By Rob Rains
It wasn’t long after Jeff Luhnow took over running the Cardinals’ farm system that he told hitting coordinator Dan Radison he wanted to revamp the organization’s hitting program with the hiring of several new coaches.
At about the same time, following the 2007 season, Jeff Albert was doubling up his class load so he could complete his master’s degree in exercise science from Louisiana Tech in time to pursue a job in professional baseball.
Albert sent letters and his resume to major league teams and received some offers in return, mostly for a job as a strength and conditioning coach. Then he heard from the Cardinals, who made him a different offer – to become their hitting coach for the short-season Class A team in Batavia, N.Y.
Those jobs usually go to former players who have spent years in the minor leagues, or perhaps even had some time in the majors, but Albert’s professional career consisted of 11 games, and 21 at-bats, all in independent leagues.
He wasn’t selling the Cardinals on what he had done as a hitter. He sold them on what he could do for their hitters.
“I think the quality that you always look for when hiring someone or managing someone is ‘Can I trust this guy?’ Radison said. “It’s like when you have a player. ‘I have this guy at shortstop. I can trust him. They hit a ball to him in the ninth inning I know he’s going to make the play,’ or ‘this guy is going to give me a great at-bat. I know I can trust him.’
“Jeff Albert was that way with hitters. I knew very soon I didn’t have to micro-manage him. He knew what he was doing and he had the ability to instill trust in the hitters themselves.”
Mark DeJohn was the manager of the Batavia Muckdogs in that summer of 2008, and he had worked with all types of coaches during his long baseball career. Like Radison, he sensed early on there was something different about Albert.
“You could just tell,” DeJohn said. “You could tell that if you invested your time in him a little bit he was going to grow into the job. Obviously, he did. I gave him responsibility, I let him coach third base more or less like Mike Shildt although I don’t think his aspirations were to be a manager. I never interfered with him as far as what he was doing or went into the cage to watch him. He was on his own and he did a good job.”
That summer in Batavia a decade ago started Albert on a career path that has elevated him to the Cardinals’ major-league coaching staff, as the team’s new hitting coach. DeJohn’s pitching coach that summer, Doug White, also will be in the majors next season as the pitching coach for the Angels.
“If you had asked me 10 years ago if one of these guys would be a hitting coach in the majors and one a pitching coach I would have said there’s no way, in 10 years?” DeJohn said. “But both have done it.”
For the 38-year-old Albert, it’s the culmination of hard work in pursuit of his passion.
“It’s always what I wanted to do, to try to coach and coach at the highest level,” Albert said. “It’s definitely cool. Specifically being a hitting coach, that was the area where I put all my attention. It’s basically the only thing I wanted to do. To do it at the big-league level is very special. There’s not a lot of these positions out there and available. I don’t take that for granted.
“It’s still baseball, and we will be working hard to get better. It’s all the basic things that were important at the beginning. It’s just bigger stadiums and brighter lights.”
The importance of video
Steve Farley was somebody who noticed Albert’s passion and intensity about trying to learn everything he could about hitting. It wasn’t something the long-time coach at Butler University usually saw in his college players.
“He was a guy who was always pushing the envelope and I thought was a little ahead of his time,” Farley said. “He worked his butt off and was a great student. He did everything the right way. He was always driven and just wanted to take the whole hitting thing to the next level. He really wanted to be a student of the game.”
In addition to his raw baseball instincts, Albert had the good timing to be coming of age in an era that saw an explosion in the type of information available to coaches – either through statistical data and analytics and the use of video and computer technology.
Even though he was not a player-coach at Butler, Albert served in that unofficial capacity, Farley said. He pioneered the team’s use of video cameras, recording footage of his teammates and then showing them how he thought they could improve his swing.
Farley had a rule that even though his pitchers did not bat, he always let the pitcher hit if his team was winning a game by more than 15 runs. That happened one day, and Albert was ready with his camera to video tape the at-bat.
