So you want a cleanup hitting first baseman…
It’s been hard to miss that the hot topic since the Cardinals inked the deal for outfielder Dexter Fowler is that they may wade into the waters for Edwin Encarnacion or Mark Trumbo if their asking price continues to fall. The reasoning is obvious, adding another big bat to the Cardinals lineup and one that is proven at producing runs. Both get the title as “100 RBI” guys.
But as I tweeted this weekend, I hate the moniker of “100 RBI” guys. RBI are a function of team performance. For example, Encarnacion led the American League with 127 RBI last year, but if he had batted third for the Cardinals instead of the Blue Jays, he would have likely missed out on 100 RBI due to the lack of opportunities.
Encarnacion had 490 runners on base when he took an at bat last season. Meanwhile Matt Carpenter drove in runs at the same rate as Encarnacion, but had just 271 base runners on base when he came to the plate. Yet another reason why moving Carpenter down the lineup is so important for the Cardinals.
But not only that, the Cardinals actually had four players who could have been 100 RBI guys given the same number of base runners that Encarnacion had. Those are Carpenter, Stephen Piscotty, Aledmys Diaz, and none other than Matt Adams.
This column began as an analysis of the projectability of Encarnacion and Trumbo outside of their hitter friendly ballparks. Instead, the more I dig into it, the more I come to one inescapable conclusion. The Cardinals already have their cleanup hitting first baseman. His name is Matt Adams.
If you haven’t yet closed out the tab in your browser yet, I can’t believe those words are coming out of my brain onto my keyboard and into this article either. A year and a half ago at the trade deadline I wrote that the team should find another starting first baseman and dump Adams at the first chance they got. Last winter I called for him to be non-tendered. Last April I suggested he should be the guy to go when Jhonny Peralta came off the disabled list.
But here we are. Last week suggesting it’s time to schedule Yadier Molina’s exit and now suggesting Adams should be the team’s first baseman next year, I’m certainly picking the popular topics.
Through the minor leagues, Adams’ numbers fit the stereotypical cleanup hitter. He hit for average and he hit for power. I remember figuring that the power would probably carry into the Majors, the question would be how much he could hit.
In 2011, Adams won the Texas League Player of the Year Award after hitting .300/.357/.566 with 32 home runs. The previous year he’d hit .310/.355/.541 with 22 home runs and 41 doubles for Quad Cities. He was rewarded before the 2012 season by being named Baseball Prospectus’ #69 prospect on their annual top-100.
Adams would go on to hit .340/.375/.603 with 9 home runs in 37 games for Memphis before getting called up for his first taste of the big leagues in May 2012.
In 2013, Adams stuck with the big league club, spending all but about two weeks with the team. He would put his name on the map by hitting .315 with 8 home runs after taking over the everyday first base job following the injury to Allen Craig in early September. Perhaps setting the bar too high for him to follow up.
He put together a quietly solid 2014 season, his first as the team’s regular first baseman, hitting .288/.321/.457 with 15 home runs over 142 games for a 116 OPS+. A hot start in 2015 would give way to a rough May before a quad injury would rob him of the next three months.
His .249/.309/.471 slash line last season wasn’t much to write home about, but it was perhaps the most intriguing season Adams has had for the Cardinals since the September back in 2013.
There was a point in May where Adams was one of the Cardinals’ most productive hitters, leading the team in RBI.
He has proven himself as a slightly above average defensive first baseman that belies his size.
And Adams slayed left handed pitching last season. He came into the year having hit .197 and slugged .317 against left handed pitching in his career. He hit .283 against left handed pitchers and slugged .522 against them.
For Adams, it’s really that ability — or inability, as it may be — to hit left handed pitching that’s been the question mark for him. If he couldn’t hit left handed pitching, he was no better than a platoon player. If he could hit both ways, well, then we’re talking about a very good cleanup hitter.
As I’ve mentioned several times on The UCB Podcast over the past few years, I love Freddie Freeman as a comp for Adams. Both first basemen. Both left handed. Both had time on the Top-100 prospect lists. Both profiled as middle of the lineup bats in the minors. Both could hit both ways in the minors.
When you dig into Freeman’s early Major League stats, you see that it took him a couple seasons — roughly 400 at bats — before he became a consistent threat against both right and left handed pitching. And once he figured that out, he went from a 114 OPS+ player to a guy who has averaged 145 OPS+ and finished in the top-6 in MVP voting twice in the four years since.
The difference for Freeman was that he got to play every day. Atlanta gave him a chance to develop his approach at the plate against both left handed and right handed pitchers. Adams has not been given the same opportunity. Freeman had 414 at bats against left handed pitching in his first two seasons in the Majors. Adams has had just 264 in his career, and he’s been in the Majors for the better parts of four seasons now. Whether we realized it or not, Mike Matheny has basically had him in a platoon situation.
It’s because of the lack of sustained opportunities, that Adams hasn’t had the ability to develop his approach against left handed pitchers in the Majors. Regardless of what Matheny will say about there being no time for development in the Majors, the only place Adams can develop that approach against Major League caliber left handed pitchers is in the Majors.
It’s not just his potential that makes him the right guy to be the Cardinals’ regular first baseman, he does two things the Cardinals need to do better next year: play defense and drive in runs.
The Cardinals were 8th last season in at bats with runners on base, but were just 22nd in batting average with men on. Adams was tied for the second highest RBI rate on the team last season, driving in 17.1% of base runners when he came to the plate. Only Carpenter’s 17.3% was better.
Starting Adams and sliding Carpenter back over to third takes Jedd Gyorko (11.2%) and Jhonny Peralta (10.8%) out of the lineup. Already that’s a 6% improvement in driving in runs.
Adams is a solid defensive first baseman. He may not win any gold gloves, but he gets the job done. In his only full season at first base, he had +8 defensive runs saved. His UZR has been positive in each of the last three seasons.
Meanwhile over at third base, neither Peralta nor Gyorko are known for their exemplary defense. Peralta wasn’t a good third baseman seven years ago when he played the position every day, why is he going to be now at 34? Gyorko had a good season last year defensively, but has not historically been a good defender. Part of me believes that we will look back on his 2016 as we do Peralta’s 2014 season.
Carpenter isn’t going to win any gold gloves at third base either, but he is a competent third baseman. And he will benefit from playing the same position, wherever that ends up being. His worst defensive seasons are those where he’s played multiple positions. When he’s been given one position to play, he’s been fairly neutral and that’s better than the other options on the roster.
Encarnacion wants $20 million a year at age 34 for a guy who hasn’t played more than a half season in the field since 2010. He hit a ton of home runs in a hitter friendly ballpark. For those dollars, the risk and the questions are too great. And on Trumbo, I think that he might have a little more pop, but ultimately won’t give you the value over Adams that you want.
Much like Jon Jay before him, Adams may never be the player the fans expect him to be, but he can still be a very valuable player for this team.