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When the Cardinals’ Young Hitters Break, Why Can’t Their Coaches and Manager Fix Them?

Stephen Piscotty was demoted to the minors on Monday.

Add his name to the list.

The regrettable roll call of promising position players that had success early on with the Cardinals, only to regress. And fail. And get sent back to the minors, or traded away.

It is a pattern that raise serious questions about the quality of the coaching and managing in St. Louis.

How many younger, collapsing hitters have to fall apart before team management does something to address and alleviate this? For an organization that prioritizes drafting and player development, this is an awfully hazardous path. One that can cause damage to the Cards’ future.

When you see young players thrive, and earn early long-term contracts from management, only to stumble and splinter and get sent away to Memphis … that’s disturbing.

Let’s recap:

— The Cardinals invested $25.5 million in second baseman Kolten Wong before the start of the 2016 season … only to have him kicked down to Memphis in June, after manager Mike Matheny lost patience and buried Wong on the bench. Remember: Wong starred for the Cardinals during the 2014 postseason, played at an All-Star level for much of 2015 (but wasn’t selected), and ranked 12th among MLB second basemen with 2.3 WAR in ’15. Wong appeared to be settled in — but was demoted again in 2016. Wong isn’t a great player, but he’s a good one. This year (in between injuries) we’ve seen him rebound for a career-best .393 onbase percentage and .808 OPS. Why? In large part because Matheny  FINALLY supported Wong during some early-season mistakes instead of bailing on him again.

— The Cardinals handed Piscotty a $33.5 million contract extension before this season, only to watch an alarming drop in power, production and performance. After batting .202 with a .294 OBP and .267 slug in his final 102 plate appearances, Piscotty was redirected to Memphis in a long overdue move. Piscotty’s slugging percentage has tumbled during a three-year decline: .494, followed by .457 last season and .362 this year. Piscotty projected as a long-term lineup fixture, but all bets are off. Piscotty constantly tinkers with his swing, and that’s messed him up, and Cardinals coaches have done little to step in and get Piscotty to end his home-run obsession in order to do what he does best: gap hitter, line-drive hitter, lots of doubles, maybe 20 homers. If the manager and coaches are going to stand by as Piscotty coaches himself into a mess … then what is the point, exactly?

— In 2013, first baseman Matt Adams had a .503 slugging percentage and was an important piece on a team that captured the NL pennant. But batting coach John Mabry (with Matheny’s encouragement) wanted Adams to concentrate on beating defensive shifts by hitting the ball to the opposite field. The result was a slow drain of Adams’ formidable pull-side power. Between 2014 and 2016, his slugging percentage went down to .457. This season, Adams was slugging a weak .396 before the Cardinals dealt him to Atlanta for minimal return. For the first six weeks of the season, playing for the Cards, Adams pulled the ball at a rate of 28 percent. In Atlanta, Adams has a pull rate of 47 percent, and his slugging percentage with the Braves is at a career-zenith .544.

— Displaying the kind of power that can’t be contained by outfield fences and walls, Randal Grichuk slugged .548 for the Cardinals in 2015. But over the last two seasons combined, Grichuk’s slugging percentage is .464, and extreme plate-discipline maladies have sunk his onbase percentage to an awful .285. In 2015, Grichuk was 37 above league average offensively in park-adusted runs created (wRC+). Then in 2016, he was two percent above league average offensively. This year, Grichuk is 18 percent below league average. No one at the big-league level can harness Grichuk’s raw power, and he’s been demoted three times over the last two seasons. Each time Grichuk returns to the majors, he comes back with a more refined hitting approach, gets quick and encouraging results — only to fade into the thrashing swing-and-miss mode with a high K rate. Minor-league hitting coaches have done an effective job of tuning Grichuk’s swing, and you have to ask why they are better at this than Mabry and staff. As I have said before … if your most astute hitting coaches reside in the minors — then why are they working down below? Why aren’t they coaching up hitters with the big club in St. Louis?

— In 2016, rookie shortstop Aledmys Diaz was selected to the NL All-Star team and went on to finish with a .300 average, .369 OBP and .510 slug for an impressive .879 OPS. Offensively, Diaz performed 32 percent above league average in park-adjusted runs created. This season, Diaz cratered in a stunning collapse that left him wallowing with a .293 OBP,  .396 slug, and a .688 OPS. His offense was 22 percent below average when demoted to Memphis on June 28.

This pattern should be unacceptable to chairman Bill DeWitt Jr., president of baseball operations John Mozeliak and GM Michael Girsch.

With the Cardinals expecting a new wave of position-player talent to arrive in St. Louis next year and beyond, DeWitt and his baseball men must take a hard, sharp, objective look at why so many of their young and touted hitters have gone off the rails in St. Louis. And they have to get some answers to explain why no one on the field staff at the big-league level can get the young hitters back on track.

Thanks for reading …

–Bernie

More: If the Cardinals Are Honest About Wanting To Win, Jose Martinez Must Play