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Goold: Cardinals' offensive surge comes as Albert is 'finding his voice as a hitting coach'

Goold: Cardinals' offensive surge comes as Albert is 'finding his voice as a hitting coach'

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Cardinals spring training continues

Cardinals hitting coach Jeff Albert talks with manager Mike Shildt after practice during Cardinals spring training on Thursday, Feb. 14, 2019, at Roger Dean Stadium in Jupiter, Fla. Photo by Christian Gooden,

The 94-mph pitch Paul Goldschmidt pulled for a homer against Pittsburgh’s Chris Archer was a little inside, maybe even a ball, and oh-so familiar.

As Goldschmidt rounded the bases with his game-tying homer Tuesday, Cardinals hitting coach Jeff Albert looked to outfielder Harrison Bader in the dugout and pointed, with a nod.

“Right there,” he said. “We just worked on that.”

Hours earlier, with Bader leaning nearby, Goldschmidt stood in the same batter’s box, looking out at the same PNC Park cityscape backdrop, and saw a pitch in that same location over and over and over and over again. Goldschmidt wanted to escape the batting cage for early practice on the field so he could “get that visual” of how he was hitting specific pitches, whether he was hooking an inside pitch foul or keeping it true. He wanted to see the results of his swing. Bader just wanted to see more results from his swing. They both enlisted Albert to throw BP and talk hitting Tuesday afternoon in a mostly empty ballpark.

As he placed underhand toss, firm and accurate, on the inside, Albert explained with how teams have been pitching the Cardinals handling that pitch is a “big deal.” What he did in practice, Goldschmidt did in the game for a two-run homer that hugged the left-field line until it tied the game. Big deal, indeed. It continued the Cardinals’ offensive resurgence that is a bigger deal, and that could be a sign of what the organization has sought, Albert’s new deal.

“It takes courage to try and change something, to put yourself out there as opposed to just sitting back and letting status quo go by,” shortstop Paul DeJong said. “The way he talks to guys, the way he speaks up and asserts himself, the way he picks the moment to speak up. I think he’s finding his voice as a hitting coach.”

Sitting this past week in the PNC Park dugout, Albert shared that voice during a lengthy interview with The Post-Dispatch that touched on everything from the technology he welcomes to the habits he wants to cultivate. From the number of videos of Cardinals hitters he has at his fingertips on his Samsung smartphone (435 and counting) to the Pokemon bracelet he wears on his right wrist (a gift from his daughter). The Cardinals advertised when they hired Albert this past winter that he was being brought over from Houston to author an organizational approach, an offense ethos, and that shaping production at the big-league level was a slice of his role, albeit the biggest. He has been described this season as watchful, reserved, studious, and, often, quiet.

Some of that is personality. Most is by design, he explained.

“I try not to be too far up or down,” Albert said. “If we’re talking to players about being consistent and not going too far to chase the result, I want to be consistent myself. I don’t want to be overwhelming the guys with information. I want to be always asking what they need. I watch my body language. I don’t want to overact to a lineout if we ask them not to do that. I don’t want to be asking them to do something mentally with their approach and their toughness that I’m not doing.”

He acknowledged the pressure that accompanies one of the most volatile positions on any staff given how often teams flush hitting coaches.

“I think that comes more from you want to win and you want to be doing your part to help the team win games,” Albert said. “We have a good lineup. We have a good offense. And we have a lot of ability. If we’re not scoring or a guy is not performing to his ability, that’s part of my job. I want that responsibility. As a coach, you want that. If the pressure wasn’t there, then the expectations wouldn’t be there, and then this wouldn’t be the Cardinals.”

Albert began coaching with the Cardinals in the minors before moving into Houston’s organization and rising to the majors. That experience shaped how he views both of his charges with the Cardinals — and the tension that exists between developing hitters in the minors and the shift to winning with them in the majors.

