Thursday, June 24th, 2021.
That was the date that Tommy Edman (perhaps not so) innocently took the podium for a post-game press conference and threw the coaching staff, his teammates, and himself under the proverbial bus.
The team had just come home from a painfully lackluster 1-6 road trip through Atlanta and Detroit. They followed that with an 8-2 loss to the punchless Pirates. The frustration from the team was palpable. When asked about the atmosphere in the clubhouse by The Athletic’s Cardinals reporter Katie Woo, Edman revealed that the team had held a closed-door meeting earlier that day where they aired their frustrations and identified some necessary adjustments to recover their season.
Derrick Goold, vet beat writer that he is, sagely followed that up by asking Edman about the kinds of adjustments that the team was hoping to make.
Here was the money quote, conveniently provided in image form by MLB.com reporter Zach Silver:
Edman centered the problems with the Cardinals’ offense on a lack of preparation in pre-game planning to attack opposing pitchers and a failure to make adjustments during games based on how opponents were attacking them.
The combination of pre-game and in-game failures was a pretty damning duo.
I wrote about all of this here – “Four Critical Failures Have Brought the Cardinals to an Organization-Defining Moment” – in one of my most widely read and cited articles of the season. Opinions on Edman’s comments varied. As did the appropriate reaction.
That article was not some fire-breathing diatribe against Cardinals’ hitting coach Jeff Albert. At the time, it was popular to go on social media and lay all problems with the Cards’ season on his doorstep. Pitchforks were sharpened. Torches were lit. Plowshares were hammered back into swords.
The club realized there was trouble in the village because they gave the normally camera-shy Albert a segment on Bally Sports pre-game with Jim Hays a few days later.
I entered this situation a willing – if somewhat ambivalent – defender of Albert and the Cardinals’ offensive coaching philosophy. Under Albert’s tutelage, it was easy to identify some high-profile failures. Like Matt Carpenter’s decline. An epic collapse in 2020 by Tyler O’Neill. Dexter Fowler. A lot of these are at least somewhat explained by factors outside of the control of the coaches.
Under the radar, Albert could also claim multiple successes. Tyler O’Neill’s rebound in ‘21. Harrison Bader’s growth in walk rate. Kolten Wong stabilized as a hitter and became a productive lead-off man. I could go on.
(Yes, I know that Wong has since had some things to say about the Cardinals’ approach to coaching him. I’m not entirely certain he was referencing the Albert era, since Wong experienced one of his best seasons working with Albert. We know the Matheny era was extremely rough for Wong.)
Albert also oversees the hitting philosophy employed throughout the organization – and had an influential hand in the development of the club’s hitting lab at the Spring Training complex in Jupiter, FL. Minor league hitters are having a pretty good season.
So, I didn’t enter this kerfuffle with an already heated pot of boiling pitch. Could the Cardinals keep Albert around? Sure. Could they let him go? Sure.
What was problematic for me was Edman’s implication that there was a significant and persistent failure of communication in day-to-day game planning from coaches to players, execution of the game plan by the players, and accountability toward that game plan from the offensive coaching staff.
Might those persistent failures be the cause of the wildly inconsistent offense, the frequent offensive disappearances, and frustrating performance against pitchers the rest of the league generally crushed?
This became increasingly evident in the weeks leading up to the team meeting, when the club’s offensive stats were in a nose-dive and the club was tail-spinning toward irrelevancy, despite having some pretty talented hitters.
Using comments from Edman and Shildt (which were later supported by Albert’s comments as well), that let me to identify four critical areas of failure from the Cardinals’ coaching staff:
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.
The fourth came from Manager Mike Shildt’s response to Edman’s comments, where he owned up to their failure to present a plan of attack and hold players accountable to that plan. He said at the time: “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.
My purpose today is to critique that last statement by Mike Shildt: “We’re back on track.”
This article will publish on September 22nd – almost three months to the day since Edman’s presser. I’m writing it on Monday evening, September 20. The Cardinals have resurrected their season and currently hold a 3.0 game lead on the second Wild Card spot. They are 11 games over .500, their highest mark of the season after a brilliant win against the division-leading Brewers on the road.
Let’s assume for a minute that the Cardinals did what Edman, Shildt, and Albert said they were planning to do. Let’s assume they made adjustments in their coaching approach – providing more direct engagement with the players in both pre-game planning and in-game adjustments. Let’s assume that the coaching staff did a better job of holding players accountable for the scouting reports and game plans that the analytics and scouting departments were providing.
