When a player is drafted in the 23rd round into an organization as esteemed as the St. Louis Cardinals, at a position presently being filled by the greatest hitter of his generation, that player generally does not come with a lot of expectations.
Matt Adams was no exception. In 2009, the Cardinals giving Albert Pujols a blank check to stay in St. Louis seemed like a foregone conclusion. And the product of Slippery Rock University (source: at least seventy Fox Sports Midwest broadcasts per year since 2013) spent his post-draft 2009 and his 2010 seasons raking at the Rookie, Low-A, and A levels of Minor League Baseball. But 2011 was the real breakthrough for the 22 year-old first baseman: Adams hit 32 home runs in 513 plate appearances for AA Springfield and was named Most Valuable Player of the Texas League.
Two events happened in the off-season which greatly impacted the Cardinals organization, and had a direct impact on the trajectory of the career of Matt Adams. First (well, technically second, but this is my story and I’m going to tell it the way I want), Albert Pujols signed with the Los Angeles Angels of Anaheim; although the signing of Carlos Beltran meant that Lance Berkman could move to his more natural position of first base, this was never meant to be a long-term solution, and there would be an opportunity for Adams as early as 2013 to nab the starting gig. And second, Mike Matheny became manager of the St. Louis Cardinals.
It is impossible to quantify, but Matt Adams, before he was traded on Saturday to the Atlanta Braves, long had a reputation as a quote-unquote Mike Guy, a player that the Cardinals manager liked, perhaps beyond what his talent justified, and therefore a player who would receive more than his fair share of chances to find a role with the big-league club. Before he was traded in December 2015 to the San Diego Padres, Jon Jay had a similar reputation, and like Adams, was often a target for criticism by those who dislike the Cardinals manager.
And while being a “Mike Guy” meant that Matt Adams got more than his fair share of chances in St. Louis, it also meant that he had to go.
In 2013, following a season spent mostly with AAA Memphis, Matt Adams made the St. Louis Cardinals out of Spring Training as a bench player. Carlos Beltran remained in right field, Allen Craig had a breakout 2012 which put him as the everyday first baseman, so Adams, in addition to pinch-hitting duties, had a modified utility role: he would only play first base, but Craig would get starts in left and right field as necessary. In the end, Matt Adams got 319 plate appearances, not a starter’s share but more than one would expect for a run-of-the-mill pinch hitter. His wRC+ was 135, and his .220 isolated power suggested that Adams could develop into a prodigious slugger.
But in his first full season in the majors, the most famous statistical trend of Matt Adams’s career began to materialize. While Adams had a 146 wRC+ against right-handed pitching, the same mark Matt Carpenter produced in his near-MVP season that year, he had just a 77 wRC+ against lefties, which is much worse (I was going to name a player with that mark in 2013, but “had the same wRC+ as Nolan Arenado” doesn’t have the negative implication it’s supposed to have anymore).
In 2014, Adams became the everyday starting first baseman after Allen Craig moved to right field with the free agency departure of Carlos Beltran. His 563 plate appearances were by far the most of his career, but his rate offensive stats dipped (his base running has been consistently mediocre; his defense has been consistently average-ish at a fairly unimportant position in the field).
It didn’t help that as a full-time starter, Adams had to face more lefties than ever. In 2013, just 16.3% of his plate appearances were against left-handed pitching. In 2014, 23.1% were. And his platoon splits became even more jarring: his vs. RHP wRC+ was a very good 136, while against lefties, Adams posted a 46. The year before, Pete Kozma had a wRC+ of 49.
Injuries plagued Adams in 2015, and following a DL stint in August of 2016, he was no longer a given at first base. Mercifully, a side effect of his fewer appearances was a higher proportion of his appearances against right-handed pitching. During that two-year stretch, in which he compiled 513 total plate appearances, 85% of them were against righties, although he had a somewhat disappointed 97 wRC+ against them.
This was the point at which his status as a viable long-term MLB player became a bit concerning, despite some progress in hitting lefties. Despite being used, more or less, as a standard everyday first baseman, Matt Adams was always better suited for a platoon. Sure, a platoon first baseman, even one who gets the preponderance of starts, can only be so valuable, but regular starts against lefties exposed the limitations in his game.
Matt Adams was deployed as an all-or-nothing player, somebody who would play every day or languish on the bench, which was fantastic for him in 2014. It meant he was the man. But this also marked the beginning of his downfall. And routinely starting Matt Adams against lefties was far from the most egregious misuse of his skill set he had to endure in St. Louis, given Mike Matheny’s penchant for starting him in left field, a position he had literally never played at the professional level until late in Spring Training 2017, starting in the first week of the 2017 regular season.
Mike Matheny clearly wanted to give Matt Adams another chance this year, so much so that his faith in Adams to handle a new position on the fly superseded his faith in Tommy Pham, to that point holding a career wRC+ of 113 while playing a materially better defensive outfield to Adams. This was a terrible idea, but this does not mean that Adams could not have found success as a pinch hitter. He wasn’t going to be an MVP candidate as one, but he could have justified a roster spot better than the 13th pitcher on the roster if he were competent in such a role.
But Matheny’s fondness for Adams meant that Adams had to go. Just as the threat that Jon Jay might still get substantial playing time in 2016 even if he maintained his woeful hitting pace from 2015 meant that he needed to be traded. Just as Allen Craig had to be traded in 2014 to keep Matheny from starting him regularly despite woeful performance.
As it turned out, Jedd Gyorko became a terrific power hitter and John Lackey was a pivotal member of the rotation through the 2015 season. And perhaps Juan Yepez will soon be productive enough that this trade becomes known as the Juan Yepez trade. But for now, it looks like the plan was to keep Matt Adams away from Mike Matheny.
In and of itself, it might be worth it; Adams’s awesome start to his Braves career notwithstanding, he’s probably not magically a great hitter. But he might be a good one, and it is hard not to be concerned that a disconnect between front office and field manager may still be preventing the Cardinals from being their best selves.