“I kind of see developing and winning as the same,” Albert said. “If you’re developing in the sense that you’re helping the players get better and the players are getting better you’re going to win games. … What I learned in my early years in the minors is you have to be aware what’s happening in the major-league game. What does controlling the strike zone mean there? Where do major-league pitchers throw the ball? Where is contact made? Where is quality contact made? You’re going to try and practice things coming up that if you do well, you’re confident it will produce a major-league value.”

Asked about some his drills and bedrock views of hitting, Albert often returned to a feel for the strike zone — whether that’s the confidence to take a filthy pitch on the edge and live with the strike while keeping the awareness not to miss a pitch down the middle. Or the opposite: what the Cardinals were doing in June to sabotage themselves. Increasingly, they’ve seen more breaking pitches, more inside pitches, because they showed themselves to be more susceptible to them.

“Yeah, it’s fun right?” Albert said. “I feel like we’ve had our stretches this year where teams have come at us with more off-speed. That’s to be expected. Some of it, especially with younger guys, is getting them used to how quickly the opposition will change the way they pitch because of the prevalence of information. Hey, maybe this guy is pitching us differently, but that doesn’t mean we have to chase him around. I think it can be tough not to get distracted when you feel like your level of ability and expectation is here.”

He raised his right hand up.

“And you’re doing a lot of things that you should be doing,” Albert continued, “and the results are not where you want them. They’re here.”

He lowered his hand.

This sentiment was shared by manager Mike Shildt, who has often illustrated the conundrum of the Cardinals’ difficult May and what he called the June “hangover” it caused. The Cardinals stormed into the season as a top-five offense in April. In May, many of their indicators remained. Their strikeout rate was the same as April (20.8 percent), their walk-rate dropped slightly, and their average exit-velocity went up. Baseball Savant takes all of its advanced metrics into account and suggested that the Cardinals produced well enough to have an expected slugging percentage of .420 in May. They had an actual slugging of .373. The lack of results led to “chasing” and “forcing” and what Shildt said was “candidly, a change in how we want to think of our offensive approach.” Albert said the team drifted from making “quality contact” to reaching for just any old contact.

In June, the Cardinals saw a spike in strikeout rate (24.1) and a swift erosion of production. Their expected slugging was .353, and they slugged a league-worst .357. Shildt agreed a learning curve with a new coach could be a contributing factor, and recently said that the upswing in offense means some credit is due, too.

“He was brought here for a reason,” Shildt said. “Look, we all need to be flexible because our job is to meet the players where they are and create a collective clarity and identity. You’re seeing more guys have more clarity with what this looks like. You’re looking to get a new identity with how you go out and compete and it takes a while to establish that.”

Houston outfielder George Springer said it was Albert who “taught me to use technology to my advantage.” Advances are everywhere — Pittsburgh and LA are two teams using virtual reality to prepare hitters for specific pitchers and strike zones — and Albert said the Cardinals are open to adding new hardware, if desired. Hitters with the Cardinals have described how Albert is able to present scouting reports on pitchers in ways the hitter desires, as simple or complex as needed. For some struggling hitters, he’s urged them to work on their strengths — not fixate on flaws. And along with assistant hitting coach Mark Budaska there has been an attempt to be more inclusive, more collaborative than that role was in previous years. Jim Edmonds, for example, has been welcomed into the hitting conversations, no longer asked by a few hitters to whisper advice.

And Albert always seems to be available, whether it’s to face the velocity pitching machine on the field in Cincinnati, as Matt Wieters did, or for some tosses at PNC Park to get a different vantage point on swings.

He’s got his phone ready.

“He’ll watch hours of footage, he’ll do any drill you want to do, and he’ll give you advice if you want it, and he won’t say anything if you want that,” Goldschmidt said. “When you know a guy who is all-in for you as an individual or as a team, that’s what you want. That’s not a guy covering up for your mistakes or telling you how great you are. This is a guy who truly cares not for his own career but to help you as an individual, to help this organization. That’s what I’ve seen with Jeff.”

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