LOS ANGELES • During the Los Angeles’ Dodgers recent visit to Kansas City, Yasiel Puig tagged a line drive toward the right-field corner, and in the dugout hitting coach Mark McGwire thought it was a surefire triple. Maybe, with the right carom, an inside-the- park homer.
McGwire watched the swift flight of the ball — right into Lorenzo Cain’s glove.
The Royals right fielder had shifted in response to Puig’s tendencies, as so many fielders do these days, and taken away what has usually be a hit.
“I personally think they should outlaw shifts,” said McGwire, the Dodgers’ hitting coach and former Cardinals slugger. “I really do. I think they should outlaw it. … I’m saying that with tongue in cheek. But it’s amazing that one thing has — probably if you really think about it — explained why you see numbers that are down.”
The 15 National League teams entered play Saturday averaging 4.01 runs per game this season. That’s just about the same as last season overall, but it’s down a quarter of a run from 2012.
This season has also seen the majors overall batting averages and on-base percentage dive toward generational lows, as far back as before the designated hitter began.
The Cardinals have just seen a more severe slip in production, falling from the NL leader in runs scored to a club that has averaged 3.78 runs per game halfway through its season.
With McGwire as hitting coach, a hallmark of the Cardinals’ offense was being near the league-lead, if not atop the league, in on-base percentage. The results were a productive offense that was first or second in the NL in runs scored at the halfway point of the past three seasons. Hitting coach John Mabry continued that trend, and last year the Cardinals followed their OBP and an absurd .330 average with runners in scoring position to the NL lead in runs.
This season, the Cardinals overall rates (.251 average, .318 on-base percentage) are slightly better than the NL average. Their slugging percentage has sagged, .367 to the league average of .387. They are the only team in the NL without 50 home runs.
As LA started batting practice on Saturday, McGwire strongly defended Mabry.
“I’ve read some things. I think it’s unjust what has been written about the offense there,” McGwire said. “‘Mabes’ is absolutely the best. He’s unbelievable in game plans. He’s unbelievable as a teacher. … I wouldn’t worry about (the lack of homers). I never thought of any of those hitters as home-run hitters anyway. They’re absolutely line-drive, RBI guys who when they get pitches they’re going to get home runs and they get them in bunches. All those guys get them in bunches.
“If they try to do it, that’s when I would worry.”
McGwire suggested another reason for the drain on the Cardinals’ offense – the absence of Carlos Beltran, a two-time All-Star and regular No. 2 hitter the past two seasons for the Cardinals. Beltran signed with the New York Yankees this past season after turning down a one-year, qualifying offer from the Cardinals. He led the Cardinals with 56 homers the past two seasons.
“Letting Beltran go really did something to the offense,” McGwire said. “He was hitting in the second hole, really setting the tone with Matt Carpenter for that lineup. They know they’ve been mixing and matching since.”
There is also the overall offensive wane.
A student of hitting long after his career ended, McGwire mentioned power pitchers, defensive shifts, shorter outings from starters, and “acceptance of strikeouts” as part of the dip. The game’s drug-testing policies have also been cited as a factor. McGwire mourned the “lack of emphasis on base-on-balls.”
“All the sabermetrics, the positioning, you’ve got all the power pitchers, the bases and balls not being a big deal anymore – which I don’t think is right – and the velocity,” McGwire listed. “Hardest time to hit? It’s not easy. It’s never easy. But when you’re seeing guys coming out of the bullpen with the stuff they have and you have the best players in the game coming up to you and say, ‘Man, when do you ever get a break from the velo?’ It’s unbelievable.”