Hitting coach is an tough position to hold in Major League Baseball. When the offense is working well and runs are scored, more often than not the manager gets the credit. When teams aren’t manufacturing runs, eventually fingers start pointing at the hitting coach.
And, unfortunately, if a team has underachieved at the end of the season, its usually the hitting coach who is appointed the role of scapegoat.
Mark McGwire served as St. Louis Cardinals hitting coach from 2010 through the 2012 season. Through those three years, the Cardinals saw much offensive production and even ended up tops in major offensive categories.
Furthermore, the 2012 Cardinals saw five hitters reach or clear the 20 home run mark for the first time in franchise history. McGwire was considered a major factor in the team’s offensive success as he had a great rapport with the team as well as being a highly-thought of figure in Cardinal Nation.
But was McGwire really that much of a factor, and what role does a hitting coach really take?
For the most part, they can only offer advice to what they may be seeing a hitter doing incorrectly. They don’t determine who hits where, or when one player should play while benching another. Those types of strategical moves are left to the manager. Heck, a pitching coach is more involved with decisions a manager makes than a hitting coach.
In any case, if we look at the Cardinals offensive history during McGwire’s tenure, we can see that 2011 was the best year for McGwire and the offense. The team hit .273 which was .010 points higher than both 2009 and 2010. The following year, the team batting average only dipped .003 points.
However, those weren’t the best offensive years in recent Cardinal history.
Without a doubt, the 2008 season was the most successful. Under the guidance of hitting coach Hal McRae, both the team OBP and SLG were the highest since 2005. More importantly, the team wOBA was by far the best of the last several seasons. Ironically, the Cardinals did not make the playoffs that year. In the following season, offensive production took a huge drop which (indirectly) resulted in McRae departing St. Louis.
Enter the McGwire era as he helped propel an unlikely group of heros to a world title in 2011, as well as almost making a second push in 2012. Was it his experience, his knowledge, or were the hitters just put in the ideal situation? Or was it none of the above?
Its hard to say. You have guys that have been playing the game all of their lives, with hitting being the most fundamental of all aspects of their growth — you don’t hit, you don’t play. So does it really make that much sense to have someone coach a facet of the game that a player has taken years to develop — or even perfect?
The Cardinal hitters are now under the guidance of John Mabry, a former player and commentator for Fox Sports Midwest, who served as assistant hitting coach in 2012. Mabry was a decent hitter who played with nearly a dozen MLB organizations.
Will St. Louis suffer in the absence of McGwire? Not likely. The Cardinal offense hasn’t fluctuated much since 2005. Hitting development in the minors, along with acquiring veteran hitters, have provided St. Louis with consistent production. It should also be noted that in 2012, the strikeout rate was at its peak while the walk rate was at its lowest since 2005.
Take that information for what it is. The Cardinals should hit well this year but if they don’t, you can bet that Mabry’s coaching career will be quickly derailed.