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Cardinals swept by Nationals in NLCS

The Cardinals’ (from left) Matt Wieters, Harrison Bader, hitting coach Jeff Albert, Paul Goldschmidt and Jack Flaherty watch as Matt Carpenter grounds out with the bases loaded to end the eighth inning as Washington Nationals pitcher Daniel Hudson watches Paul DeJong run during Game 4 of the National League Championship Series at Nationals Park in Washington, D.C. on Tuesday, Oct. 15, 2019. (Robert Cohen, rcohen@post-dispatch.com)

In late July, as the Cardinals’ offense started to perk up and bring the winning with it, hitting coach Jeff Albert sat in the visitors’ dugout in Pittsburgh and, smartphone and notebook nearby, picked apart some of the inconsistencies he saw improving, inconsistencies in the lineup that resurfaced and lingered all the way to the last out of October.

The Cardinals had a furious April, hitting their way to the best record in baseball, and a frustrating May that led to an adrift June, when “we kind of lost our way a little bit,” manager Mike Shildt said.

Albert acknowledged some of the reasons — opponents downshifting to fewer and fewer fastballs against the Cardinals, hitters often behind in the count, reduced walk rates and chasing pitches out of the zone, to name a few. What was true then became costly later during the Cardinals’ meek exit from the National League Championship Series.

What Albert said then became prescient later.

“In the times where things aren’t going the way you want, that’s really when a lot of the learning happens,” he explained in Pittsburgh. “It’s not the most fun to be performing at a level that you think is below where you’re able to be.

“I think going through these times with the right attitude — see, it’s something to talk about having mental toughness, but going through some things that force you to build some mental toughness? We’re better for it.”

They better hope to be.

Looking ahead

As the Cardinals spent the past few days in internal meetings, a focus has been on a team that needed its pitching to grab the NL Central title because of an offense that missed all the fun this season. It’s due for an overhaul.

Cleanup hitter Marcell Ozuna, one of the few players who improved on his 2018 batting rates for 2019, can be a free agent and create a power drain in the middle of the order. There’s no certain incumbent for the leadoff spot, no obvious No. 2 hitter, and forced change is forthcoming.

There are a handful of candidates and a commitment to Albert and the modernizing of an organizational hitting ethos. Better is the goal. Different is a start.

The Cardinals’ vexing offense faded at the worst possible time against the best pitchers of this postseason. In Washington’s four-game sweep of the Cardinals for the NL pennant, starters didn’t allow an earned run until the fourth inning of Game 4. A Cardinals everyday player didn’t have a base hit until the seventh inning of Game 2. The two players who hit leadoff during the series combined to go zero-for-25. The Cardinals hit .130 in the series, had 48 strikeouts total, and walked only once against the Nats’ bullpen.

Or, as catcher Yadier Molina diagnosed: “We didn’t hit the ball.”

That problem was not isolated to the playoffs, just distilled during them. Nearly a third of the Cardinals’ runs in the postseason came during a 10-run, first-inning burst to advance past Atlanta. The Cardinals were an extreme version of the erratic offense they had been all season. They entered the playoffs as the least-productive lineup of the 10 October clubs — the stoic outlier in a season of cartoonish offense.

Lagging lineup

With a hop-a-long baseball, production surged. The average club hit 21.5% more homers in 2019. The Cardinals hit five more, for an uptick of 2.4%. Winning teams in the National League averaged 73.5 more runs this season than last. The Cardinals scored five more runs, the smallest gain of the 28 teams that scored more in 2019. The Cardinals’ jump was 10 times smaller than the Cubs’ increase, 12 times smaller than the average big-league club’s, and 25 times smaller than Houston’s.

The average NL team saw a 6.9-percent increase in slugging percentage. The Cardinals had a 1.5-percent hike, the third-smallest in the majors. Their .730 OPS ranked 11th in 2018. At .737 in 2019, they ranked 21st.

It’s like they didn’t get a new shipment of baseballs.

“It’s a great question, it really is,” Shildt said last week when asked about the fluctuating offense. “We’ve worked to be more consistent. I feel comfortable and confident that we have been. The inconsistencies became less frequent and not as long . . . which allowed us to be in the (NLCS) and to be one of the best second-half teams in baseball. Adjustments have been quicker, and that understanding has been a little quicker.”

