I decided a few days ago that I was going to attempt to do some more research on Jeff Albert’s past as a hitting coach in order to decide what I think the Cardinals should do about their situation they've found themselves in offensively in the present. I have found a few things I'd like to share with you today.
The first was this fantastic article by Brian Stull at STL Baseball Weekly. I want to point out two quotes in that article, one by Matt Carpenter - who worked with Albert in 2009 and 2010 in Palm Beach, and one by Kolten Wong who had never worked with Albert until 2019 with the Cardinals in St. Louis.
What these quotes say to me is that Jeff Albert started out as a guy who emphasized avoiding swings and misses and having a tough at bat. He grew to have a great reputation within the game - at least through the system, perhaps MLB-wide. He attempts to simplify hitting for hitters with 0 and 1 strikes on the batter. Focus on pitches they can do really well with. This is where the "having a tough at bat" comes into play. With 2 strikes, you just have to battle your butt off, but create damage prior to that.
This seems to be a good approach to me. It's not taking pitches to take pitches and "see it" - the philosophy seems more to me that you need to look for specific pitches early, broaden slightly with 1 strike, and then with 2 strikes be that guy who can foul pitches off, see the ball well, and go with what's given to you when you force them to throw you one can handle.
The second thing that I found was this podcast between Xavier Scruggs and Jeff Albert. Here are my takeaways from that April 2020 interview (51 minutes long). I have listened to it twice.
Jeff Albert's background is that as a player in college, he learned how to use video, etc. because he wasn’t as good as the players ahead of him - he even worked in a dining room in an apartment and in a garage to get video of himself to improve his own game. Years later, he then became the first Cardinals’ hitting coach in the organization to use video to help other hitters.
The question he had to ask himself was, "how do you get big league hitters to make adjustments when they’ve established themselves as big league hitters?" Basically, guys have been using the same methods their entire baseball careers and have gotten further than he ever did. How was he going to help them? His thoughts were this:
A player has got to have the right swing - HIS swing. They're not looking to change a guy's personal swing because Jeff Albert believes that there isn't just one swing (see below quote from this Fangraphs interview). How he helps with that is really knowing each player's swing so that he can help them find that swing if the player has lost it. Think "The Legend of Bagger Vance."
A player has got to have the right approach. That's something that he can help with - the mental side of the game of baseball. Have a routine each player goes through - both technical and mental.
Gotta know speed of pitches and movement of pitches - the game preparation that Tommy Edman called into question, I believe.
He uses tech to know this and to show this to players.
He talked in the podcast about there being a real difference between practice and skill development versus games and skill execution. Baseball is a game where you have to do all of this in the same day because there are 162 games a year, not one game a week like football or two to three games a week like hockey and basketball and soccer. It's a challenge that is literally unique to baseball in the professional sports world.
Jeff Albert's approach, his philosophy, really seems to boil down (like I mentioned in the first section with Wong and Carpenter's quotes):
Getting a good pitch to hit
Controlling the strike zone
“Swing at strikes. Hit line drives. Hit the ball hard.”
This philosophy was reiterated in this video from Cardinals Insider when Albert was hired in 2019. It was also around the 4 minute mark here on The Fast Lane, as they quoted a Derrick Goold piece from April in the St. Louis Post-Dispatch.
From what I gather from Xavier Scruggs' long talk with Jeff Albert, here is the thought process that Albert helps hitters to go through:
The best (compared to the good) set goals of consistency. It’s a hard thing to put a number on.
What does it mean to be consistent?
What can you control?
Think about the day to day input, not the outcomes.
What’s the mental thought process day to day for each guy?
Why go through that with players prior to game day? That frees a player up to play the game that day. They have already front-loaded this thought process. Now, he did mention that it is REALLY HARD to do that. He’s been in just two organizations in professional ball (St. Louis and Houston) that both had one goal: contend for the WS each year.
Jeff Albert thought a huge start for 2020 was coming for Kolten Wong and that the team finished well in 2019 and were ready to jump off to a great start in 2020.
For what it is worth, while the team did not jump off to a great start offensively in 2020 and really never seemed to find their groove offensively; Kolten started the year with 4 hits and a walk in the first three games, then the team was shut down for two weeks after game 5. When the season resumed, Wong got on base in 11 of his next 12 starts.
The third thing that I found about Jeff Albert contains the caveat that it is so hard to compare year to year because of the significant increase of player movement between clubs in the minor leagues as compared to the majors. I will try to do so below, but this is incredibly difficult to know if any of this matters all that much.
The St. Louis Cardinals started Jeff Albert off in the 2008 season with a short-season club, their Low A affiliate - the Batavia Muckdogs. Let’s do the quick and dirty comparison here before digging in a bit.