“Jeff was having a week where he was hitting everything right on the screws but all of his line drives were getting caught,” Farley said. “Then our pitcher stepped up there and hit a bomb, a no-doubt home run over the center-field fence. You can hear Jeff on the tape. ‘I can’t buy a hit and our pitcher is hitting home runs.’ The guys on the bus were all laughing. He just really took all of that on himself and took advantage of it.”
It was in college, and later while in graduate school, that Albert realized becoming a hitting coach was the job for him.
“I was just always interested in the hitting side and if I could try to figure out a way to improve hitting performance,” Albert said.
After Farley attended a presentation at a coaching convention about the use of video, he invited the instructor – who just happened to live in Indianapolis – to come out to Butler and talk to his players and make a similar presentation.
“He had taken video of our guys batting, and he showed their swings, frame by frame, with stop action and compared it to the swings of major-league hitters,” Farley said. “I think that was one of those key moments for Jeff, when he saw ‘here’s what can be done.’ I know he told himself, ‘I can take this thing to a different level.’
“He was so excited to try stuff. It was like he was changing his swing every day trying to tweak something. I told him I was going to take the camera away from him for a week because he was working on too many things. Sometimes you have to just go out there and see the ball and hit the ball.”
Learning on the job
Once he landed the job with the Cardinals, Albert was reminded of those conversations a few years earlier with Farley and how sometimes players didn’t all have the same skill set or work ethic even though they all shared the same desire to be the best player they could be, with a common goal of wanting to reach the major leagues.
Albert’s ability to work with hitters, on both an individual and collective basis, was one of the traits that stood out to both DeJohn and Radison.
“He had a background in what a swing was supposed to be and the type of swing hitters should have and how to approach that,” DeJohn said. “It maybe was a little different than what other people were teaching.”
One of the players Albert worked with that summer was Xavier Scruggs, a power hitting first baseman who was not hitting well at the start of the season.
“Scruggs was really struggling,” DeJohn said. “He was hitting like .140 and striking out a ton. Jeff worked with him and he ended up getting his average up to like .240 and later he went on to make it to the major leagues.”
Albert’s approach to his job, and the success he was able to achieve, also stood out to Radison.
“I think he was ahead (of other young coaches) because of his understanding of bio-mechanics more than anything,” Radison said. “He knew how a swing was supposed to be structured. The thing that really separated him was his video library. He was very persistent about having film on everybody and knowing ‘at this point here’s where you were good and here’s what you’re doing now.’ He would analog one film on top of another and show you the difference. I think he helped a lot of people with video.
“The other thing that was very impressive about Jeff was that he taught himself Spanish. He realized there was a high percentage of players who spoke Spanish and how that would help him. He worked hard on it and is pretty fluent. You put it all together in the whole package and I think he’s going to be a star.”
After his work with the Batavia hitters helped the Muckdogs win the New York-Penn League championship, Albert was promoted to Class A Palm Beach, where he spent the next four seasons before Luhnow and Radison, also by then working for the Astros, lured him away to their new team.
Albert served one year as a roving hitting instructor in the Houston farm system, then was named their hitting coordinator in 2014. He held that job through 2017, when with other organizations pursing him for jobs, the Astros promoted Albert to their major-league staff as their assistant hitting coach.
While his work with the Astros was noticed by Cardinals officials, including manager Mike Shildt, they had their own frame of reference about the work he had done in the Cardinals’ system and a knowledge that he was ready to take on the challenge of being the team’s top hitting coach.
“I had a very positive initial impression of Jeff,” said Shildt, recalling their first time working together in spring training in 2008. “He carried himself very well, he went about things the right way, the way you would hope a young coach would go about it. He had all of the controlables taken care of and he was able to listen and ask questions.”
Shildt and Albert kept in touch over the years. When Shildt was managing in the Cardinals’ system and Albert was working for the Astros, they would see each other from time to time. They went to lunch one day in Corpus Christi a few years ago.
