Call Me Mabry

John Mabry stepped into the batters box in the top of the seventh inning with one out and a runner on first base.  He already had three hits on the night–a single, double, and a triple in that order.  Hitting for the cycle is never easy, but Mabry couldn’t have asked for a better scenario in which to knock the ball out of the park and finish the feat in style.  The year was 1996 and the “juiced ball” era was beginning its peak with a league average ERA of 4.60 and luminaries such as Jay Buhner, Todd Hundley, and Brady Anderson socking over 40 HR.  It was a balmy night in pre-humidor Coors Field, where the Rockies would give up a stunning 122 HR on the season (and hit 149 of their own).  The pitcher was Mike Munoz, whose career is a testament to both the time period in which he played and the ballparks in which he was moored (Coors and Arlington.  From 1989 to 2000 Munoz managed to pitch in 453 games despite a career ERA of 5.19.  Munoz was a lefthander, sure, but Mabry never had much of a platoon disadvantage.  In fact, in 1996 he crushed lefties to the tune of a .351/.382/.536 line.

After falling behind behind 2-0, Munoz grooved a pitch to Mabry and Mabry connected, crushing the pitch over the wall in right field. Just like that, John Mabry made baseball history.  He didn’t just hit for the cycle; he hit for the natural cycle. Single. Double. Triple. Home run. In that order.  Only fourteen players have ever hit for a natural cycle, making it a rarer feat than a perfect game or an unassisted triple play.

The Cardinals still lost the game.

There’s no more precarious position than the hitting coach of an underperforming team.  It’s not entirely fair, but the hitting coach has become something of a designated scapegoat for fans, media, and even teams themselves to heap all the blame of a faltering season. The reasons for this are clear enough.  There are three prominent coaching positions on any baseball team: manager, hitting coach, and pitching coach.  Teams are reluctant to fire their managers mid-season, and pitching is seen (perhaps incorrectly) as requiring patience.  Batting, however, is violent and quick.  Each at bat lasts only a couple minutes (unless Clay Buchholz is pitching) and ends with a definitive result.  Batters don’t often get injured while batting, and are known to have more control over the result of batted balls than pitchers. For these reasons, it’s easy to think that a change in batting coaches might fix a team whereas swapping pitching coaches might just disrupt the rhythm of a staff.

The 2014 St. Louis Cardinals present a particularly formidable challenge for a hitting coach.  In 2013, the Cardinals led the National League in runs scored on the strength of one of the most bizarre seasons in baseball history.

The 2013 Cardinals numbers with runners in scoring position weren’t just historic; they blew away the previous records and resulted in a split (versus bases empty situations) so huge that it will likely never be approached. I don’t particularly like the idea of taking an entire year of stats and declaring them meaningless, but projecting anything from the performance of the offense in 2013 is useless. You might as well be positing halfway through the 1941 season that Joe Dimaggio would never go hitless again.

Unfortunately, that’s what everyone has done. The Cardinals came into 2014 as favorites to retake the pennant, largely on the strength of the pitching but without much concern over a lineup that was losing one of its best hitters (Beltran), gaining one of the streakiest batters in the game (Peralta), and wasn’t nearly as good as it performed in the first place.

John Mabry had a rather unusual career as a player.  1996 was the only season he received more than five hundred plate appearances, and he put up a line of .297/.342/.431, which is respectable for just about anyone other than a firstbaseman in 1996. He had a couple more years clustered around ’96 in which he received 400 or so PAs. But other than that, he spent his fourteen season career as a bench and platoon guy.  That, by itself, isn’t strange except that Mabry was a corner OF/1b who played in one of the biggest offensive environments in baseball history and he was a rather unremarkable hitter. A career .263/.322/.405 line isn’t terrible, but it certainly doesn’t light the world on fire, either. Guys like him don’t usually stick around, since corner OF who can slug a little are some of the most fungible players in baseball. Most GMs probably think they have a RF who can manage a 90 OPS+ somewhere in their minors right now.

There are a few reasons Mabry was different. First, there was the impression he could play third base. He couldn’t, but still managed to be sent out there for 800 or so innings, in which he had .905 fielding percentage on the balls he could actually reach.  This perceived utility gave him a leg up on the Thomas Howards of the world. Second, Mabry had a hell of a sweet swing. Effortless yet strong, Mabry looked like he knew what he was doing, even when he struck out. He was Will Clark or Mark Grace without the results, but that’s often enough to get you onto a major league bench over a dozen similar guys. Third, Mabry was a classic clubhouse guy. Whenever he was in the lineup, you could guarantee that the announcers would talk about his intangibles, his willingness to play any position (he even pitched on two occasions), and his place as a role model for younger players. His future in coaching was a topic of speculation as early as 2004 during his last stint with St. Louis, three years before he would retire.

