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 …


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

  • Christopher Toth

    The answer is really simple. They don’t know how to fix what they as coaches and the manager keep breaking because they are clueless to the harm they cause at the MLB level. In any other for profit business, these kind of repeated red flags would lead to a wholesale firing of the line managers … but so far, nada.

    • JDinSTL

      Raises, extensions, and promotions for all!

  • Joe Maty

    Really great question. Bernie. It’s frustrating to watch someone with the talent of Grichuk…. is he just a great minor league player but not a major leaguer? I find that hard to believe. It may well be exactly like you say — the coaches down on the farm may know how to fix broken swings, while the major league coaches are clueless.

  • JeremyR

    The thing that all these hitters have in common is they actually aren’t very good hitters to begin with. And the Cardinals tried to fix issues that can’t be fixed because they are just flawed hitters.

    I mean, your example of Wong and his 2.3 WAR just shows that no, he’s not even a good player. He’s an average player. (2 WAR is average).

    Grichuk was always a flawed hitter. He has power but that’s it. Piscotty is the opposite, he didn’t have power and tried to get it which has ultimately hurt him.

    Diaz was so loved by the Cardinals in the minors that he was taken off the 40 man and no one wanted him. That he only got a chance was due to injuries and being the only warm body that could play SS. That it worked out for a while is great, but it worked out for a while for Pete Kozma, Bo Hart, and Joe McEwing. The latter scratched out a surprisingly long career but never as a starter.

    And Adams always had hot streaks and then cooled off. Like he has in Atlanta.

    While I don’t think the coaching is very good, the core problem is that the Cardinals are not drafting better players, they aim for lower talent players and hype them as stars when the reality is they aren’t.

    • I agree with everything you wrote, except that the problem of drafting is IN PART due to the fact that the Cardinals have been winning while the Astros and Cubs, for example, have been losing. Granted there is luck involved in drafting, but we should expect drafting lower to eventually catch up with a team. I would like to see the correlation between a team’s draft position over a period of, say, fifteen years, and their place in current standings. As a hypothetical example, a team that drafts 1, 31, 61, 91, etc., is likely to do better over time than a team that annually drafts 30, 60, 90, 120, etc. Basically the team drafting #1 in this scenario is getting one extra player at the top of the player rankings every year. After seven or eight years of this the team drafting #1 ought to have a pretty good team. I know there are lots of other variables, but I’d like to see a study done on what MLB teams would look like if they relied on and held onto all their draftees, without any trades or free agent signings.

  • Aaron

    Mabry should have been canned many years ago. There is no accountability with this coaching staff because attendance is strong and upper management refuses to admit their failure in choices since La Russia.

  • David B

    I wonder if some of the answer may be found in the experience of players you don’t discuss here, such as Tommy Pham and Paul DeJong. Have they had success in spite of bad coaching, or have responded better to the way the Cardinals develop players?

    I have to admit: watching a frustrated Pham break through, I wondered if he has had success despite the team’s coaching. But if that’s the case, then how explain DeJong this year and Diaz last year? And if DeJong, along with Luke Voit and Carson Kelly, become good major league players, do the Cardinals’ coaches not deserve some credit?

    Great column, Bernie, but I really don’t know the answer.

    • silencedogoodreturns

      You just made Bernie’s case. Coaching in the minors is working. Not so much at the big club. And Pham and DeJong have only played about a third of a season. Let’s see what happens when theyve been with the big club awhile

  • rightthinker4

    Young hitters at the major league level have to adjust. That doesn’t mean to keep tinkering with your swing every other day. It means to learn about the tendencies of pitchers. What their best pitch or pitches are, watch how they pitch to other hitters, and lay off pitches out of the strike zone. And in the case of the Cardinals, don’t listen to the coaches.

  • June Jones

    “This pattern should be unacceptable to chairman Bill DeWitt Jr.,
    president of baseball operations John Mozeliak and GM Michael Girsch.” Should be, but apparently isn’t. How many years must young players suffer because of the Cardinals organization’s misguided loyalty to ex-players.

    • JDinSTL

      Raises, promotions, and extensions all around!

  • MRomine

    And that’s just the ones from this year. What about 2016 and 2015, 2014 etc. I’ve been wondering about this for the last 3-4 seasons. Why do so many of the youth fizzle once they get to the big leagues? Have they been promoted too soon? Did the club fail to continue to train and develop them? Is that the couches fault or poor player evaluation?

