Over the last decade, the St. Louis Cardinals have seen some terrific corner outfielders, defensively speaking. Fans should not be surprised to learn that the top defensive corner outfield season (or outfield season in general, for that matter) came courtesy of Jason Heyward in 2015: he was so outstanding by Ultimate Zone Rating that he managed 6 FanGraphs Wins Above Replacement despite a good-not-transcendent 120 wRC+ in 610 plate appearances. For perspective, Prince Fielder managed a higher wRC+ of 126 in 693 plate appearances and, because of his lackluster defense and base running, he was worth just 1.8 fWAR.
While Heyward was the biggest standout, other capable corner outfielders have donned a Cardinals uniform. Ryan Ludwick was a consistently above-average fielder; he was never quite in the Heyward class, but he was far from a liability. And although their latter years (or year) with the Cardinals diminished their defensive reputations, Matt Holliday and Carlos Beltran excelled in the field in 2010 and 2012, respectively.
Historically speaking, corner outfielders have not been especially noted for their defense. There are certainly exceptions, but like first base, it is something of a position of overflow. Just as a player who would typically be a standout first baseman in the field ordinarily is occupying a different spot in the infield, many potentially transcendent corner outfielders are instead playing as center fielders. As such, corner outfield is where the Boston Red Sox (and later New York Yankees) hid Babe Ruth when he was an offensively-prodigious pitcher who simply needed somewhere to hide in the field in order to play every day.
In 2017, the St. Louis Cardinals have their own corner outfielder being hidden in left field in the form of first base convert Matt Adams. While it is possible, if not especially likely, that Matt Adams can work himself into a serviceable defensive corner outfielder, there is no mistaking what brought Adams out there in the first place—his bat. Adams has been an above-average hitter since entering Major League Baseball in 2012, armed with a career 111 wRC+ entering 2017, but with the Cardinals’ decision to put Matt Carpenter, a better hitter (he had a wRC+ from 2012-2016 of 133), at first base every day (putting aside for a moment the potential drawbacks of this insistence), Adams found himself learning a completely new position in the second half of Spring Training.
There were a few historic parallels immediately drawn. Just last year, the Cardinals experimented with long-time left fielder Matt Holliday at first base. In 2011, the Cardinals sent Lance Berkman, coming off three seasons spent exclusively at first base, to right field. But perhaps the most obvious historic precedent for what the Cardinals have done with Matt Adams came in 2006, with Chris Duncan.
Chris Duncan was (well, he also still is) the son of Dave Duncan, the pitching coach for the St. Louis Cardinals when Chris was drafted, played for the Cardinals, later played for other organizations, retired, and became a local radio host with 101 ESPN. And while Dave was a below-average hitter for his career, though certainly serviceable considering his main duty was playing the premium defensive position of catcher, Chris Duncan was a wildly different player. The younger Duncan rose through the minors as a power-hitting first baseman. In a September call-up in 2005, he even hit the final regular season home run at the old Busch Stadium.
Duncan made his 2006 MLB debut on May 21 as a designated hitter in an interleague game against the Kansas City Royals, and he made his next six appearances with the Cardinals as a pinch hitter. Duncan then served a stint at his natural position of first base when Albert Pujols went to the Disabled List. And by the end of it, Duncan had a .275/.286/.600 triple-slash, his raw power having been displayed in full force, though over just 42 plate appearances. But despite strong results (albeit with an inability to draw a walk), he was demoted to Memphis. Chris Duncan was a good hitter, but he wasn’t Albert Pujols.
But on July 3, Duncan returned to St. Louis. Not as a first baseman, of course—Albert Pujols was in the middle of his second consecutive National League MVP season (I do not recognize the actual results of that particular award’s voting) and, at 26, was firmly entrenched in his prime. But instead, with production from the team’s left fielders sorely lacking, to this point depending primarily on So Taguchi and John Rodriguez, the Cardinals put the lifelong first baseman in left field.
Defensively, the results were not great. Duncan committed six errors in the corners over 478 2/3 innings. By more nuanced defensive metrics, he didn’t fare much better—sure, defensive metrics take more than one season to stabilize, but it’s not like his future results really improved his case for defensive competence.
But to compare 2006 Chris Duncan to 2017 Matt Adams by looking strictly at their defense misses the point on two fronts.
First, 2006 Duncan was a great hitter, whereas Matt Adams has not been near that level of production since 2013. In 2006, Chris Duncan had 314 plate appearances and belted 22 home runs, eventually drawing walks at a more palatable 9.6% rate while mustering a very impressive 143 wRC+. Defensive liability that he was, he was still an above-average player per FanGraphs, with 2.3 fWAR. When Duncan’s offense declined, first to slightly above-average and then to slightly below-average, his value to MLB clubs rapidly vanished because if one is a poor fielder at a non-premium position, it is vital that he be a very productive hitter. And from 2014, his first season as a full-time player, through the end of last season, Matt Adams had a wRC+ of 106. His bat was fine, occasionally very good, but in order to justify his defensive shortcomings, it would have to be near-elite.
Second though is that Chris Duncan was blocked from his natural position by Albert Pujols. Would the defense of the Cardinals have been stronger with Pujols, who played left field regularly three seasons prior, in left while Duncan played first base? It’s possible, but there are some clubhouse politics that would make such a move difficult. Albert Pujols was the unquestioned best player on the Cardinals, and moving him off of his position would be difficult to explain, even if it makes some sense on paper.
But “Matt Carpenter as established first baseman” began ten days ago. Carpenter played more innings in 2016 at both second base and third base than at first base; while he was a poor defensive second baseman and not an ideal third baseman, he is almost certainly better at both, particularly the latter, than Adams in left field.
It would be one thing if the Cardinals had Miguel Cabrera at first base, and Adams were hitting like his 2013 self—at that point, one could perhaps rationalize sacrificing defensively for Adams’s offense. But as it stands, the Matt Adams in left field experiment lacks of the logic of Tony LaRussa’s creativity with regards to Chris Duncan—a move which involved the Cardinals playing with the pieces they had, rather than trying to fashion new pieces out of seemingly nothing.