The year prior to Albert arriving:
3.89 runs per game (2nd last in New York Penn League)
2008 Batavia Muckdogs:
4.85 runs per game (3rd in NYPL)
They won the league championship that year
The year after Albert left Batavia:
4.38 runs per game (5th in the NYPL)
On the surface, the Cardinals can look at this and pat themselves on the back on this hire. However, the only holdovers for the 2008 team from the 2007 team were Domnit Bolivar and Jose Garcia. (There was also supposedly a player named Jon Edwards. However, there is a link on his baseball-reference page to Jon Edwards who played for the Cubs, but it’s not the same guy.)
Domnit Bolivar had just 480 plate appearances at the low minors to his name when he first met up with Jeff Albert in Batavia of the New York Penn League in 2008. He was a career .229/.264/.339/.604 hitter in two seasons prior to then. He ended up as a .233/.280/.351/.631 hitter overall in 7 seasons in the minors.
Like Bolivar, Jose Garcia had just two seasons under his belt when he met up with Jeff Albert at Batavia in 2008. He had 432 plate appearances prior to that point, hitting .252/.328/.324/.651 in that time. That’s about the hitter he ended up being as well overall in the minor leagues, finishing his career at .260/.324/.337/.660 - also in 7 seasons. Fun note: Garcia is still playing in winter ball in his native country, Venezuela!
Those two guys were basically the same player that they were prior to Albert’s arrival. However, this just begins Jeff Albert’s journey as a hitting coach.
In 2009, the Cardinals moved Albert up past the Midwest League in A ball to their High A Ball affiliate located in Palm Beach, Florida. The Palm Beach Cardinals are in the Florida State League, which is known as a notorious pitcher’s league. Albert then spent the next four seasons as the hitting coach for the Palm Beach Cardinals. Prior to getting into some very cool links that he has to major leaguers and the organization as a a whole, again let’s look at the quick and dirty:
The year prior to Albert arriving in Palm Beach:
4.28 runs per game (6th in FSL)
2009 Palm Beach Cardinals:
3.86 runs per game (9th of 12 in FSL)
2010 Palm Beach Cardinals:
4.19 runs per game (7th in FSL)
2011 Palm Beach Cardinals:
4.12 runs per game (9th in FSL)
2012 Palm Beach Cardinals:
3.88 runs per game (11th in FSL)
The year after Albert left Palm Beach:
3.84 runs per game (10th in FSL)
Like I mentioned above, this is a really poor way to look at this with how much movement there is between teams. It’s probably best looked at with more granularity. The 2009 club had several holdovers that are worth talking about. There were a total of 9 hitters who spent time at Palm Beach in both 2008 and 2009, but a few of them had a few plate appearances here and there with multiple clubs. One interesting name in that mix of guys was Andrew Brown, who went on to have 144 games played at the MLB level with the Cardinals, Rockies, and Mets.
Nick Derba was one player that spent multiple seasons at Palm Beach with Jeff Albert, starting with that 2009 campaign. In 2008, he only hit .166/.290/.238/.528 just at Palm Beach. He started there again in 2009 with Albert and in 30 games had improved to .198/.354/.275/.629 before being called up to AA. He then started the following year (2010) with Albert and the Palm Beach Cardinals again and in 33 games had a .202/.311/.346/.658 line. He again got the call to AA at the end of the year (and even spent a week in AAA that season), hitting much better in AA that year (.240/.283/.460/.743). In 2011-2012, he played solely for the AA and AAA affiliates and, frankly, was overmatched. Nick Derba is now the head coach at the University of Maine.
Pete Kozma had Jeff Albert’s tutelage for just 84 games in his sprint to the majors. Kozma had ended the 2008 season with 24 games and 94 plate appearances at Palm Beach and he was still there when Albert arrived in 2009. Kozma had struggled mightily at the High A level that prior season after hitting well with Quad Cities as he was being pushed up the ladder quickly as a former first round pick. Kozma hit .315/.381/.384/.765 (fairly inarguably the best he’d hit anywhere especially considering hitting environment) but lasted just 18 games and 84 plate appearances before getting pushed to AA for the remainder of the year and the following season. He then stalled out offensively at AAA but made the majors (as we all know) with his stellar glove work. Kozma is still keeping his baseball dream alive today playing at AAA with the Las Vegas Aviators.
Oliver Marmol - a name many will know as bench coach for the St. Louis Cardinals the last 3 seasons after being the first base coach for the 2017 and 2018 seasons. Since we started this way, let’s continue to work our way backwards with Marmol. In 2015-16 he was the manager of the Palm Beach Cardinals, the level at which he stalled out in the minors as a player. More on that in a moment. From 2012-2014, Marmol managed the Johnson City Cardinals of the rookie level Appalachian League. And in 2011, Marmol was named the hitting coach of the Gulf Coast League (rookie ball) Cardinals. That means, by process of elimination, Marmol could only have had two seasons with Jeff Albert in Palm Beach. Marmol was a .198/.284/.256/.541 batter prior to his working with Jeff Albert at High A in 2009 in Palm Beach. He had played 2 seasons bouncing levels in the organization and getting 484 trips to the plate in that time. In 2009, Oliver Marmol batted .204/.321/.301/.622 - the OBP, SLG, and OPS were career highs, in 223 plate appearances. He had 2 home runs that year and had just 1 in the two seasons prior. In 2010, Marmol improved to .221/.336/.365/.701, but in only 33 games and 126 PA. Oliver Marmol improved in both of his two seasons with Jeff Albert - but seemingly thought it would work out at a higher level as a coach than as a middling hitting shortstop, second baseman, and left fielder. I'd say he was probably right!