Once Shildt took over as the Cardinals’ manager last season and later the team decided to change hitting coaches, Albert’s name was on the top of his list of job candidates.
“For me he was the guy,” Shildt said. “He had the skill set you were looking for, which made him the guy. There’s a lot of different thinking when you are hiring a coach but he just checks pretty much every box that we were looking for. The reason to bring in Jeff was his body of work and what he was able to do in Houston. It was pretty impressive. They were in the top of the league in all of the good categories we follow that ultimately lead to scoring runs.
“He’s always been progressive, he’s open-minded and is a smart guy. As many times as I can I try to surround myself with people like that and take advantage of it. I enjoy his company personally too.”
What to expect from Albert in St. Louis?
As fond as he is of Albert, and as much as he praised his ability to work with hitters and make them better, DeJohn has a word or two of caution for fans expecting Albert to arrive in St. Louis and perform instant miracles.
“I don’t think anybody in St. Louis should think that he’s a savior for the offense,” DeJohn said. “He’s going to be a good piece but you still have to have talent to work with. Hopefully he can help some of the young guys reach their true potential. It’s a challenge for him but he’s deserving of it.”
Albert only worked with one current Cardinal during his years in the farm system, Matt Carpenter. He had some exposure to Dexter Fowler when he played for the Astros, and he watched Marcell Ozuna lot when he competed against Palm Beach.
Albert said he did not see his lack of personal knowledge about the Cardinals’ hitters as either a positive or a negative. He has been in contact with those players since he was hired, has already started watching video and has been evaluating the statistical information passed along from the front office.
He knows every situation will be different, but Albert also has enough confidence in his ability to teach that he is looking forward to doing what he can to help each hitter improve. He wants to take what he has learned over the years – from people such as Farley, DeJohn, Radison, Brent Strom and others – and make a difference with the Cardinals.
“One of the most important lessons I learned early on was the impact of the strike zone,” Albert said. “That’s usually a good place to start. If you are swinging at strikes, usually good things happen. Good things happen for the pitcher if he can make you swing at pitches outside the strike zone.
“You have to look at a hitter’s individual strengths and weaknesses and make some decisions, maybe trying to capitalize on something he is good at and make it stronger. Or look at an area of improvement and see what’s the best return on the time invested and what’s the best way to improve production for each guy. Then you have to see how that individual thing for each player contributes to the overall team offense.”
Albert is well aware of all of the industry’s buzz words when it comes to hitting – launch angle, exit velocity, shifts and more. He prefers to break it down differently.
“Hitting the ball on the ground is usually not the most productive thing,” he said. “Hitting the ball high and popping it up usually is not very productive either. You have to filter through the information and figure out what’s going to be productive for the player.”
Radison, like DeJohn, has watched Albert work long enough to expect that he will continue to be successful with the Cardinals.
“We’ve known for a long time that he was going to be a guy who was going to make a difference in the game,” Radison said. “He’s always looking for the next new idea and he’s very open-minded about how he can become better.
“There’s two aspects to evaluating hitting coaches. The first is when you have guys who you know can hit, make sure they hit. And the guys with a lot of questions, can he make something out of something that’s questionable. He’s done that.”
Albert said he is grateful to have worked with two organizations that stress the value of player development and were willing to give him a chance despite the fact he had virtually no playing experience.
“It’s definitely different than other coaches,” Albert said. “It’s not good or bad, that’s just my background. It’s my story. It’s always a question I get asked and have to answer but it’s something I’ve tried to use to my advantage in the sense that I can’t rely on some past thing that I achieved as a player.
“I’ve always had to figure out how to utilize information to try to help players as much as I can. It’s made me focus on the learning and teaching aspect of it, which gets back to the whole coaching side. I just try to turn that information into a strength as much as I possibly can.”
Follow Rob Rains on Twitter @RobRains
Feature photo courtesy of the Houston Chronicle