Matt Adams: Legit or just a guy?

 St. Louis Cardinals first baseman Matt Adams is generating some buzz in trade rumors. The former 23rd-round draft pick played in 108 games for the Cardinals this past year and put up a solid .284/.335/.503 line with a 136 wRC+. Several teams are looking for a first baseman, and with Allen Craig seemingly entrenched at the position for St. Louis, Adams looks like a valuable trade chip.

What kind of player is Adams going forward? Is he a reliable bat, or was 2013 more of an aberration? Let’s dig a little deeper.

Adams has a sweet lefty swing that has enabled him to hit at every level so far. His career minor league line is .318/.364/.563. Pretty impressive, particularly for a late-round pick. He walked in 6.8 percent of his plate appearances, while striking out in 17.1 percent. Of course, major league pitchers are better at exploiting weaknesses, and Adams struck out in 25.2 percent of his plate appearances in 2013. In the National League Championship Series and World Series, Adams struck out 16 times in 44 plate appearances.

While Adams rips fastballs (12 of his home runs came on fastballs, and his swing-and-miss rate was just seven percent) he’s struggled with breaking pitches, and pretty much anything non-fastball. His swing-and-miss rate on breaking and offspeed pitches was over 18 percent, a fairly high rate. In 2013, he was served only a league average rate of breaking and offspeed pitches. Going forward, I expect that number to increase.

Though he does strikeout frequently, Adams was able to make up for the whiffs by posting an in-play batting average of .337 in 2013, a very high rate for a slow runner. While his career minor league in-play batting average was .335, expect that number to fall significantly. Adams is an extreme pull hitter, too, going to the opposite field on just 14 percent of balls in play. Once teams start using the shift against him, he’s likely to lose a decent number of hits.

Another factor which could limit Adams’ future performance is his production against left-handed pitching. It’s only a sample of 73 plate appearances, but Adams has a .208/.219/.375 line against lefties, good for a 61 wRC+. He has one walk against 25 strikeouts. He had a .877 OPS against lefties in the minors, so his true talent level is probably better than what he’s shown. Still, he’ll have to make significant progress against southpaws to warrant everyday play. Even James Loney has a career 82 wRC+ against lefties.

Finally, let’s take a look at other first basemen which have posted a similar line in their first couple of seasons. Using Baseball-Reference’s Play Index, I put together a list of first basemen who posted a 115 OPS+ or higher in their first 300 plate appearances. Data is from 1961-present. There were 38 players other than Matt Adams that met this criteria.

Stars (more than 40 fWAR)
Mark Teixeira, Mark McGwireEddie MurrayJeff BagwellTodd Helton, Paul GoldschmidtJoey Votto, Will Clark, Mark Grace, Frank Thomas, Al Oliver.

Solid (15-36 fWAR)
George ScottWally Joyner, John Kruk, Kent Hrbek, Mike HargroveAlvin Davis, Glenn Davis, Orlando MercedBruce Bochte, Brandon Belt (certainly looks that way), Ryan Howard, Andre Thornton.

Busts (less than 10 fWAR)
Lee Thomas, Erubiel Durazo (maybe he should have gotten another shot), Ricky Jordan, Craig Wilson, Mike Jacobs, Dave Revering, Mike Aldrete, James Loney (might be re-writing this, but 8.9 fWAR over 4082 PA), Ike Davis, Bob Chance, Chris Shelton, Kevin Maas, Willie Aikens, Greg Walker, Mike Fiore.

So, that’s a pretty even mix. In total, there are 11 stars, 12 solid players, and 15 busts. I should add that plenty of the stars were at least solid with the glove and drew their fair share of walks. Matt Adams is a bat-only player who walks infrequently. Projecting him into the star category seems foolish. Perhaps he could fit into the solid category, but his power will have to play up to do so.

More likely, Adams is a +1-2 win player going forward. Adams won’t be a contributor with the glove or on the base paths. He does have a nice lefty swing with good power. But it appears once pitchers start working him with more offspeed pitches and defenses utilize the shift more often, his numbers will likely regress. I see his future as being a platoon player and pinch hitter rather than a player that warrants 600-plus plate appearances.

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