Mark McGwire: Batting Coach or La Russa's Image Rehabilitation Project?

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Mark McGwire: Batting Coach or La Russa's Image Rehabilitation Project?
Marc Serota/Getty Images
March 29, 2010: McGwire, left, and La Russa discuss hitting in Jupiter, Fla. The Cards' offense will need to improve this season.

What can Mark “I didn’t come here to talk about the past” McGwire teach Albert Pujols about hitting a baseball? Good question.  When I find the answer, I’ll let you all know. 

NL Offensive Player of the Year, Rookie of the Year and Silver Slugger Award winner, Pujols is a far, far better hitter than his batting coach.

Pujols is perhaps the greatest rookie hitter the storied Cardinals have ever produced—one of the best in MLB history.  Now he’s after $30 million and about to embark on free agency.  Who could blame Albert if he decided to walk?  Not the kid (me).  As a Cardinals fan, of course I want him to stay.

He’s being tutored by a batting coach with a career batting average 70 points lower.  McGwire’s career batting average is .263.  In his playoffs career, he swatted .217.  That’s about the same average I have in swatting mosquitoes out here in the asphalt jungle.  McGwire’s postseason and career regular season average combined is .240.

I don’t believe a coach necessarily needs to be a .300 hitter for his career to be a solid batting coach.  The hitting instructor for the Cincinnati Reds, Brook Jacoby, was a .270 career hitter.  The Reds were at or near the top in several offensive categories last season.   

Jacoby spent three seasons in the minor league system as a roving instructor and a coach for AAA Louisville.  He’s going into his fifth season on the job in the majors.

McGwire is going into his second season with the Redbirds as the batting coach.  He didn’t spend any time in the minor leagues as a hitting coach—or a coach of any type. 

Elsa/Getty Images
Oct. 29, 2006: Hal McRae rides in the World Series victory parade in St. Louis. He's gone but not forgotten by the Cards' batters.

He was without coaching experience when La Russa hired him—something not likely to happen in the real world in a sluggish economy.  Good to have friends in high places—real talk.

I understand the reality.  Personnel go a long way in determining a team’s batting average.  A coach could end up hurting the team, however, and I believe McGwire did last year.

In hitting for his lowest average as a Cardinal after showing promise the year before, Brendan Ryan was atrocious last year at the plate.  He's no longer a Cardinal, but he wasn't alone in his struggles.

The team’s hitting average ended up about where it was the season before McGwire took the job.  Hal McRae was the previous hitting instructor.  Over 19 seasons, he batted .290 in his career and was a former big league manager.

McRae batted over .300 six times.  He was a three-time Designated Hitter of the Year.  He also won a 2006 World Series ring as the batting coach for the Cardinals.  He was generally well-liked and the players responded positively to him.

On the other hand, center fielder Colby Rasmus preferred to work with his own father instead of with McGwire.  It caused some tension in the clubhouse and the front office.  The Cards' brass sided with the young Rasmus. 

La Russa denied having a problem with Rasmus’ decision, but we know any dissing of McGwire from outsiders upsets Tony.  He was McGwire’s staunchest supporter after the first steroid use allegations from former home run hitter Jose Canseco bubbled up.

Jared Wickerham/Getty Images
Sept. 23, 2010: Pujols trots around the bases in Pittsburgh. He slugged 42 home runs last season—down from 47.

While McGwire owned one of the best home run ratios ever (10.612 at-bats).  He also struck out over 100 times in 10 different seasons and over 120 times in four of them.  

Never has Pujols struck out over 100 times in a season.  Last season was his highest total (76) since he fanned 93 times as a rookie.  His career average is .331—down from .334. 

What can McGwire teach Pujols besides how to testify before congress?  Your guess is as good as mine America.

In 1999, McGwire did set the record for best RBI/hit ratio.  He batted in 147 runs on only 145 hits.  By the numbers, he should be in the Hall of Fame.

But Hall of Fame voters evidently view him as a scourge of American professional baseball.  I will probably always believe La Russa hired McGwire to boost the former slugger’s image Hall of Fame chances. 

McRae wasn’t a scourge to the Cardinals organization.  He’s sometimes mentioned in the same breath with George Brett and Rod Carew—two of the best MLB hitters to ever grace the diamond.   In 2003, Pujols batted .359 under McCrae to win the NL batting title.

35 years ago, McRae’s teammate George Brett edged McRae for the American League batting title.  Brett finished .333 while McRae went two-for-four and finished at .332. 

Last season, the Reds beat the Cards in every offensive category except for team strikeouts and walks.  Their batting instructor should be credited.

Asked last season if he had a problem with Rasmus’ hitting instructor dad getting credit, snapped La Russa:

“I think it’s a real good source for him.  I was not annoyed.  If you don’t trust me or don’t believe me, then don’t trust me or don’t believe me,” LaRussa said.

Don’t worry—I don’t trust or believe you.  Just avoid another collapse in the standings and get the team to the playoffs this season please. 

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