MLB The Show: 15 — The Reformation of Tom Brady

Yesterday, the National Football League announced that New England Patriots quarterback Tom Brady would be suspended four games as a result of his role in the Great Football Deflation Scandal of 2015. This was a big deal, not just to the Patriots or the entire league, but to Tom Brady himself. You see, Tom Brady is an intensely competitive man. You might even call him a “competitor”, if you were an NFL announcer and had to fill several hours of airtime with the sound of your voice without saying anything meaningful. Tom Brady isn’t the sort of guy who will take to sitting on the sideline. Instead, he’s going to do something drastic. He’s going to join the professional sports league where tampering with the ball is a storied and celebrated act.

Tom Brady is going to play Major League Baseball.

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Once Upon A Time In The Projections

I’ve been thinking a lot about baseball player projection system lately, which is just a fancy way of saying I’ve been sick and unable to play 3d video games without feeling nauseous or write creatively so my brain had to go off and do something dumb. A few days ago, Fangraphs published Dan Szymborski’s 2015 ZiPS projections for the St. Louis Cardinals. If you follow enough of Cardinals/sabermetric twitter you know that Szymborski took issue with a particular Cardinal blogger who questioned the necessity of these projections and made some fundamental mistakes regarding the ZiPS process. Piling on Cardinals fans is a national pastime for some reasons we don’t bring on ourselves (the media’s terrible Best Fans in Baseball Narrative) and some reasons we do bring on ourselves (I can’t even look at Cincinnati on the map without muttering “kiss the rings”) so the blog post was passed around, ridiculed, and pulled.

Social media drama is the last thing I ever want to care about, but the argument got me thinking. First off, I respect all the hard-as-hell mathematical work that goes into developing projections. I couldn’t do it. I wouldn’t even know where to start learning how to do it. Second, there is clearly an audience for projections–as demonstrated by the anticipation leading up to the ZiPS reveal. So it’s cool someone is putting in the hard work.

But what do good projections really tell us?  I haven’t been able to answer that question and it has stuck with me through a haze of cold medicine.  This isn’t just about ZiPS, or STEAMER, or PECOTA, or any projection system in particular but about the concept of projection systems in general.  What information are they providing?

“They give us a better idea of how players will perform!” you are shouting at your screen while you add my name to a list that includes Murray Chass.  And you’re right, that’s exactly what they do. Maybe.

Bear with me on a thought experiment (groan, I know) while I consider two hypothetical projection systems: the PERFECT system and the BEST system.

The PERFECT system: The PERFECT system correctly and accurately projects player performance. As indicated by its name, it gets nothing wrong. In December of 2013, the PERFECT system projected Matt Carpenter to get 709 plate appearances and a .272/.375/.375 triple slash. How does it do this?  I dunno. Let’s say that, to borrow heavily from the film Interstellar, it tracks batted balls in the future by the minute changes in gravitational fields as they travel backwards through space-time.

Now, the PERFECT system trivializes baseball in lot of ways and calls into question important concepts like free will and predestination.  But it also does one thing really well: it’s the only projection system in the goddamn universe that predicts Allen Craig will have a .266 BAbip in 2014. It’s also the only one that sees Pat Neshek coming.  The really weird stuff–the stuff that has a lot of value to predict–is only truly caught by the PERFECT system.

“That’s not fair!” you reply and move my name above that of noted blogger Murray Chass. “You can’t compare projection systems to literally seeing into the future!” Well I can because this is the internet and on the internet you can advocate for things as crazy as seceding New Hampshire from the Union or SEGA producing Shenmue 3. Also, I need something to compare with the next system.

The BEST system: The BEST system is a bit more realistic. This projection model is top-of-the-line.  Using all that math I don’t understand, it provides the most precise predictions possible without any knowledge of the future. I think we can all admit that (Interstellar notwithstanding) there is no way to measure all the random shit that happens in a baseball season.  And as someone who watched the Cardinals bat .330 for an entire season with RISP, I know for a fact that the sample size of an entire season isn’t enough to weed out all that random shit.

What the BEST system does, however, is successfully weed out all the random shit in the past stats, and uses that to provide an exquisite shit-free stat line for every player in the upcoming season. The BEST system is so good, its creators boast, that if the 2015 season were to be played 1000 times and the results averaged together, the numbers would be exactly what the BEST system projected for them.  This seems like a crazy boast, but the cast of the television series Sliders (which is still running in at least one universe) confirms that it is true.  The BEST system is just that good.