Shildt spoke often this season about a “collective” and “individual” approach to hitting, and what was true for the team was acute for its regulars.

Of the eight Cardinals with the most plate appearances this season, only Ozuna and Kolten Wong had an OPS greater than their career OPS. With slugging up all around the league, four of those eight had slugging percentages that shriveled from 2018 to 2019, six had slugging percentages lower than their career norm.

The statistic OPS+ compares offensive production by normalizing it across a league and allowing for the influence of a player’s ballpark, like say Coors Field in Denver. An OPS+ of 100 is average. Of those eight Cardinals regulars, only Wong, who had a career year and is likely to win a Gold Glove Award, had a better OPS+ in 2019 than his career, 106 to 95.

As production ballooned in the league, other Cardinals saw their OPS+ shrink by comparison: Ozuna 112 career to 107, Paul Goldschmidt’s 141 career to 113, Matt Carpenter’s 126 career to 91.

While that number accommodates for Busch Stadium being one of the four toughest ballparks for home runs this season, it only hints at causes for the Cardinals’ troubles.

In the hole

The Cardinals were decidedly average when it came to strikeouts this past season, but how they got there stood out from other teams. The Cardinals had the third-most plate appearances with two strikes in the NL, and Goldschmidt had the second-most for any individual player. The Cardinals were one of the better teams in baseball at making contact — on pitches outside the zone. And it’s no wonder with all the defensive counts.

No team in the NL saw a lower percentage of fastballs.

Two out of every five pitches the Cardinals saw this past season were breaking balls or changeups, according to FanGraphs.com. No other NL team saw fewer than 52 percent fastballs.

In the playoffs, that meant trouble with Stephen Strasburg’s fiendish changeup in Game 3, Patrick Corbin’s slider early in Game 4, Anibal Sanchez’s off-speed mastery in Game 1, and Max Scherzer — just him and his array of elite pitches — in Game 2. The Cardinals’ kryptonite wasn’t secret. Back in July, in the Pittsburgh dugout, Albert was asked about teams’ change of pace against his hitters.

“It’s fun, right?” he asked, wryly.

He was asked to elaborate on the fundamentals of what he’s installing.

“I think talking about a program or a system is kind of tricky because in baseball, especially the major-league level, so much of it is the individual component, like each guy’s thumbprint and what each does well, strengths and weaknesses,” Albert said.

“One of the challenges is finding some common denominators, the important fundamentals that are a little more universal. Controlling the strike zone, for example. Then, how can we implement those ideas and introduce those concepts in a systematic way through the entire organization?”

‘A to Z’ approach

As much attention as there will be to the moves the front office must make to address the offense, there will be added scrutiny on the “A to Z” offensive infrastructure of which the Cardinals have charged Albert with being the architect.

John Mozeliak, president of baseball operations, has called the process “a long play,” and a driving motivation is a rising generation of hitters that could be the Cardinals’ best collection of position-player prospects in years: Dylan Carlson, Nolan Gorman, 19-year-old catcher Ivan Herrera, Malcom Nunez and others.

Another reason was concern that players such as Dexter Fowler, Goldschmidt and Ozuna all regressed with the Cardinals.

The Cardinals have pledged an investment in new technology as a complement to what Albert is assigned to implement. They’ve already shown a commitment by dismissing two longtime, seasoned and established hitting gurus, George Greer and Mark Budaska, while hiring a new minor-league hitting coordinator with ties to Albert.

Starting in spring, Shildt used the phrase “learning curve” to describe what his hitting coach and the hitters had to accelerate this season. In a game that has seen a paradigm shift in offense — out with batting average, up with launch angle — the goal was to get ahead of the trends, stress “quality contact.”

Instead the Cardinals lagged. As offense elsewhere went bonkers, they plateaued. That made the Cardinals’ pitching all the more impressive, and it reinforced how important it is that the offense catches up.

To be corrected?

To be continued.

“Learning curves are tough at the big-league level, and patience can be rightfully thin,” Shildt said earlier this season. “We’ve got a group pulling on the same rope. They collaborate and communicate and work toward what our identity looks like. There is some give and take to it, clearly. When you’re looking to get a new identity with how you go about things and how you compete, it takes awhile to establish that.

“But we have to have something to hold on to — that is our anchor,” the manager concluded. “You’re seeing guys have more clarity to what it looks like.”