Jeff Albert brings a combination of common sense and analytic know-how to his new job as St. Louis Cardinals hitting coach. He also brings with him a degree of familiarity. Prior to joining the Astros organization in 2013, Albert spent five years tutoring up-and-coming hitters in the Cardinals’ farm system.
Last season was his first at the big-league level. After four years as Houston’s minor-league hitting coordinator, the 38-year-old spent the recently completed campaign as the Astros’ assistant hitting coach. His expertise is multi-faceted. Along with being a new-age hitting guru, Albert is a certified strength-and-conditioning specialist with a master’s degree in exercise science.
Jeff Albert on hitting: “From a coaching perspective, I think you could make the argument that art and science are the same thing. The art is the way you apply the objective information — the scientific information — within the context of the human element and the environment. So, I don’t look at it as being one or the other. I look at it as having information that will help an individual player perform better.
“Ted Williams gets a lot of credit for his book [The Science of Hitting], and rightly so. Wade Boggs had one I really liked — The Techniques of Modern Hitting — and he’s talking about many of the same things. The two are considered different types of hitters, but both are talking about things like swing path, hitting line drives, and making solid contact to the outfield.
“When I was a younger, there was a DVD called Hitters on Hitting. All of these great hitters in the game were describing their thoughts on what they do. I put the DVD in, thinking, ‘This is going to help me learn what do.’ But they were saying all of these different things. I was like, ‘Wait a minute. These guys are doing something similar and performing at the highest level, but they’re describing it in different ways.’ I remember asking myself, ‘What’s behind all of those descriptions?’
“Is there one common denominator? That’s a difficult question. It’s also one of my favorite questions. Looking for underlying principles is a worthwhile goal. It’s hard to define certain things, but I do think that… I’m not ready to say ‘completely universal,’ because I feel that you can find exceptions and different concepts. But if you look just a little bit outside of the specificity of baseball and more at the generality of human movement, you can lean on some principles that aren’t just applicable to a baseball swing. They carry over to running, jumping, and movements in general.
“These are things you can teach. I’ve seen examples of players, at all levels, applying some of these concepts. Some are doing it in a whole new way. Others are just clarifying something they already do well, so that they’re able to narrow their focus in the right area. I’ve been fortunate to be around two organizations with talented players from top to bottom, and I’ve seen many of them make adjustments — make changes — for the positive.
“Did we advocate a specific type of swing in the Astros organization? That’s hard to answer, because I don’t see there being a true definition of ‘a type of swing.’ I think if you say ‘a flat swing’ or ‘an uppercut swing,’ or I guess the big one now is ‘a launch-angle swing’… I see those as vague generalities, versus, ‘What are the important principles of how the body works, and what is each individual player able to do?’ You try to maximize the player’s ability to swing, given his physical abilities.
“Are [hitting the ball out front and letting the ball get deep] mutually exclusive? They are if you have limitations in your movement, or the way you swing. The more efficient a player gets with what he’s doing with his swing, the more he has the ability to use the whole field, and to reach a wider range of skill sets. Approach options come into play when the efficiency of a player’s swing improves.
“In a perfect world, a player can handle all parts of the strike zone and all different types of pitches. I don’t often see that to be the case, just like there aren’t a lot of pitchers who have multiple quality pitches that they can throw for strikes. They usually have their go-to and certain things they do well. So, I think that if a hitter can capitalize on a certain part of the strike zone, or against a certain pitch… if he can do that at a high enough level, it might carry him. But in today’s game, with the information available to the pitchers, there needs to be an emphasis on developing as well-rounded of a skill set as possible.
“Pitching right now is good. Velocity is going up, and pitchers are making adjustments pretty fast. It’s almost as though pitchers are getting more specialized and more diverse at the same time. It’s hard for hitters to keep up with that. The talent level, and ability, of major-league pitchers, is forcing the issue a little bit. I like that challenge.
“I don’t think hitting is terribly far behind [pitching analytics] in terms of the information available to learn things about the swing. We’ve made some good progress, catching up to the pitching world. Pitching has been ahead for awhile, initially because of the injury factor. Wanting to do more analysis to try to prevent injury inevitably led to knowing more about the pitching process, which has led to improving performance.
“Working with a player on his mechanics, on his swing, on his movement — you can do those things just like you can with a pitcher. The difference is that a pitcher doesn’t have to deal with the additional requirement of applying those things in an anticipatory, or reactionary, way to something else. The hitter has to dial in his swing and movement, but then there is pitch recognition. That’s an entirely different skill, which is a little more difficult to quantify.
“Mental skills are part of the performance side. I’ve been around a couple of good mental-skills coaches. Jesse Michel, in Houston, is one. Something I appreciated is that he explained things in a way that didn’t lessen the value of the actual physical skills that are necessary. You can be a driver with strong mental skills, but if you have a flat tire, you’re going to have issues. The car needs to be ready to go. You work on that together.
“Do some hitters spend too much time in the cage? If a yes-or-no answer is required, I’m going to say no. I look at that the same way I would question what’s happening in the weight room. What might be perceived as too much might be something else. For instance, it might be under-recovery through lack of sleep or a lack of nutrition. If a player is going through a high volume of swings, why? They might be required to work on something. At the same time, is there a way to be more efficient and more purposeful? There’s a trade-off between intensity and volume. There are times where volume is necessary, and there are times where intensity is necessary. If the intensity goes up, the volume is probably going to have to go down. I view that through my strength-and-conditioning, exercise-physiology background.
“I’m currently in the process of learning about the hitters I’ll be working with. I’m talking to the coaches who have been here and know our guys the best. I’m going through some of the video. I’m going through the information we have available. I’m also starting to reach out to some of [the players] and talk to them, too. I’m trying to get as clear a picture as I can from both sides. In time, we’ll all get together and figure out the best course of action moving forward.
“I was talking to another coach recently about the press we’re seeing on coaching changes and hires — all of the talk about analytics. I don’t think that’s a bad take. It’s also not a bad thing to be associated with, especially now that it’s perceived to be a good thing. But I don’t think of it so much as being analytically driven or data driven. I look at it as simply being driven, of being motivated to learn and to get better as a coach. The objective is to help the players’ performance. I want to help them get on base, touch home plate, and help our team win.”
David Laurila grew up in Michigan's Upper Peninsula and now writes about baseball from his home in Cambridge, Mass. He authored the Prospectus Q&A series at Baseball Prospectus from December 2006-May 2011 before being claimed off waivers by FanGraphs. He can be followed on Twitter @DavidLaurilaQA.