Matt Adams is having another excellent season at the plate, making contact with almost everything and is second on the team in wRC+ at 124. Last offseason, the Cardinals let Carlos Beltran go and made no efforts to replace him externally for two reasons. The first, which has been apparent since the beginning of the season, is that by moving Allen Craig to right field, they could keep Craig's bat in the lineup and make room for Matt Adams as an everyday presence. The second reason, which is becoming increasingly relevant, is that the Cardinals have the best-hitting prospect in baseball in Oscar Taveras killing the ball in Memphis waiting for an opportunity to wreak havoc in St. Louis. Taveras will be likely be taking at bats away from multiple players, but Matt Adams' lack of success against left-handers makes him an easy target for more time on the bench.
Matt Adams put up solid numbers last season with a .284/.335/.503 slash line to go along with a .365 wOBA and a 136 wRC+. He has gotten off to a strong start in 2014, hitting for a higher average with similar slugging numbers. Unfortunately, Adams' numbers against left-handed pitchers have remained low in the early going this season. In 114 plate appearances in the majors against left-handers, Adams has put together a .188/.202/.313 line with just two walks and eight extra base hits. Despite the meager sample, those numbers could be enough to keep Adams out of the lineup against lefties and potentially stick him in a platoon role for the foreseeable future.
Matt Adams had decent numbers against left-handers in the minors, hitting .295/.362/.523 in 243 plate appearances over his final two seasons in Double-A and Triple-A. Those numbers do provide some encouragement that given enough plate appearances in the majors against lefties that he will improve. While the Cardinals would love to see Adams develop, they may choose to prioritize winning games this year and developing Oscar Taveras in the majors by getting him as many plate appearances as possible.
Adams' 114 plate appearances in the majors against lefties is not a large amount, but he has little company when it comes to just how poor his performance against lefties has been. Using Baseball Reference's play-index, a search was performed for left-handed hitting players from 2002 forward aged twenty-five and younger with between 75 and 150 plate appearances against left-handers in their careers with an OPS between .450 and .650. Those results yielded nineteen names. Some of those players were just bad hitters overall and poor comps for Adams. Using the leaderboards at Fangraphs the nineteen players were whittled down by removing those players whose wRC+ was not at least 100 at age twenty-five and younger. That left just five names: Adam LaRoche, Dominic Brown, Jody Gerut, Lucas Duda, and Mike Jacobs.
Here are the career numbers of those players against left-handers
None of those players ended up with even average numbers when facing the wrong side of the platoon. Whether these players have difficulty due to an inability to excel against left-handers or whether they were never given a real opportunity to succeed is not clear. LaRoche has the best numbers and he has received the most plate appearances in those situations. Duda and Brown may yet receive the opportunity to improve their numbers. Adams might not get that chance.
Oscar Taveras is coming and he will receive as many plate appearances as possible once he arrives in St. Louis. Taveras, like Adams, is also left-handed. It is possible that he will struggle against lefties in the majors in the same way Adams has, but he would not have been rated on of the top five prospects in all of baseball if he was expected to be in a platoon. In Double-A and Triple-A, Taveras has hit .290/.320/.442 in 300 plate appearances against lefties with most of his struggles coming in the injury-shortened 2013 campaign.
At first glance, playing Taveras over Adams may seem curious given Adams' superior minor league numbers, but age is a factor. Taveras is still just twenty-one years old, meaning the bulk of his numbers came as a nineteen and twenty-year old while Adams' numbers at the same levels came as a twenty-two and twenty-three year old.
Matt Adams could prove at some point that he can hit left-handed pitchers in the majors, but when Oscar Taveras is promoted, something has to give. This is not all bad news for Adams. If Taveras is summoned at the beginning of interleague play on June 4th, there will be another week of full playing time for all the Cardinals' hitters. Regardless of any lost time on offense, Adams is still likely to be a force on offense. He has continued to crush right-handed pitchers. His career .315/.357/.515 line against righties and his 156 wRC+ this season is fifteenth in all of baseball against righties. Some of his success is due to an impossibly high .423 BABIP against righties, but if that number regresses down and his walk rate under 3% regresses upward, he will still be providing excellent offensive value. There will be plenty of plate appearances putting him in an excellent position to succeed.
The Cardinals have tended to follow the path of least resistance when it comes to player-personnel moves in the past. When it comes to getting Taveras playing time, the Cardinals will likely continue that philosophy. With Allen Craig playing well as of late, the starts Adams has been getting against left-handers are the easiest way for Taveras to get in the field. A few starts in centerfield and a few days off for Allen Craig together with Adams' prior starts against lefties will likely provide Taveras with the playing time he needs to both contribute and develop as a player when he is called up. It is probably too early to completely give up on Adams against left-handers, but winning this year and developing the Cardinals' best hitting prospect in a dozen years will likely take priority over Adams' development against lefties.