Where Is The Praise For Mark McGwire?
There was no shortage of disgusted side-eyed glances and Peanut Gallery catcalls when the Cardinals replaced hitting coach Hal McRae with La Russa buddy Mark McGwire prior to the 2010 season. “He did steroids!” cried the righteously-indignant behind anonymous names on message boards. They mocked his tearful confession of steroid usage. They scoffed at the idea that a first-time coach with a career average of .263 would be able to improve the Cardinals’ offense. Adding McGwire was a risky and controversial decision.
But where are McGwire’s brave detractors these days? They seem to be strangely quiet as McGwire has spent two thoughtful years improving the Cardinals’ approach at the plate. In the four years prior to McGwire’s arrival (2006-2009), the Cardinals rarely found themselves among the league leaders in offensive categories. Their one season among the top offenses – 2008 – can be largely attributed to Albert Pujols‘ gaudy numbers (.357 average?!?) and Ryan Ludwick playing out of his mind. Mostly, though, the Cardinals’ offense would be classified as average in the league during this period.
Hitting coach Hal McRae emphasized video scouting of pitchers rather than hitting to contact. The Cardinals offense was built around guessing at pitches and making a swing accordingly. This approach worked well enough with some of the team’s star players, who were going to hit regardless of the hitting coach; I doubt if McRae really had much input into the swings of players like Pujols, Scott Rolen, or Jim Edmonds. However, a majority of the team (including several starters during this time period) had averages lower than .270 and seemed to suffer under this approach.
Compare that to the McGwire-led 2010-2011 seasons. In 2010, the Cardinals ranked second in batting average and third in hits. In 2011, the Cardinals ranked first in a number of categories (average, hits, runs, OBP, and slugging). Even better, these numbers are not inflated by superstar production, as Pujols and Matt Holliday had below-average years. Instead, the Cardinals developed a balanced offensive attack, with most of the starters batting above .280 (Ryan Theriot was the lone exception, and he was hitting .300 until he went into a funk).
Under McGwire, the Cardinals have drastically reduced their strikeouts (1,041 in 2009 compared to just 978 in 2011) while increasing doubles and on-base percentage. McGwire’s emphasis on contact hitting and gap power has transformed the lineup into a dangerous offensive machine, rather than 23 men waiting for two guys to hit home runs.
The proof that McGwire’s approach is creating positive results can be seen in the first week of this season. Many predicted that the offense would fall apart with the departure of Pujols, but the opposite has happened instead. The 2012 Cardinals lead baseball in almost every major category, including home runs.
Yet, in the wake of these dramatic improvements, McGwire remains unpraised for his excellent work here. His detractors, once so vocal about McGwire’s perceived negatives, have fallen curiously silent and unapologetic. What a shame that McGwire isn’t receiving the credit for the Cardinals’ revamped offense which helped them win a come-from-behind World Series last year.
I suppose McGwire has fallen victim to that old saying: “Do something right, and nobody remembers. Do something wrong, and nobody forgets.”