  • badgerboy23

    I’ll go one further on Wong. We did not hit for much power during 2015. MM whined and moaned about it the entire year. Power hitting is the only game he understands how to manage. Sort of–at that. MM was begging for Mo to acquire power during the off season. MM then promised that the club would hit for power in 2016. Well–he got that right, just not much else about playing baseball correctly. Wong–who has 10-12 HR power without trying–was swinging for the fences from day one. It screwed him up so badly that MM then sent him to Memphis. This year, Wong has abandoned the HR idea, ignored MM, and did what comes naturally and he is a better player for it. MM and this coaching staff consistently send the wrong message. The man has gotta go.

  • tannerl91

    Bring back Mac!!! Bring back coaches the players admire and respect. What’s so admiral about Mabry’s career as a bench player? Have you seen where the Cardinals rank when it comes to PH average in the league? They’re the best, beating the second best team when it comes to bench production by a wide margin. Coincidence? I think NOT!!! Mabry was the Babe Ruth of bench-warming, that’s why he’s so good at coaching them. He still adds value to club, so keep him around as assistant or send to Memphis.

    • ken

      admiral mabry!!

  • LawrenceKScardsfan

    Great comments Bernie. And troubling. Although in Piscotty’s case, I’d say the RFer is hurt. He should be on the disabled list if you ask me (but you’re not asking me – lol). All of the guys in the article have talent. There’s just something a wee off about all of them. And you’re correct in wondering if this is the result of poor coaching. Bring the minor league instructors up – for sure!

  • John Sachse

    It’s stunning that upper management ignores this. Your article is right on.

  • Michael Carmi

    Nothing will change with 3 mil + going through the turnstiles. As long as fans will pay to see this then it is what it is. Word gets around the league pretty quick about the best places to play and STL is becoming less and less attractive to big time free agents. Truth be known Mo and Grisch probably worked their tails off to make a trade – they just didn’t have anybody any other team wanted.

  • BradW

    Bernie, from your lips to God’s ears.

    • Rich Rauch

      … followed by some divine inspiration for the DeWitts.

  • Matt Roberson

    I see what you’re doing, trying to blame all this on Methany and John Mabry. But the truth is, you need to be pointing the finger at John Mozeliak. He’s the architect that built this garbage pile of a team. He’s the one whose head needs to roll.

    Until major changes are made, I won’t be back in STL. Next year, I’m going to Fenway and Arlington to spend my money to watch real major leaguers. I can watch minor leaguers in Memphis anytime I want.

    • If players succeed in the minors and in their first season or two at the major league level and then regress to a borderline MLB player – it makes a lot of sense to blame the coaches. What those declines suggest is the other teams have scouting reports on how to get those players out and the coaches are unable to help the players make adjustments to overcome those scouting reports.

      Bernie’s point above about Matt Adams is perfect. The Cards staff had him try to go the opposite way to beat the shift and his slugging percentage disappeared, when he went back to pulling the ball in Atlanta his power came back.

      • Matt Roberson

        We’ve got eight middle infielders, 10 outfielders, and four left-handed relievers. We don’t value offensive production any more, we let Pujols, Beltran and Holiday walk but didn’t replace them. We value defense and WAR: we sign Fowler and trade for Heyward. Both are failures. This team is mis-managed from the top. It’s built to fail by an architect who hires people to hack into other team’s databases. Until the Cardinals decide to spend some money and put a REAL professional baseball team on the field I will spend my money watching real teams like Boston, Cleveland, Texas. Not wasting my time on these Yayhoos when I can drive an hour to Memphis and watch them for $6.

  • Scott Warren

    It’s very, very simple. The ‘manager” and “coaches” aren’t good enough and that is the truth. After almost six years of this nonsense, it’s not even up for debate anymore.

  • D Crafts

    Apparently Matheney is a DeWitt favorite, unlikely to be going anywhere. Any chance of Mo replacing Mabry with Budaska (and perhaps bringing back Derrick Lee for Memphis)? MM wouldn’t like it, but Mo has traded MM’s favorites before.
    What is Oquendo’s situation? Is his knee healed, does he still have any interest in coaching or managing at big league level? Any problem working with Matheny?