Every year, when you run the numbers, the BEST system is going to be named the most accurate projection system. In aggregate, that will be true. But what about each individual player?  Sure, the BEST system will be the system most likely to come the closest to the real numbers. But, by design, it will staunchly be unable to identify an outlier.  That’s not a bug. It’s a feature of a good projection system.

Remember how I said that playing the season 1000 times would result in averages that equal the BEST system projections?  And how great that was?  The problem is that 1 of those seasons is going to give you the PERFECT system projections.  And then the other 999 seasons are going to drag that pin-point accurate projection straight to the average.

What I’m saying is this: the problem with the BEST system is that it’s incredibly conservative. It will predict a decline from Allen Craig, yes, but not because it knows he will turn into a pumpkin  It is because his 2013 was also an outlier. The BEST system will never predict a collapse.  Similarly, it will look at everything about Pat Neshek and spit out some mediocre numbers, because of course it will.  No one could have seen that coming (and no one should be expected to).

This conservative nature is the problem with any good projection system, because conservative predictions aren’t terribly interesting. With the exception of minor leaguers, the BEST system as described above isn’t going to tell you a lot you couldn’t glean from a glance at the player’s age and MLB stat history. Which is a shame, because developing something like the BEST system that is so (on aggregate) accurate would be an incredible mathematical achievement. It just wouldn’t tell us anything about current MLB players.

This is why the really fascinating stuff in the ZiPS projections for the Cardinals isn’t, say, Matt Holliday’s numbers or Adam Wainwright’s numbers. Someone taking a wild guess or simming the year in MLB: The Show could come up with a triple slash of .275/.348/.456 slash line for Holliday. I don’t mean this a an insult to ZiPS, which of course is way more work than that, and will be more accurate for more players.  But a conservative prediction that Matt Holliday will continue a gradual decline is, well, not exactly a revelation.  And any good projection system will likely come to a similar, conservative result.

The interesting stuff in the ZiPS are projections from guys like Ty Kelly (.254/.333/.358) or Samuel Tuivailala (3.29 ERA, 28.3 K%). Kelly is a journeyman utility infielder with no MLB time projected to be about as good as Kolten Wong.  Tuivailala is a converted position player who rocketed through the system in two years on the strength of a  99 mph fastball. Obviously, a system that identifies guys like these who can be immediately productive at the MLB level would be very valuable. Maybe the BEST system as described above would do that, but the problem is that these projections–which are truly interesting, and the reason I like looking at ZiPS–are the most difficult to verify as reliable. Kelly’s numbers are based on the idea he receives 550+ PAs and god help the St. Louis Cardinals if injuries force the team into that situation.

While I like to look at projections and I respect the hell out of the work that goes into them, I’m sympathetic to the argument baseball old-timers put forward that they are meaningless.  The more accurate a projection system gets, the less it tells us that we didn’t already know.

Of course, projection systems published on the internet are mostly created to give us something to talk about in the off-season and I just wrote 1000+ words about them. So maybe I’ve already lost any argument I was trying to put forth.

 

MLB The Show – World War K: All Stars and aWARs

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Start from the Beginning – Episode 1: The History of the First Base War

Previous Episode: Halfway There

A Post on the Future of World War K (and my possible psychic powers)

There was once a time, before MLB.tv and interleague play, when the All-Star Game really meant something.  Most fans didn’t have a chance to see players in the other league unless their team made the World Series.  Seeing the most popular players in the other league, even for a single exhibition game, was a fun novelty in the middle of a much-needed break in the regular season.  But as teams in both league became more accessible to fans across the country, interest in the All Star Game waned and MLB went to great lengths to revitalize it.

First, MLB implemented “This Time It Counts”, awarding home field advantage to the winning league in the WS.  When that failed to bring in the ratings MLB desired, in 2024, the stakes were raised with “No, Really, This Time It Definitely Counts” in which the teams in the winning league were awarded an extra roster spot for the remainder of the season.  People thought that was rightfully stupid, so MLB petitioned the U.S. Congress to pass the “It Counts More Than Ever Act of 2037”, in which Federal highway funds were awarded to cities in the league winning the All-Star Game.  When even that wasn’t enough to get people interested in 2045, the United Nations issued its controversial UN Declaration of Making It Count, which denied human rights protections from fans of teams in the losing league.

Back in alt-2014, most of this was in the future.  The All Star Game was a glamorous spectacle about honoring fan favorites and stupidly determining home field advantage.  And the two starting pitchers for the American League and National League were no surprise.

