Cardinals: Pitching Coach Vacancies & the Need for a Modernized Approach

On Wednesday, the Cardinals announced that — in addition to Skip Schmuaker leaving for the Miami managerial job — three coaches would not be returning to the 2023 staff. Jeff Albert, Mike Maddux, and bullpen coach Brian Eversgerd.

I covered this in my post on the hitting coach, which you can find here, but to recap…

From John Denton of MLB.com:

Mozeliak revealed that hitting coach Jeff Albert and veteran pitching coach Mike Maddux will not return in 2023, and bullpen coach Bryan Eversgerd will be reassigned within the organization.

Mozeliak was prepared to offer Albert and Maddux contracts for the 2023 season and beyond, but both decided that they would rather not return. Mozeliak said that Albert cited the blame he took on social media for some of the Cardinals’ hitting woes — early in the season and again in a two-game playoff loss to the Phillies in the NL Wild Card Series — as his reasoning in wanting to move on.

“Both [Maddux and Albert] have their own separate narratives,” Mozeliak said. “In [Maddux’s] case, he’s just done it for so long and he’s looking for a change of pace. If you look at Jeff’s particular case, I think there were some levels of frustration, and he took a lot of the blame when things weren’t going well, and he’s open to change. … I was prepared to offer [Albert] a contract, but before I even got that out of my mouth, he had told me he wasn’t coming back.”

It is apparent that Maddux and Albert are leaving of their own accord, they were not fired. Derrick Goold reported that the team does intend to offer Maddux another role with the organization.

Because these exits were unplanned, I don’t anticipate that the organization will make a dramatic shift in their hitting or pitching approaches.

But they should, on the pitching side.

Unlike the internal candidates for hitting coach, I don’t have a strong opinion on how they might fill the pitching and bullpen coach roles. Mozeliak acknowledged that current pitching strategist Dusty Blake would be an internal candidate. He has an interesting resume and would not be a surprise move. You can learn more about him in his bio from the team’s front office directory.

Regardless of the who, I do believe that what the Cardinals need to do is modernize their pitching approach.

There are a few reasons why this is the ideal time to do so.

1) Maddux has stepped down and bullpen coach Eversgerd has been reassigned. Yadier Molina, much ballyhooed as a pitch caller and extension of the coaching staff, is retired. No, I don’t think Yadi is a real candidate to become the pitching coach.

So with both pitching coach positions open and THE catcher of last 19 years retiring — 3 of the most influential voices in the current pitching strategy — it is essentially a clean slate. There won’t be any old dogs to resist learning the new tricks.

2) With the banning of the over-shift taking effect in 2023, no longer having Harrison Bader in CF, and — at the moment — having 2B projected as a time-share between Brendan Donovan and Nolan Gorman, it easy to see where the team will be taking a step back defensively. This isn’t to say they are suddenly a bad defensive team. Not at all. But the historically great defense of 2021 — the defense that made them extremely comfortable with a pitch-to-contact strategy — is in the rear view. It’s fair to question the viability of that strategy moving into 2023.

There is an intersection of events taking place that make this an ideal time to install changes in philosophy.

But why? What was wrong with the pitching?

The pitching was effective enough to get the team to their division title in 2022. But there are criticisms to be made.

As mentioned, how viable will the pitch to contact approach be moving forward? We saw the disaster that played out in the 9th inning of Game 1, when balls put in play weren’t converted into outs. That happens. Just ask Dakota Hudson.

It’s no secret that Cardinals lacked strikeout punch. That was somewhat by design as they tried to “play to the defense.”

As much as we pump up the Cardinals as a team that can “fix” pitchers and give heaps of credit to Molina’s pitch calling. Alot of it — such as with Jon Lester and JA Happ — is “just put in a spot that is hard to drive, and let the defense and ballpark do the rest.” Look, it works until it doesn’t.

They can likely find more strikeout punch from guys already on the roster, simply by altering the strategy. More importantly, they can achieve more success, in general, by shifting the plan of attack.

Here are two examples of where their approach was lacking in 2022.

