PITTSBURGH • When he retired following the 2007 season, John Mabry declined repeated overtures from the Cardinals and several other clubs to join their organization as a coach, pushing each back a few years so that he could spend time with his family, coaching on their terms, not baseball’s.
That changed when one of his closest friends, Mike Matheny, was hired as the Cardinals’ manager and proved sometimes it’s the questioner, not the question.
“He just asked me,” Mabry said, smiling.
Mabry first joined Matheny’s staff as an assistant hitting coach, and he ascended into the lead job for 2013 after Mark McGwire left for Los Angeles. Mabry played for eight teams, including the Cardinals in three different stints, over 14 seasons. He counts among his influences coaches like George Kissell and teammates from Tony Gwynn and Albert Pujols to Ken Griffey Jr. and Jim Edmonds. In his first season as hitting coach, the Cardinals led the National League in runs (783) and continued a trend stressed under McGwire, pacing the league in on-base percentage (.332). The Cardinals also hit an uncanny .330 with runners in scoring position.
His second year has started with a more erratic offense. Cornerstones like Allen Craig have struggled, power has flickered, and the Cardinals have groped for consistency. In a candid discussion this past week with The Post-Dispatch, Mabry outlined what the hitters should be seeking, should be ignoring, and the approach they need to trust, even in down times.
Post-Dispatch: What are some things you like to stress as an approach?
Mabry: There’s nothing different from what Mac (McGwire) was teaching. Get in your base. Use the big part of the field. Get a good pitch to hit. Get a good pitch to drive. Quality at-bats. A quality at-bat is the key to everything.
P-D: How do you define a quality at-bat — a hard hit is a quality at-bat obviously, but there’s so much more to it than that, right?
Mabry: A quality at-bat could be a damn grand slam. That’s high quality! We read the stuff you guys say. We’re not against home runs. You just can’t go up there and swing from your bottom and expect to drive balls out of the ballpark with any consistency. You have to have a quality approach, which a lot of these guys do. There isn’t a “home run hitter” where all he does is hit home runs and strike out. We want guys to drive the ball in the gap, drive the ball out of the park, move the runners along, play the game the right way, and have a quality at-bat. That means getting pitches in your zone, and understanding what your zone is. Understand how the pitcher is attacking you. Understand what his strengths and weaknesses are. Understand what your strengths and weaknesses are. Make things happen. You don’t watch a long inning out there and swing at the first pitch. That’s all part of the game. We try to stress the game-management part of it that puts the St. Louis Cardinals in a position to win day in and day out.
P-D: McGwire and you both talk about how the hitter’s zone changes based on situation and on the count, 0-1, 1-0 and zone. To simplify, it’s identifying where you can drive a pitch early and handle a pitch late, right?
Mabry: Or, you can get to a spot where you can get a pitch to drive by working the count. There are a lot of different things you have to look at. If the pitcher is on that day, he’s not going to make a lot of mistakes. So you might have to take what he gives you. People think we’re slapping the ball the other way — why? Because that’s what the pitcher is giving us that day. If the pitcher is wild with his command, missing over the big part of the plate, you’ll see more home runs, you’ll see more doubles. You’ll see all that stuff. In the big leagues any given night anybody can stick it up any lineup’s tail end.
P-D: That’s an interesting point you make because, say, Matt Adams is going the other way with pitches for singles, where those pitches last year we would have missed.
Mabry: Or he would have rolled over and hit a groundball to the right side of the field. Hence, the shifts. So now if he takes half of those balls that he would have grounded to the right side and he hits them to left he adds 20 points on his average, and plus he’s still going to hit his home runs because they are going to make mistakes over the middle of the plate.
P-D: Now, you’re seeing this counterbalance, where he’s doing what pitchers are allowing him. Are you not seeing power because ...
Mabry: Well, you will see the power. Even though he’s doing the right thing, you do still have to find a pitch to hit out of the ballpark.
P-D: What do you mean by that?
Mabry: If he’s getting a sinker down and away that he knows he can slap to left, are you going to hit the first sinker you can slap to left? Or do you wait for one that you can drive out of the ballpark? That’s a selection thing. Now just because he’s giving you a base hit to left, do you want to take it? Or do you want to take a shot at going somewhere else with a pitch?
P-D: What you’re saying is you look for the pitch you can drive by taking that sinker and working your way into a better count, right?
Mabry: Depends on the situation. And it depends on the hitter. If you have the guy who averages three home runs a year, we’re not going to have him wait for a pitch he’s going to hit out of the ballpark. You see what I’m saying? But if you’ve got a guy who can hit the ball out of the ballpark 20 or 30 times, you want him hunting more pitches to hit out of the ballpark. At the same time, the pitcher controls that. Some guys have the unique ability to stretch their zone and make it bigger when they can hit more balls out of the ballpark. Some guys have to shrink that because of how their swing works. And you’ve got a guy throwing 97 mph with sink, and it runs, and he’s cutting it. … Look up now at the shifts they have — how tough is hitting?
P-D: Do you think you put a greater emphasis on situational hitting than McGwire did?
Mabry: No. McGwire put a focus on situational hitting as well. Situational hitting is used to score runs when you can’t otherwise produce runs. … So if we get a leadoff double — go back and look last year how many times did we ground the ball to the right side to get the runner to third. We’re trying to do that so we create a scoring opportunity. If we get a ball through the hole, it’s a bonus. At the least we want the guy at third with one out so we can get a sacrifice fly, a passed ball, an error, a chopper to the infield so that anything scores a run. Every team does this so they can create scoring opportunities. That’s the name of the game.
P-D: Do you think you spoiled folks with how well you did it last year?
Mabry: Listen, in the history of the game — or in 70 years — nobody has done that. Stan Musial was hitting for us last year with runners in scoring position. Go back and look at his lifetime average (.331) and how many hits he had. It matches up pretty well. That’s the thing. You’ve got to be fair to these guys. That is what you call a “statistical outlier.” They were really, really good at what they did and they had a really, really good approach. Will it be that good again? I don’t know. … It’s not because they’re not trying the same. It’s not because the approach has changed. We’re trying to have the same quality at-bats. We have expectations on a daily basis. Today, we’re going to try to score as many runs as possible. Tomorrow, we’re going to try to get in as many runs as we can. They can come on home runs, walks, grand slams, errors, triples, people falling down — we’re trying to score runs.
You have to keep (the hitters) moving in a positive direction. If they do things correctly day in and day out, things are going to happen for them. If they get caught up in the woe-is-me, sky-is-falling it doesn’t help because we have to come out here tomorrow and we’re going to play again.