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Indeed, the ASG would be a rematch between the deranged mind of Mike Mussina inside of a robot body and the time traveling pitching machine chosen by Mike Trout to save baseball. But they weren’t the only machines chosen to represent their respective leagues in the exhibition game.  In fact, all three position player Robot Masters were in the lineup, with Dixie Dirtbag holding down shortstop in the NL, Preacher Cobra at C and Flash Money at RF in the AL.

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MLB The Show – World War K: The King in the North

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Episode 1: The History of the First Base War

Previous Episode: The Frame Game (April Recap)

The theories of the 2010s pitch-framing analysts are lost to history, purged after a reactionary movement seized sports media in 2031 and instituted the Heyman Doctrine, a brutal set of reforms that made the use of any advanced statistic less predictive than ERA punishable by death.  But we do know that these statistics informed the 2014 Kansas City Royals’ decision to acquire Jose Molina from the Tampa Bay Rays.  Molina, a month away from turning 39 at the time of the trade, could otherwise hardly be seen as a trade target for a team that hoped to save the future of baseball in 2014.  He had a career OPS hovering around the low .600s and had never received more than 350 PAs in a season.  If not for the pitch framing craze of the 2010s, why else would anyone trade for Jose Molina?

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MLB The Show – World War K: The Frame Game (April Recap)

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Episode 1: The History of the First Base War

Episode 2: And We Will Always Be Royals

Episode 3: Verland Before Time

Episode 4: The Candyman Can

T.S. Eliot once wrote that April is the cruelest month.  But what the hell did he know?  He wrote a book that inspired the musical Cats.  His hands are  stained with blood.  In baseball, April brings hope and uncertainty.  The passage of the month brings the first significant statistical endpoint to evaluate players or the team as a whole.  However, almost all of these stats–even win/loss record–come with sample size caveats.  You can’t project how well anyone will do based solely on their April.  But that doesn’t keep people from trying.

Late into the month of April, it became clear that the Royal’s catcher, Salvador Perez, was suffering from overuse.  He was hitting worse than anyone else on the team, which caught Player/GM Pat Burrell by surprise.  Perez was supposed to be one of the few sincerely good players on the Royals.  Burrell decided that the team needed a quality backup catcher and veteran presence.  Someone to fill the role that Todd Pratt had during Burrell’s early years in Philadelphia.  Unfortunately, Todd Pratt was now 47 years old, so getting him out of retirement would be more than a chore.  Burrell would have to trade for a backup, and do so without giving up anything of significant value.

With that in mind, he went to the team’s advance statistics department for advice.  Unfortunately, the Kansas City Royals advanced statistics department had been gutted during the Dayton Moore years, and now consisted of nothing but shortstop Alcides Escobar sitting in a small office after every game and browsing Fangraphs.

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World War K Episode 2: And We Will Always Be Royals

 

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Episode 1: The History of The First Base War

 

It is said that nothing worth doing is ever easy, and this is doubly true of time travel.  The fabric of the past resists change, not unlike a stubborn mule or the American South.  To move a human-sized pitching machine from the war-torn hell of the year 2099 to the slightly less war-torn hell of 2014 is a process with many steps, and there are numerous things that could go wrong.  It is thought that the power-crazed Artificial Intelligence K.I.R.K.G.I.B.S.O.N. actually sent back an army of robot masters to destroy baseball, and only the six most hardy even survived the trip.

When the aged Mike Trout programmed the Strike-O-Matic to go back to 2014 to stop the robot masters, he gave it a simple enough mission.  The Strike-O-Matic was instructed to find Mike Trout in the past and join the Angels to defeat the nefarious plans of K.I.R.K.G.I.B.S.O.N.  Unfortunately,  Strike-O-Matic’s memory was stored on a Chinese knockoff “Zandisk” solid state hard drive, which Trout had purchased on eBay.  This flash memory was poorly insulated from the terrible magnetic effects of time travel, and by the time Strike-O-Matic arrived in the year 2014, everything it had been programmed to do was corrupted.

The Strike-O-Matic only had a vague idea that he had to join forces with the best player in baseball and outplay some other robots, but everything else was lost to the corruption.  Ever resourceful, Strike-O-Matic turned to the resource that it assumed was the most reliable–networked crowdsourcing.  Strike-O-Matic didn’t understand that in 2014, the internet was only quasi-regulated and that people still thought “trolling” was fun.  Also, its irony meter had been destroyed by the massive influx of irony created during time travel, so it took the first response it received as the gospel truth.