Tommy Pham is another name that everyone here will know. This is where I think it gets interesting when looking back at Jeff Albert’s time in STL. Tommy Pham mentioned in this article in Sports Illustrated - the same one that might have gotten him sent out of St. Louis - that Jeff Albert was the first one to really get him to listen in the minors. You can see that in 2009 with Palm Beach, the line above my orange highlighted lines in the chart below, that Pham didn’t have a great year with Albert - but his profile changed slightly. Also it was far better than his cup o’ joe at the High A level in 2008. He had a higher average and a higher on base percentage than any year since rookie ball. Then the next year (orange) is when he really began to take off. Look at those on base percentages sky rocket after that. I stopped the chart below at his MLB debut, but the tides really turned (minus that 12 game injury filled blip of 2012) for Pham when Albert was with him at the High A level.
Chris Swauger is currently the manager of the Class High A Peoria Chiefs, a Cardinals affiliate. Back in 2012, when he was a AA Springfield Cardinal - and Albert was still the Palm Beach hitting coach for one final year before heading to Houston - Swauger gave an interview with Baseball Historian Andrew Martin. In that interview, he gave this answer to a question:
It mentions in that answer that Swauger was under Albert 4 different seasons. In Batavia, it was his first season in the minors and Swauger crushed with a .291 average and .818 OPS. He started the second year of his career in A ball and was hitting even better in Quad Cities before a promotion to Palm Beach, where Albert was coaching that year. He hit .273 with a .758 OPS in the pitcher-friendly environment that season before starting the next year back at Palm Beach - still under Albert. He hit .294 with an .814 OPS before being called up to AA Springfield. He was never quite the same hitter once he moved up to AAA and never got a call to The Show. Now he’s helping others get their chance to make it there.
Starlin Rodriguez is a guy who had some of his best success when under the tutelage of Jeff Albert. Prior to getting to Albert, Rodriguez had a .273/.357/.368/.725 line in 362 career PA. Under Jeff Albert, Starlin Rodriguez put up a .304/.368/.445/.813 line over 674 PA. Then after Albert, Rodriguez struggled as he moved up the line to more difficult levels in the majors. Albert left the organization after 2012, and that level of Rodriguez’s production left as well. He hit .258/.323/.389/.712 over the next 3 seasons and 768 plate appearances before calling it quits. As a teacher, statistically this seems like one of those “teacher and student just connect” things. But there’s the weird thing with baseball. This could have been the peak of Rodriguez’s career. It could be that the batter’s eye in Palm Beach was perfect for Rodriguez. It could be that Rodriguez was just on the hot streak of his life and enjoying his time and teammates more than any other in his career. But it also could be that he connected with the only guy that could unlock his swing. And without his narrative - I searched and came up empty - I will never know.
I think probably the toughest part here is: What do the Cardinals do now with Jeff Albert? I mean, it sure as heck seems to me like he has been a huge help to some guys - a career defining type of help. It seems like he has a reputation, potentially league-wide, about being a great hitting coach and someone the organization should keep around. He has had mixed success in the minors with team-wide hitting statistics. That's another entire topic, however, as Kyle Reis would definitely tell you. Looking at statistics in the minors doesn't always tell the whole truth. We don't know what players are asked to do or work on in certain circumstances. Maybe a guy is taking fastballs for a week to work on hitting offspeed or breaking pitches. His stats might crater a bit during that week and then it takes off the next week or a month later with more success and less glaring failures.
It has been said that it would take time for Jeff Albert's process and organizational revamp to produce results. We are definitely into the "taking time" portion of the process, at least in terms of seeing those results at the major league level. When taking into account the delays in setting up the hitting lab in Jupiter due to the COVID shut down during the 2020 season and 2021 offseason, there truly has not been a large amount of time for Albert's system to begin to take effect even at the minor league level despite his arrival prior to the 2019 season.
If results do not show - in terms of individual hitter improvement (and by improvement, "maximization" might be a better term) - in the fairly near future (2021-2022) at the minor league level, I could see the team going another direction. I think there were enough positives that I could find from the outside, outlined int he article above, to at least give him that long with a normal season this year and hopefully a normal offseason and season next year (if the CBA doesn't kick his ideas to the back burner yet again).
In short: I'm for keeping Jeff Albert aboard until at least the end of the 2022 season to see if we see results. I think the most drastic action taken should be to remove him from the MLB equation and let him be the roving minor league hitting coordinator in charge of the hitting lab and spreading the philosophy around the organization's roots to see if we can see the bounty of that at the major league level relatively soon.
Thanks for reading!