clock menu more-arrow no yes

Filed under:

Baseball Stars and baseball realities

New, comments

When it comes to players like Matt Adams, Mike Matheny seems devoted to an idea of who the player is long after the reality says otherwise.

Alleged power hitter Matt Adams
Alleged power hitter Matt Adams
Jake Roth-USA TODAY Sports

When I was a kid, back in the 8-bit Nintendo era, sports games did not release annual editions with real lineups. Every so often, there might be something like R.B.I. with the actual, licensed teams, but for many years, your best option was to play Baseball Stars.

The gameplay was the best around, but more than that what made Baseball Stars de rigueur was the ability to create your own team. Of course, I would create the Cardinals, trying to match their ratings to the actual players. (Although, when our best power hitter was Todd Zeile, I may have stretched reality in favor of more dingers.) On a few occasions, I got ambitious enough to create the entire National League East.

To save your team/league/season, you had to remember to hold down the Reset button as you powered the console off. As diligent as I would try to be, somewhere around 30 games into the regular season, up 10-games in the standings and with Todd Zeile leading the league in homers, I would forget to hit Reset and poof, it was all gone.

At that point, I would sometimes just build a new team of imaginary players. I had a few archetypes in my mind I would always build around: A slow, hulking first baseman with massive power, a slap-hitting shortstop with stellar defense.

Sometimes, when I see Mike Matheny's lineup hit the interwebs around 4 o'clock, I wonder if he's managing the roster he's got or playing a game of Baseball Stars in his head.

Matt Adams looks every inch the lumbering, power-hitting first baseman I would imagine for my team. Hell, if you were casting a baseball movie, Matt Adams is your Clu Haywood. Broadcasters - both home and away - regularly refer to him as a "power hitting first baseman" or a "power threat of the bench." Matt Adams is not those things.

As Craig noted yesterday, Matt Adams has been bad this season - by just about every measure. But it goes back further than that. If you want to find a time when Adams rated higher than a league average hitter by wRC+, you need to go back to 2014. And even then, while his 116 wRC+ was above league-average for all hitters, it was just about average among first basemen.

It gets even bleaker when you look at power. Fangraphs calls an ISO above .170 "above average power," and unsurprisingly, first basemen have averaged a .173 ISO since 2013. Matt Adams has topped that one time - in 2013, when he flashed what looked like elite power with a .220 ISO.

Adams made a good statistical first impression, albeit in only 319 plate appearances. So how much of the continued insistence that Matt Adams is a power hitting first baseman comes from that, and how much of it is because he just looks the part?

Now I grant you, Adams has been splitting time at first this season, and getting the shorter-end of the plate appearance stick. But where does he hit in the batting order when he is in the starting lineup? Four out of six times he has been the cleanup hitter... because everybody knows that is where you put your power hitting first baseman.

The subject of batting order position also came up this week in regards to Aledmys Diaz, who continues to bat 8th despite (as I write this) leading Bryce Harper in wOBA. Matheny defended his move with some typical Mathenyspeak, noting that there was no reason to move a young player from a position where things were working for him.

Now, as we all learned in Analytics 101, batting order doesn't make that big of a deal, even over a whole season. (Although 1-2 wins ain't nothing, either.) And maybe you even buy into Matheny's superstitious, "don't change anything if it's working" logic.

But what I see is yet another instance where the actual player - in this case, Diaz - doesn't fit into the archetype in the manager's mind. Power hitting first basemen bat 4th, Fill-in middle infielders bat 8th.

On the pitching side, it seems like Matheny still imagines Wacha to be the player he was in the 2013 playoffs. If Wainwright continues to struggle, can you even imagine how long it will take Matheny to see the aging veteran rather than the "staff ace" archetype he has in his mind?

On Baseball Stars, once you set those sliders for contact and power and defense, that's who that player will be forever (or at least until you forget to hit Reset). In real life, player's skills develop and erode. It's a hard thing to pinpoint, and all of us - broadcasters, fans - are guilty of clinging to the version of players we imagine them to be. What's frustrating is the manager of the St. Louis baseball club seems to cling to these narratives long after it's clear that these players don't fit the mold.