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World War K: The History of the First Base War (MLB: The Show)

As we venture into the new century, several generations have known nothing but the Base Wars.  Robot versus robot.  Robot versus man.  Man versus man.  It is not news.  It is not history.  It is merely life.  For the young people of the year 2099, it is nothing to go to the ballpark and see a robot with tank treads for a leg attempt to decapitate a floating robot with a laser sword.  The cyber-checkpoints are routine, and the e-police are just another fixture on the street corner, twirling their e-batons and compiling their e-donuts.

There was a time before this neon mecha-hellscape.  Once, you could walk down the street without seeing the roving gangs of hobodroids, shaking down the robourgeoisie for their laser-rubles.  It was a simpler time, before the airs was filled with the scream of holodrones and we lived under the constant threat of quantum terrorism.  How did we get here?  And how will this end?  The answer to both of those questions is one and the same.  Because of time travel.

This is the history of the First and Last Base War.

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Craig Paquette: A Look Back

On July 31, 1999, the St. Louis Cardinals traded Shawon Dunston to the New York Mets for Craig Paquette, a 30 year old corner infielder who had spent the entire season in the Mets’ AAA Norfolk affiliate.  When it happened, everyone assumed the trade was done as a favor to Dunston.  The Cardinals were a .500 team, 11 games back in the division, with a depleted pitching staff that didn’t have much hope of making the playoffs in the single Wild Card era.  The Mets were competing for their division and were 20 games over .500 at the end of July.  Dunston was a veteran and a favorite of the Cardinals’ front office who had spent the majority of his career on the Cubs and played in exactly one playoff series at the age of 36.  He even returned to the Cardinals as a free agent at the end of the season.

Craig Paquette was just supposed to be the piece going the other way–a place-holder in what was essentially a giveaway.  Paquette had spent his career shuttling between the minors and the majors, never making much of an impression.  He had one season, 1996, in which he came close to full time play.  Even then, he was mostly used as a utility player, splitting time between 1b, 3b, and RF.  Throughout the rest of his career, he’d been a part time player at best and now it seemed as if the Major Leagues had given up on him.  In 1998, he appeared in only seven games in the majors, then spent the entirety of 1999 until the trade in Norfolk.  On July 31, he had an OBP of .298 in AAA at the age of 30.  Who the hell would want Craig Paquette?

As it turns out, Tony La Russa wanted Craig Paquette.  La Russa had managed Paquette back in Oakland, where Paquette spent his first few seasons.  During their time together, Paquette put up a .217/.243/.382 line over 763 plate appearances and three seasons.  And apparently La Russa hadn’t seen enough of him. Paquette was in the lineup at RF on August 3, 1999 and promptly hit a double and a HR in his first Major League game of the season.

Over the next three seasons, Paquette would be something of an enigma for the Cardinals.  He had some of the most atrocious on-base skills of any position player I’ve seen and his glove was bad everywhere but first base.  Nevertheless, he got consistent playing time through 2001, when at the age of 32 he finally put up what felt like a decent season, hitting .282/.326/.465.  That still wasn’t great for his defensive profile, but it was good enough to earn him a deal worth almost five million dollars from the Detroit Tigers, after which he reverted back to a pumpkin and fell so far below replacement value that every replacement value player suffered from vertigo.

I will admit that I hated Craig Paquette.  At the time, I was vehemently opposed to all of Tony La Russa’s moves. Despite the fact that Tony helped bring in Mark McGwire, one of my favorite players of all time, La Russa’s managing style irritated the hell out of a fifteen year old kid who had just discovered Bill James and spent his days posting on rec.sports.baseball.  La Russa’s love of veterans, closers, and short-sighted match-ups infuriated me.  It would be years before I figured out that La Russa was actually better than most managers about the things I hated.  My distaste for La Russa seeped over onto Paquette, who was clearly one of La Russa’s “guys.”  Paquette stayed on the team and kept getting at bats despite his terrible OBP (which I thought was the most important thing in the world) and his less-than-impressive glove.

Now I realize how spoiled I was.

Craig Paquette wasn’t really that bad a of a player for the Cardinals.  Over his three seasons with the team, he hit .267/.309/.461, which is nothing to write home about.  But that .770 OPS would be second on the 2014 Cards, behind only Matt Adams.

There is an obvious caveat, of course, which is that comparing numbers from this season to those from 1999-2001 is like comparing apples to juiced oranges. Baseball-Reference tries to normalize for era and translates that .770 OPS to a 93 OPS+, which suddenly doesn’t seem so hot. But it’s still far better than any of the bench players the Cardinals have relied upon over the last couple years. Right now, I’d be thrilled with a slugging-heavy 93 OPS+ off the bench, and a .770 OPS would be starting and batting fifth.

