaching staff has done a poor job of helping players make adjustments to the way that pitchers are pitching batters during the game.
And the coaching staff has done a poor job of helping players develop strategies to attack specific pitchers before the game.
WHAT EXACTLY IS THE OFFENSIVE COACHING STAFF DOING, THEN?
Ok… Just give me a minute…
I’m trying to bring my blood pressure down a little…
Counting to 10… Calming breaths... Waves lapping against a beach at sunset… Whale noises... Ahoooooooo…. Rustling leaves… Babbling brooks… Adam Wainwright… Curveball… Carlos Beltran…
Sorry for that outburst.
What Tommy Edman outlines here goes to the heart of my complaints about hitting coach Jeff Albert and Cardinals batters since 2020. Slumping or not, the Cardinals frequently look lost against pitchers that other teams frequently crush, as they did against Kuhl. And in the Detroit series. And in… well, in all of June.
Last offseason, I was willing to chalk that up to two potential factors.
First, it might just be me. I might be anecdotally observing something that seems true but is just a product of the small sample size that was the 2020 season. Individual moments stand out more over 58 games played, especially when capped off by a poor postseason performance.
Second, if it was true, I wondered how much was a product of the challenging coaching environment. Social distancing and limited direct contact between players and coaches could impact the club’s ability to strategically plan for specific pitchers.
While I had unanswered questions about game planning, I have generally stayed on Albert’s side when it came to organizational offensive philosophy. Before this current stretch wrecked everyone’s batting lines, I could see how his overall approach to hitting was having small but notable improvements for individual batters and at least maintaining others. Harrison Bader, Tyler O’Neill, and Paul DeJong have upped their walk rates during Albert’s tenure. Dylan Carlson, as one of the youngest players in the majors, was more than holding his own. Arenado was hitting until this current slump. Goldy recovered from a bout of swing-happiness early in 2019 to largely return to form. Yadi has held up. Wong thrived for a few seasons. Edman became a legitimate major league hitter.
There are some failures in there, too. Look no further than the bench this season.
I also openly question how much impact a hitting coach can have on batters whose tendencies are well-entrenched by the time they reach the major leagues.
Ups and downs are to be expected. Albert, though not distinguishing himself, seemed to be holding his own, while also doing some good things for the organization as a whole in the area of analytics and technology.
This season, it’s getting increasingly difficult to ignore the cumulative impact of his hitting approach. The game-to-game offensive struggles have only worsened, to the point where they are impossible to overlook.
Other critical indicators are hitting the red line. Team power has collapsed. On-base percentage is following. Contact levels are relatively poor. Those are Albert’s core philosophies and the Cardinals are among the worst in the league at those things despite having players who should be among the league’s best.
This has been building. The Cardinals have scored fewer runs per game every season under Albert’s leadership. The offensive environment, the players on the roster, and the stadium should factor into that, but there is no denying the direction of the club’s momentum.
Armed with all those considerations, I return more calmly to my query and to Tommy Edman’s statements. What exactly is the offensive coaching staff doing, then?
What they are doing is failing to meet the high professional standards required of a major league coaching staff. I can identify at least four critical areas of failure:
1) The offensive philosophy implemented by the coaching staff is failing to maintain or improve upon critical team-wide performance metrics, even when considering the league-wide offensive environment, changes in player personnel, and park factors.
2) The coaching staff is failing to translate their advanced scouting, analytics, and technological assets into a pre-game offensive strategy that hitters can effectively execute against opposing pitchers on a series-by-series and game-by-game basis.
3) The coaching staff is failing to keep players aware of the pitching approach employed by opposing teams and to develop strategic adjustments to execute during critical mid- and late-game run-scoring opportunities.
Those three factors are enough to raise serious questions about the viability of this coaching group.
However, perhaps the most significant failure was voiced by manager Mike Shildt himself in response to Tommy Edman’s comments.
Brendan Schaeffer with KMOV had a comprehensive write-up about Edman’s presser and the response offered by Shildt. Give it a read. Here’s Shildt’s quote:
“It’s a good statement, an honest statement, by Eddy,” Shildt said, referencing Tommy Edman’s comments. “He’s speaking and owning something that’s hard to own. I don’t want to misrepresent that it was Kumbaya and everybody was just kind of… but there’s another layer to that attention to detail, maybe—individually, collectively—and then making sure there’s an execution to it. Again, it’s not like the (scouting) report was erroneous or not clear or any of that. It was more about exactly how we’re going to attack, how we’re going to make adjustments, and then holding ourselves accountable to doing that. And that’s an area that I, we, have addressed.”
He added, “We just got away from being committed to all aspects of the game and I’ll take responsibility for that. But we’re back on track.”
4) The coaching staff has failed to hold the players and themselves accountable for the attention to detail in preparation and professional standards in execution required of a major league franchise.
The Cardinals have a systemic strategic planning and game-preparation problem that has been magnified by a failure of accountability structures from coaches to players, management to coaches, and organization to management.
Kudos to Shildt for recognizing that and giving voice to it instead of denying the problem or discrediting his player. Recognition, though, is not nearly enough.
Considering the failures outlined above, how can this coaching staff continue to be employed by an organization that prides itself on excellence in preparation and execution?
I’m not big on firing people. Consistency and stability is a hallmark of successful organizations. However, failures of leadership and weaknesses of strategy and structure are most revealed during a crisis.
The present offensive slumps, epidemic walk issues, and injuries have exposed the coaching staff and the systemic issues present in their philosophies about the game and strategies for preparedness. It’s hard to believe that those who allowed these failures to occur over a period of time – and perhaps made them so because of their approach to leadership – are capable of creating a new path toward success amid the ongoing crisis.
Thursday was a microcosm of what I’m referencing.
The team meeting during the day, where they recognized and voiced the need for change, resulted in no evidence of change.
The team consistently watched good pitches, flailed at breaking balls out of the zone, and looked lost against a sub-par opponent. It was a proto-typical example of poor game planning and in-game adjustments from the players and the coaching staff.
Edman says the players are changing. Shildt says there needs to be accountability and better practices from the coaches.
Good. Let’s see the change. Let’s see accountability for coaches and players to effectively implement a strategic offensive plan. Let’s see it before this season is completely lost.
And maybe think about including the pitchers in that change, too.
If we don’t see these changes, there will need to be acknowledgement from ownership that this coaching staff can’t create the type of playing environment demanded of a world-class professional sports franchise. And there will need to be a correction - for the organizational heads that assembled this staff, the manager, coaches, and, yes, even the players.