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Was McGwire good for Holliday?

One potential story line that is exciting some St. Louis Cardinals fans is the reminder of soon-to-be free agent Matt Holliday having relocated to Southern California last off-season specifically to work on his hitting with secluded former hero Mark McGwire.

The hope of some is that McGwire being hired as the Cardinals 2010 hitting coach might provide encouragement to Holliday to take a hometown discount to return to St. Louis next season and beyond.

Yahoo Sports’ Jeff Passan credits Big Mac as having been a factor in Holliday’s rise as a slugger in his days with the Colorado Rockies.

“McGwire originally suggested Holliday employ the leg kick that turned him from a gap hitter into a powerful slugger,” Passan recalls.

In fact, there were reports that in the Clint Hurdle days, the Rockies offered their major league hitting coach job to McGwire, who declined.

Yet would Holliday be as excited to have McGwire as his coach today as he was one year ago?

After their intensive winter workouts, Holliday joined the Oakland A’s, who acquired one year of his services in an off-season trade with the Rockies.

In his first spring training with the A’s, Holliday turned into a singles hitter, having just two doubles and no home runs in his 62 March at-bats.

Once the regular season opened, the problems continued. As April came to a close, Holliday was batting under .240 and had yet to go deep in the Oakland uniform. Counting spring training, the drought was 136 at-bats and 40 games before Holliday finally homered in his final April plate appearance.

By June 5, Holliday had shown slight improvement, having reached a modest total of eight home runs and a .286 batting average on the season. From that point on, he went right back into the tank. Over the next five weeks, until July 16, Holliday endured a 33-game, 121 at-bat homerless streak, the second-longest regular-season period of futility in his career.

Some were labeling Holliday a Coors Field phenom. Others said he could not handle American League pitching, which if true would surely decrease his value as a free agent, since a number of his potential targets could be deep-pocketed AL East Coast clubs.

Clearly, by the time Holliday was dealt to the Cardinals, many A’s fans were glad to see him go. Between spring and the regular season, Holliday had 11 home runs and 61 RBI in 408 Oakland at-bats and a subpar slugging mark of .436, well over 100 points under his career average.

In mid-July, something changed – an adjustment that carried Holliday through his final week with the A’s and into his initial red-hot period as a Cardinal.

Passan reminds us of media reports that it was getting away from McGwire’s winter hitting tips that enabled Holliday to rediscover his mojo and resurrect his sinking free-agent value.

“He (McGwire) also prodded Holliday this offseason to lessen the kick into a stride, which threw off Holliday’s swing for the season’s first three months.”

Taking that at face value, whatever McGwire gave, he later took away. All told, it has to make one wonder how effective Mac’s instruction really has been for Holliday.

His other reported students include the Duncan brothers, Chris and Shelley, a pair of all-or-nothing hitters trying to get back to the majors, Oakland shortstop Bobby Crosby, who lost his job because of a lack of hitting and can’t get either one back and scrappy Skip Schumaker, who hardly fits the McGwire profile. As Rick Hummel of the Post-Dispatch notes, the .263 career-hitting Mac “had just three sacrifices in his career and none in his last 10 seasons”.

I am not suggesting that Mark McGwire cannot become a good major league hitting coach. I am only noting he is unproven and his limited past track record may not be as stellar as some think.

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Brian Walton

Brian Walton runs The Cardinal Nation and The Cardinal Nation Blog, covering the St. Louis Cardinals and minor league system.
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