(Going to go ahead and thank Statcast for the numbers that follow)

Jordan Montgomery was on fire after joining the Cardinals. He was facing teams and players that largely had not faced him, and he dominated. He also ramped up the use of his 4-seam fastball after joining the team. Publicly, he stated that the Yankees had discouraged use of his 4-seamer — as it was inferior to his other pitches — and he was now finding success in the opposite approach — upping the usage to 31%, the highest rate in his repertoire. With the Yankees in June and July, he threw it just 5% of the time. In August, opponents hit just .132 against his 4-seamer — compared to .385, .313, .500, and .286 in Apr-July, respectively, with NY — with no appreciable change to the pitch’s spin or whiff rate. The 1.76 ERA he posted in August helped steady the Cardinals and jettison them to a division title. He was simply getting better results for awhile with the same pitch, and was throwing it more often.

Unsurprisingly, he started to lose effectiveness almost immediately after his public comments about the fastball usage. In September, opponents hit his 4-seamer at a .333 clip, in line with his time with New York. His fastball simply is not his best pitch and opponents had adjusted. Montgomery clearly has talent, but the Cardinals will need to get more out of him than the 4.36 ERA he posted in September, as they continued to rely on an ineffective fastball.

Another example is Drew Verhagen, who struggled in between IL stints, but is under contract for 2023. Verhagen has quality stuff, and you could see how dominant his breaking pitches were. Against his slider, opponents hit .048 with a whiff rate of 43.2%. That is a dominant pitch. He threw it 22% of the time. Unfortunately, he threw his Sinker and 4-seamer 24.1% and 21.7% of the time, respectively. Neither was an effective pitch. His Sinker was hit at a .370 clip, with a .667 SLG against. His 4-seamer was even worse, being hit for a .500 average and .889 SLG. Their velocities are nearly identical, as are their spin rates. I’m no pitching coach, but I would have recommended abandoning that 4-seamer entirely and upping the usage of his slider, curveball, and cutter to replace it.

The fastball/sinker heavy, groundball inducing approach does not work for every pitcher. For several years the Cardinals have tried that cookie cutter approach. The front office has been pretty good at finding pitchers that it will jive with, but when one comes along that requires a different approach, we’ve seen the deficiencies of the staff to adjust.

And lastly, there was the Adam Wainwright issue — which raised alot of eyebrows.

In the days after the Cardinals were eliminated from the playoffs Adam Wainwright took to Twitter to explain that, in short, following a comebacker that hit his knee in a game against Atlanta in August, his stride was shortened by about a foot. This obviously would alter his entire delivery, timing, and his ability to make pitches — resulting in the difficulties we saw over his final 6 starts of the season. He stated, “I didn’t stay diligent enough with my film work to catch it immediately. It wasn’t something I had struggled with before. The zip and crispness to my stuff returned as soon as we locked in on the problem.” The latter return of his stuff would have occurred in bullpen session at the end of the season that was, apparently, good enough to have Oli Marmol peg him as the potential Game 3 starter.

What alarmed many was that the coaching staff didn’t notice such a significant different in a measurable mechanic. How did it take a month to spot this? Why was it entirely on Waino to find?

As my friend and former podcast co-host Adam Butler texted me, “I bet Mark Prior (Dodgers pitching coach) gets an alert on his Apple Watch immediately when a pitcher’s release point drops half an inch on back-to-back pitches. Yet the Cardinals are relying on video to try to notice when Wainwright’s stride is a foot short.” I don’t think he’s wrong.

We aren’t cavemen…

There was some sentiment online that the Cardinals should move on from Mike Maddux as it were, simply by not renewing his contract, so that they could move forward in a different direction.

They didn’t plan on doing that. But by stepping down on his own, Mad Dog has gifted them the opportunity to get it right.

Hopefully they will, with the pitching and bullpen coach hires.

Thanks for reading!

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NL Central Standings

TeamWLPct.GB
Cardinals9369.574 -
Brewers8676.5317.0
Cubs7488.45719.0
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Last updated: 10/06/2022

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