John Mabry is now the hitting coach for the St. Louis Cardinals and the St. Louis Cardinals aren’t hitting. The Cards are scoring 3.74 runs a game, good for third worst in the NL and fifth worst in baseball. They have scored fewer runs in more games than the Royals and the Phillies. The team’s OPS is .680. They look listless and lifeless at the plate, though struggling will do that for any lienup. And so, of course, people are calling for Mabry’s head.

In general, I’m reluctant to shift the blame from underperforming players to the coaching staff. Matheny and company deserve the heat for bad lineups, strange bullpen usage, and double switches that do nothing but cripple the heart of the order. But there are usually far more believable culprits-luck, age, regression-when it comes to poor performance. What could Mabry possibly be doing to turn Allen Craig into a pumpkin or to sabotage every prospect called up from Memphis? The idea is rather absurd, and it’s never seemed quite right to lump all the responsibility on the hitting coach.

So I won’t say that firing John Mabry is the answer to the Cardinals woes. But there might be enough to start asking the question. One stat I’ve left out above is the Cardinals’ home run totals. So far, through 66 games, the Cardinals have only hit 36 home runs. Barry Bonds started 2001 with a 66 game stretch in which he personally hit 38 home runs. Different era and Bonds was a freak. But god damn. The Cardinals slugging percent is at .360 as a team, third worse in the majors behind some pretty awful Mets and Padres squads, both of which have hit more balls out of the park.

What’s more, this squad shouldn’t be so anemic. You’ll never confuse Craig or Holliday with Mark McGwire, but they aren’t slap hitters, either. Matt Adams has been hurt, but he’s still had over 200 PAs to knock some pitches over the wall. So what’s going on? Just for a thought experiment, let’s look at some HR rates

In 2011, his breakout year, Allen Craig smacked 11 HR in 200 ABs, for a rate of one per every 18 at bats. In 2012 this number dipped slightly, to one HR for every 21 ABs. Not a big change, and arguably can be written off to the changing run environment. Then, in 2013 Craig’s HR power disappeared. He hit one HR every 39 ABs, but was still quite productive, in large part due to an almost unbelievable .474 BAbip with runners in scoring position. This season, Craig has hit one HR for every 42 ABs, his BAbip cratered, and he’s just now working back from a terrible slump that consumed the first part of the season.

Of course, Craig was injured and those injuries are clearly the most likely reason his power was sapped. So let’s look at Matt Holliday. In 2012/2013 he hit a HR for every 23 ABs. This season, it’s once every 59. Matt Adams 2012/2013 hit a HR every 20 ABs. For what it’s worth, throughout the minors he hit one every 18 ABs. In 2014, he has three HR in 194 at bats, a rate of one per 65 ABs.

I want to briefly stick with Adams for a moment, because he had a great few moments early in the season, in which opposing teams put a hard shift into play expecting him to pull the ball and he blooped it the other way instead. It was funny the first time, and still the second, but as it continued to happen you couldn’t help but wonder if he was letting the shift beat him after all. Adams had been a power threat and suddenly he was 2013 Allen Craig, relying on BAbip and misplayed balls turning singles into doubles.

Aside from Craig, Holliday, and Adams there aren’t any other good examples because no one else ever really hit for much power. Carpenter is hitting ever fewer balls out of the park than expected, but his totals last year were modest anyway. And then there is Jhonny Peralta, who leads the team with 10 HR, but if we’re theorizing that this is something that can be laid at the feet of the coaching staff, Peralta hasn’t been with these guys long. Also if I’m letting myself go down this rabbit hole, it’s worth pointing out that four of those HR were in the first couple weeks of the season.

So what am I suggesting here? That John Mabry is coaching the team to not hit home runs? No, because that’s silly. I don’t particularly like it when coaches and managers talk about how they don’t need the long ball to win (because it’s not true) but I don’t think anyone would coach HR power out of a player. But I do wonder if adjustments meant to improve, such as working with Adams on going to the opposite field, are leading to unintended results. Last season the Cardinals had such an inordinate amount of success “hitting it where they ain’t” with runners on that it looked more like a viable strategy than it really is. I think we’ve come to the point where I hope that John Mozeliak and the front office are at least asking for these questions. Find out what’s been going on at BP and in video sessions, and just make sure that Mabry and Matheny aren’t taking the wrong lesson from 2013 (and the only right lesson from 2013 is that baseball can be real god damn weird).

John Mabry’s final season as a player was a month-and-a-half-long stint in 2007 with the Colorado Rockies, the victim of his natural cycle all the way back when Bill Clinton was finishing his first term. His swing was as graceful as ever, though slowed by age, and it was clear it was time for him to move on.  He played the majority of his 30 inning at third base, even though at age 36 he really couldn’t play the position. He had four hits, including a HR, in 39 PAs and then he was released. He became a spokesman for a chain of stores selling hunting supplies, then a color commentator, and then a coach.

He finished 2007 with a .466 OPS, which is better than Daniel Descalso’s 2014.

 

 

 

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