Have things changed for the better?
The standings alone tell you all you need to know. The ballclub has played considerably better since that low point.
Let’s be more complete than that. We can look at team stat splits up to June 24th and then from June 24th to Monday morning, September 20. (I’ll update the record with Monday’s win, but the stats won’t refresh until the morning; my writing schedule is forcing me to finish this early.) For ease of use, I’ll just throw all these stats together in a handy chart:
Cardinals Offensive Overview, Pre- & Post- Edman’s Comments
Well. That’s a pretty definitive answer to the question.
The Cardinals offense has experienced significant positive growth in nearly every category that I looked at. wRC+ has gone from 16 points below average to 6 points above. wOBA has climbed by 35 points. That’s reflected in the change in slash line: .225/.298/.373 has become .257/.325/.432.
Counting stats like fWAR are more useful than you with think. The sample sizes pre- and post- comments are close enough to work. It’s about three months of games both before and since Edman’s comments. The climb from 5.4 fWAR to 14.9 is crazy!
So, yeah. They’re doing a lot of things better and it’s showing up in the stat lines and in the standings.
How much of this positive change can we attribute to the coaching staff and the changes that came out of the team meeting?
Just as Jeff Albert was not solely to blame for the offensive problems at the beginning of the season, so is he not solely the cause of the club’s redemption.
Yes, the team is hitting better. Way better. It’s hard not to give at least some of the credit to improvements in coaching, planning, execution, and accountability.
Around the same time that the club began to change their approach to game planning, they also began to move on from early-season roster concepts that simply didn’t work. Justin Williams was sent out. Matt Carpenter stopped seeing time at second base. Tommy Edman stayed in the infield. Lane Thomas was released. Edmundo Sosa started to see more regular playing time. Lars Nootbaar was promoted.
It helped that their players got healthy. Tyler O’Neill has been in the lineup nearly all of the second half of the season. Harrison Bader returned from a lengthy injury around the time that Edman’s comments were made.
Shildt also made lineup adjustments. First, Edman was removed from the leadoff spot. O’Neill, Goldschmidt, Arenado, and Carlson have shifted around in an attempt to create more run-scoring opportunities.
Luck might also be a factor. Seriously. Some of the Statcast information – like average exit velocity, barrel rate, line drive%, hard-hit rate, etc. – indicates that the Cardinals’ bats probably should have had better results early in the season than they did.
The team’s BABIP before Edman’s comments? .268. Well below neutral.
The team’s BABIP after Edman’s comments? .303. Perfectly neutral for a stat that tends to normalize for a cluster of MLB hitters – like a team.
It looks like Albert is going to get to stick around. Shildt, too. This playoff run surely buys them at least one more year together.
Here’s my concluding thought on this issue. My biggest complaint about Mike Matheny during his final years as the club’s manager was his inability (and perhaps lack of desire) to learn the modern game. As clubs were changing their bullpen usage, shifting, and embracing new forms of analytics, Matheny grew increasingly crotchety and traditional. The club hired him believing his teachability would make up for his inexperience. The opposite proved true in the end.
In what was a very sticky situation that could have spelled doom for his career – and the careers of his staff, Shildt and Albert listened, learned, and adapted. The club bought in and has really put things together. Good for them.
Seriously. Good for them. What else can you ask of a group that has failed than to own it, learn from it, correct it, and defeat it?
That doesn’t excuse what happened. It should certainly put the front office on notice for future lapses in planning, execution, and accountability. This is not a mistake that can be allowed to repeat itself.
Instead, the club should take it as an opportunity. In the offseason, I would love to see the Cardinals further expand their coaching staff to create a team of hitting and pitching coordinators that would rival NFL franchises in size, scope, and specificity of role. They’ve taken some steps in this direction. Go further. Other teams – notably the Giants – already have.
Learn from them. Make it the goal of the Cardinals’ management to have the most comprehensive, intelligent, and personalized pre- and in-game offensive and pitching game plans in the league.
We’ve seen what this team can do with better coaching and more engaged players. What can they do with the best coaching plan in the league?
I want to see it happen.
Four critical failures that brought the season to the brink of disaster have become a slew of successes that have the team on the verge of the postseason and a promising future. That’s something they can build on. Build on it!