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The Resurgence of Mark McGwire

In Baseball on November 14, 2012 at 4:24 pm

After boosting the St. Louis Cardinals’s offensive production, Mark McGwire hopes to work the same magic with the Los Angeles Dodgers.

The headline in the St. Louis Post-Dispatch is from the Twilight Zone: McGwire, Dodgers appear to be a match. It’s all eerily familiar. After a brief stint with the St. Louis Cardinals, Mark McGwire is headed back to the Golden State. The Los Angeles Dodgers need a power boost, and McGwire wants to be closer to his family in California. What year is this, 2001?

Mark McGwire is, indeed, on the move. But he won’t be part of a lineup featuring Shawn Green, Paul Lo Duca and Marquis Grissom. He will be joining the Dodgers as hitting coach for 2013 after coaching in St. Louis for three seasons. A more fashionable way to say it would be “taking his talents to Chavez Ravine.” And yes, “talents” is the proper word. For all the steroid controversy and questionable career statistics, Mark McGwire is one of the best hitting coaches in Major League Baseball.

From his rookie season, it was clear that Mark McGwire was a home run hitter. He hit a league-leading 49 of them in 1987, earning him Rookie of the Year honors that season. McGwire hit 32 home runs in 1988, 33 in 1989, and 39 in 1990, helping the Oakland Athletics to three-straight American League pennants. After a prolonged slump limited him to only 22 homers in 1991, he rebounded the next season and knocked 42 of them out of the park. But nagging foot injuries caught up with McGwire and limited him to only 74 games and 18 home runs from 1993-1994. At this point, McGwire was faced with a choice. And like too many ballplayers in the 1990s, he made the wrong one. After the 1994 season, McGwire began to use steroids in earnest.[1]

By 1995, he was McGwire 2.0, and he hit like it. He rebounded that season, hitting 39 home runs. He was even better in 1996, leading the league with 52 home runs. The A’s traded McGwire to the Cardinals in the middle of the 1997 season, preventing him from qualifying for the AL or NL leader boards. But his 58 combined home runs with Oakland and St. Louis would have led all of baseball. He did that the next year. The 1998 season was the best of McGwire’s career. That year, he set the new single-season home run record with 70 home runs. McGwire didn’t just break Roger Maris’s record of 61 — he shattered it. His encore was nearly as good. McGwire hit an MLB-leading 65 home runs in 1999.

But he was getting older, and the game no longer came as easily as it once had. Old injuries came back and stuck around longer, and by 2001, McGwire decided he had had enough. He ended his career with 583 career home runs, closing his career with the sixth most home runs in MLB history (at the time).

McGwire was a prodigious home run hitter, but that power also cast doubt on his skills as a hitting coach. A decade after his retirement, his 583 career home runs still put him 10th on the all time list. But his other batting stats are much less impressive. McGwire only had 1,626 hits in his 17-year career. For context, a player with a career similar to McGwire’s, Harmon Killebrew, recorded 2,086 hits for his career — with 573 home runs. McGwire recorded only 252 doubles and hit just six triples for his career. He also struck out. A lot: 1,596 times, to be exact. That’s an average of 138 strikeouts over the course of a 162 game season. He averaged 3.6 WAR per season, but nearly all of that value came from the long ball. And that’s without mentioning steroids. McGwire was a great power hitter, but he was a one-dimensional ballplayer.

With all of his faults as a player, it’s hard to imagine McGwire succeeding as a hitting coach. Much as I love Stan Musial, a hitting coach has to have better advice than, “wait for a strike, and then knock the shit out of it.”[2] But something about McGwire’s approach clicked with the Cardinals. From 2007-2009, the three seasons prior to McGwire’s tenure with the Cardinals, St. Louis averaged a 99 team OPS+. After McGwire’s arrival, the Cardinals boosted their team OPS+ to 106. While it’s probably an oversimplification to just compare team OPS+ from season to season and credit McGwire with the increase, it is interesting that the Cardinals’s offense improved so dramatically, even with a rapidly aging Albert Pujols and a chronically injured Lance Berkman. That boost is largely due to the offensive emergence of lesser-known players like outfielders Allen Craig and Jon Jay, and the transformation of catcher Yadier Molina into an MVP candidate.

But can this offensive boost all be attributed to McGwire? He emphasized patience at the plate (which isn’t exactly unique), but his career numbers back up the suggestion. McGwire walked 1,317 times in his career, boosting his career on-base percentage to .394 — well above the usual league average of .340. He also preached simplicity in a player’s swing. Any unnecessary movement — a leg kick, a bat wiggle, anything that didn’t help the bat meet the ball — should be eliminated. And it wasn’t just the younger players like Craig and Jay, who embraced McGwire’s philosophy. He convinced left fielder Matt Holliday — the new face of the Cardinals — to tone down his leg kick from his stance. The results have been remarkable. In three seasons, Craig has gone from a bench player to a 20+ home run threat. In his first season as a starter, Jay posted a 113 OPS+. And Molina discovered a power stroke that tripled his previous single-season home run total. Moreover, of those three, only Molina was ever a true prospect.

In three seasons, McGwire rejuvenated a lackluster Cardinals lineup into one of the National League’s best offenses. In the process, he also rejuvenated his own career, transitioning from a baseball pariah to one of the more respected coaches in the game. Mark McGwire, back in uniform and respected? Maybe it’s more like 2001 than I thought.

[1] In January 2010, McGwire admitted to using steroids after the 1994 season, but maintained that he only used them to recover from injuries. Former teammate José Canseco claims that McGwire used the banned substances to boost his performance. For our purposes, McGwire’s motivation for using steroids doesn’t matter. Simply put, without steroids, McGwire’s post-1994 numbers would not be what they were without steroids.

[2] Yes, this is a real Musial quote.


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