What’s the Point of the Matt Adams Outfield Experiment?

Over the winter, the Cardinals talked a lot about upgrading their defense and getting more athletic in the outfield ,in particular. They let longtime Cardinal Matt Holliday go become a DH in the American League, preferring not to put his glove in left field any longer. After trying to trade for Adam Eaton, they eventually signed Dexter Fowler to play center field, allowing them to move last year’s center fielder (Randal Grichuk) back to left field.

Fowler’s not a great defender, but Grichuk is a better athlete than most left fielders, and Piscotty appears to be a decent right fielder, so this group looked like a solid-enough group of gloves. It’s not the Rays or the Red Sox, but the new Cardinals outfield looked capable of running down enough balls in the gap that outfield defense wouldn’t be a huge problem.

But then, when putting the team together in spring training, the Cardinals were won over by Jose Martinez’s monster performance, and decided they wanted to carry the 6-foot-6 28-year-old as a right-handed bat off the bench. Keeping Martinez meant that the team wasn’t going to have a roster spot for Tommy Pham, who looked like the projected fourth outfielder headed into camp. So, without Pham around, the five-man bench included the backup catcher, two hulking first baseman, and a couple of utility infielders.

And that meant that a non-outfielder was going to have to play some outfield, because no team can just play three outfielders every game, and Grichuk specifically hasn’t been particularly durable. So, with a few weeks left before the season started, the Cardinals decided to see what Matt Adams looked like in left field. And apparently Mike Matheny was impressed enough that Adams, not Martinez, has become the offensive lineman whom the team is willing to stick in left field.

And this isn’t just a once-in-a-while experiment; Adams has started four of the team’s first nine games in left field. If he kept playing outfield this regularly, he’d rack up about 500 innings in left field by the end of the year. He probably shouldn’t keep playing outfield this regularly, though.

So far, there have been nine balls hit in Adams direction while he’s been playing left field. He’s caught six of them, and according to the Statcast hang time and distance numbers, they were all routine flies that most every outfielder makes. Here are three he didn’t catch.

Anthony Rizzo, April 6th.

“The first tough chance Adams has had.”

Zack Cozart, April 8th.

“How tough is this play for a left fielder?”
“I was just going to say… this is a really tough play, especially where he was positioned.”

Stuart Turner, April 9th.


Adams didn’t look very good on any of these three plays, with the first two looking like balls a better outfielder maybe or probably catches. Which is normal, of course, because he’s never played the outfield before, and it would be weird if he already looked like he’d been playing out there forever. This is a guy a month into learning a new position, and doing it on the big stage. None of this is his fault. He’s clearly trying to do something his team wants him to be able to do, and it’s getting him in the lineup, so of course he’s putting in his best effort.

Playing the outfield at a major-league level is just difficult, though. There’s a reason you don’t see many guys trying to learn to play a more difficult position in the big leagues. And when a team is willing to experiment with a position switch at this level, it’s usually because the offensive upside is so great that the experiment is worth trying. But that’s the weird thing about this one: I don’t know why you’d suffer through Adams’ transition to the outfield in order to get his bat in the lineup more often, because there’s not a lot of evidence that he’s a demonstrably better hitter than Pham — an actual outfielder already — to begin with.

Adams has 1,503 regular season plate appearances. In that time, he has a 110 wRC+. That mark is okay but nothing special for a guy who is hurting you defensively and doesn’t run the bases well. And just looking at career data gives even weight to all the years of his career, even though his one really good offensive year came back in 2013, when he put up a 135 wRC+. That was four years ago, and he hasn’t really looked like that guy since.

Now 28, ZIPS projected Adams to put up a 97 wRC+ this year. Steamer was a little higher on him, putting his expected mark at 104. But the consensus is that he’s a league-average hitter, or something close to it.

Tommy Pham, whom the Cardinals sent to Triple-A, is five months older than Adams. He doesn’t have the same amount of MLB experience, having only racked up 358 PAs over the last few years, but he has a 113 wRC+ during the time the Cardinals have put him in the lineup. His minor-league track record isn’t as strong, so ZIPS (98 wRC+) and Steamer (94 wRC+) both project him as a slightly below-average hitter, but the Cardinals have thought enough of his defense to give him most of his playing time in center field the last few years, and while he’s maybe stretched a bit there, he’s pretty clearly a better outfielder than Adams is at this point, or likely will be any time soon.

Pham, right now, is almost certainly a better overall player than Adams if you have to play him primarily in the outfield. And because the team thinks so little of Adams’ defense right now that they’re using Martinez as an early-game defensive replacement, the Cardinals are effectively playing with a four-man bench anyway. All this to get a not-special left-handed bat in the lineup.

It’s not like Adams has a real future in St. Louis, anyway. Even if he took a step forward offensively, he’s blocked at every corner by a better player under control to the organization well beyond 2018, which is when Adams will be a free agent. Adams could turn into a decent big-league first baseman if he ever taps into his power the way it seems like he should be able to, but the Cardinals aren’t in a position to give him 600 at-bats and hope that happens, and they’re giving away runs in a year they’re trying to win on the hope that he becomes something he hasn’t yet been.

There are plenty of teams that could use a cheap left-handed first baseman who might have some upside left. Maybe it will hurt to see him blossom elsewhere, if that happens, but if the Cardinals really thought he was going to turn into an offensive monster, they wouldn’t have moved Matt Carpenter to first base this year. Let him go be a first baseman elsewhere, call Pham up to be a reasonable major-league fourth outfielder, and put your best team on the field. Whatever you get back for Adams will probably help you win more than having Adams playing left field, anyway.

Dave is the Managing Editor of FanGraphs.

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6 years ago

How’s the Kyle Schwarber experiment working out? By Baseball-Reference he looks like he’s got a chance to finish with a negative 2.0 dWAR.

Matt Adams isn’t the kind of bat you have to find a place for.

output gap
6 years ago
Reply to  JimmieFoXX

Throw some salt on your toasted ravioli.

Antonio Bananas
6 years ago
Reply to  output gap

Downvotes from the #bestfansinbaseball good comment and their italian food sucks.

output gap
6 years ago

It’s a tough time for them, having to face mediocrity and all.

6 years ago

If you didn’t eat great Italian food in St. Louis, you didn’t know where to go.

Antonio Bananas
6 years ago
Reply to  Spudchukar

I was in “the hill” area so…

The only thing insufferable STL have a right to brag about is Pappys BBQ. loop sucks, hill sucks, soccer sucks, baseball fans suck.

6 years ago
Reply to  JimmieFoXX

you’re calculating WAR in the second week of april