Paquette isn’t the only name I suddenly find myself re-evaluating. The La Russa era Cardinals were rarely lacking in decent, if not inspiring, players off the bench. Lugo.  Felipe Lopez. Miles. Luna. Brian Barton. Spiezio. Mabry. Hell, the aforementioned Dunston fits too. I’m sure I whined and complained when I saw these names in the starting lineup, but they are all a hell of a lot better than the bench guys we’ve run out over the last two seasons. What I wouldn’t give to swap out Shane Robinson for So Taguchi, or Daniel Descalso for Nick Punto.

Sure, there were plenty of mistakes.  Joe Thurston hit better than anyone on our bench now (which is a damning statement considering his OPS was .645) but he got so lost on the basepaths that he was once found roaming East St. Louis, dehydrated and malnourished, five days after he hit a ground rule double. Wilson Delgado can only be evaluated once I have the results of a DNA test that will prove my theory about him and Daniel Descalso.  And remember the time the Cardinals traded a real, useful player for Pedro Feliz?

Still, something has changed. Either other teams have gotten better at picking out the wheat from the DFA and AAA chaff, or the Cardinals have gotten worse. The bench was a huge weak spot last season, and really the only black mark against Mozeliak’s recent record (Matheny hiring notwithstanding).

Until we’ve got a bench that can offer a little pop, I will just have to look back fondly on Craig Paquette.  Damn, that’s depressing.

 

 

Pete Kozma Is Here and He Makes the Team Better. Yes, Really.

I’m not going to say that I’m Pete Kozma’s biggest hater, because it might not be true. As far as I know, Kozma may have crippled a classmate with a baseball bat in a high school fight and gotten away with it because he was on the baseball team. That guy, if he exists, probably dislikes Pete Kozma more than me, though I doubt he exists because Pete Kozma couldn’t do that kind of damage with a baseball bat.

Even if I’m not Kozma’s biggest hater, I have made an extensive record of my criticism. And that is going to make what I’m about to write all the more shocking: bringing up Kozma was the right move and will actually improve the team.

Now, I certainly don’t like the circumstances of Kozma’s return. He shouldn’t be on the roster because two starting pitchers got hurt, but he should be on the roster. And not because he’s good. I’m never going to say that Kozma is good.

In 2013, Kozma hit .217/.275/.273, which is actually a bit worse than I expected because I thought he’d stumble into a few more HR and at least pull his SLG above his OBP. It was an atrocious year with the bat that silenced all his boosters and left him stranded in AAA. However, Kozma showed remarkable growth with the glove, especially for a player who had lost his position on the defensive spectrum just one year earlier to Ryan Jackson. I don’t think he was as good as, say, fangraphs which put him as 4th in UZR/150, but he had more range than he showed early in his minor league career and he wasn’t nearly as boneheaded as Tyler Greene.

Nothing in Kozma’s 2014 at AAA shows that he’s learned how to hit. A .234/.341/.372 slash line might indicate some improvement with his batting eye but comes with a hell of a small sample size warning. So what has changed? Why am I happy to see Kozma in the majors when I couldn’t wait for him to be gone last year? Well, it’s all about the other options.

Before Kolten Wong, who himself was struggling through a sore shoulder, went on the DL, the Cardinals had two infield bats on the bench. Mark Ellis is hitting .193/.280/.220 and Daniel Descalso is hitting a putrid .176/.233/.221. These are numbers that would even make 2013 Kozma shake his head.

Now one of those two is the starter at 2b. Maybe they’re in a platoon. It doesn’t really matter, because the result is the same. They are barely outslugging the Cards pitchers (.210) in over 200 PAs. Ellis could shake off the relentless encroachment of old age and return to form. But Descalso has never been good. Never this bad, but never good.  Most importantly, Descalso can’t play shortstop. Mike Matheny thinks he can, but he’s wrong and the experiments have to end.

Right now, Pete Kozma is a more useful player than Daniel Descalso. He might even be more useful than Mark Ellis. He’s probably also better to have around than Shane Robinson as well, since they have the same noodle bat but Kozma can give Peralta some rest. When Wong comes back, or when the pitching staff gets so thoroughly strafed in Colorado that we need a thirteenth arm, Descalso should be the one on his way out, not Kozma.

Until Ellis shows he’s not dead or Greg Garcia proves himself or Mo makes a trade, Pete Kozma is probably the best bench infielder the Cardinals have. Which makes me want to curl up in the fetal position and dream of Nick Punto.

 

 

 

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.