Later this summer, when the Los Angeles Angels of Anaheim play in St. Louis, there will be all kinds of focus on Albert Pujols. The future Hall of Famer enjoyed the best years of his career with the Cardinals and with this being his first time back on the field at Busch Stadium since leaving after 2011, there deservedly will be all eyes on Number 5.
But the St. Louis Cardinals are looking to enjoy a much different kind of Albert-effect this season, one that will be provided by new hitting coach Jeff Albert.
“I think my style is more just being objective and using the tools and information that’s available to do a couple things really,” Albert described recently. “Find whatever commonalities exist among the larger group of successful hitters all across baseball and then being able to try and optimize those characteristics individually for each player, just to try and put each player in whatever the best position is for that player to be productive on the field.”
Albert spent the last six seasons in the Houston organization, working his way up to the assistant hitting coach last year for the Astros. He spent his first five seasons as a hitting coach with the Cardinals–2008 in Batavia (A) and 2009-2012 at Palm Beach (A+).
While he doesn’t profess to owning a unique style, like a Charlie Lau, Albert admits to being an advocate for contact–which seems could lead to a clash in today’s game where the strikeout is no longer frowned upon as long as launch angles produce enough home runs.
“The size of the challenge usually indicates a sizeable opportunity as well,” Albert said. “So I try to work on and build the skills to manage all those different working parts and relationships. Definitely feel like to the organization and the guys working on that, it can definitely provide an edge moving forward.”
“One thing I love about Jeff is he is all about making the swing as efficient as possible to where you can avoid some swing-and-misses and you can put an emphasis on putting the ball in play and have tough at-bats,” said Matt Carpenter, who has stayed in touch with Albert since first working with him in 2009. “All the things he kind of stands for is really what great hitters should strive to do. So I think his philosophy, his terminology will really resonate with the group. It should really help our offense take off. I’m really looking forward to it.”
The message certainly resonated in Houston. A year after leading MLB with 1452 strikeouts, the Astros went from worst to first as they cut down their misses to 1087 times in 2017. Coincidentally, they won the World Series that year. Last year, the Astros struck out the second fewest times (1197) in baseball.
“It’s kind of like a snowball effect,” Albert explained. “Sometimes it takes a while to get moving and maybe to basically present something as having value, especially if it hasn’t perceived to in the past. Maybe someone didn’t perceive it to have value, and again that’s where opportunity is–when something’s under valued.”
The Cardinals have been middle of the pack–ranking 15th (1380) in strikeouts last season and 14th (1348) in 2017.
Good results also lead to players spreading the ideas amongst themselves–Jose Altuve made adjustments before ’14 and won the batting title. The season before, Albert worked with Carlos Correa in the minor leagues.
“Incredible work ethic, incredible player, and super-talented,” Albert said of Altuve. “He was already basically like face of the franchise, so when you see someone that is willing to go out and make an adjustment and then you see it pay off like that, it kind of sets a tone throughout the organization.
“On the other side, when I was coming in in 2013, Correa was drafted in 2012, and 2013 going into his first full year. He was one of the first players I met in the minors. He was coming up to me and asking ‘Hey, what do you see? What can I do better? What can I do better for the future?’ It makes it a little bit easier when the players are that motivated and that hungry to get better and kind of opening the door for conversation and instruction.”
Albert uses the examples of Altuve and Correa not just because they’re superstars, but the represented a pair of “book-ends” in the organization in terms of where they were at and then how they set the example for everybody else.
“Carp and Yadi, I’ve seen them do the same thing,” Albert said. “I’ve seen them take on the same type of leadership role and set the example for the organization. When you have guys like that on your Major League roster, that’s a big deal for kind of modeling behavior for everyone else.”
“He’s a great guy who cares a lot,” Carpenter added. “That’s two great qualities that are very important in a coach – someone who cares and someone who you can feel comfortable with. He’s got those down.
“And then just from a pure baseball swing standpoint, he’s as good as anybody I’ve ever been around as far as knowing the biomechanics of a swing, knowing how it works and how to take some of the information that is gathered upstairs and break that down in a way that hitters can understand. I’m really looking forward to what he’s going to bring for us. I really think that’s one of the secret, not secret, but an underlooked acquisition that we made that’s really going to have a huge impact on our lineup.”
Unlike Carpenter, Kolten Wong doesn’t have a past history of working with Jeff Albert having been at Springfield (AA) when Albert was at Palm Beach. But the Cardinals second baseman is still among the more excited to employ new strategies for his swing.
“As soon as he signed, I asked (Mike) Shildt for his number because I wanted to get in touch with him right away,” Wong said. “I’ve heard from everybody how amazing Jeff is. As a person and just as a coach and how he’s ahead of the curve. I called him and I wanted to pick his brain. I talked with him for probably a couple hours. He was able to see my heat charts and see where I do well and where I do bad. We were able to come up with a plan we’re going to use coming into spring training.”
Part of that plan is simplifying things to not try and hit every pitch.
“He was like ‘look at your heat charts, where do you hit the best?’ For me, that was like middle, middle-away. He was like ‘that’s where you need to look until you get two strikes, then you can battle. Until then, just focus on that. Take the inside pitches take the pitches away. Just focus on your hot zone and don’t miss.’ I was like huh. Makes sense, so we’ll see.”
photo credit: Billy Hurst-USA TODAY Sports; Donten Photography, Palm Beach Cardinals