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Fixing Matt Adams

The newest Cardinal has been some funky mayo since the All-Star Break. Let’s find out what’s wrong.

Atlanta Braves v St Louis Cardinals Photo by Dilip Vishwanat/Getty Images

Earlier this week, the Cardinals brought their wayward son home, grabbing Matt Adams off of waivers. It was a simple, crowd-pleasing move wherein the team added left-handed thump to their bench for nothing more than the cost of paying Big Mayo (or is it now Fat-Free Mayo?) his salary for the remainder of the season. It cost them nothing off of their minor or major league rosters. At the time of the deal, Adams was slashing .257/.332/.510 with a .358 wOBA and a 123 wRC+, all paired with 18 homeruns in 277 plate appearances. When you limit it to his numbers against right-handed pitching, it improves to .264/.345/.538, a .373 wOBA, and 133 wRC+. Those are some very good numbers for a semi-regular and bench bat. Unfortunately, those numbers only tell part of the story.

This table should tell you all you need to know about the recent direction of Big Mayo’s season.

Matt Adams, 1st Half vs. 2nd Half

Matt Adams 1st Half 2nd Half
Matt Adams 1st Half 2nd Half
AVG 0.288 0.155
OBP 0.362 0.234
SLG 0.565 0.328
wOBA 0.393 0.235
wRC+ 147 41

Ouch. In the second half, he’s hitting more like Carlos Martinez than Jose Martinez. Everything was going great until mid-July. If you look at his numbers from July 1st through the 15th, you can see that the massive slide coincided exactly with the beginning of the second half of the season. Whatever happened wasn’t happening before the All-Star break. That’s the bad news- Matt Adams has been some funky mayo in the second half. The good news is that we’re only talking about a minuscule sample. The dreadful second half numbers you see in the table above account for just 64 plate appearances of data. A few games with a 3-for-4 here, a 2-for-4 there with some extra base hits liberally sprinkled in would heal those numbers in short order. That said, it’s worth taking a look to see what has gone wrong for our new kale-mad masher.

We’ll begin with the underlying numbers. Specifically, let’s look at 1st half vs. 2nd half numbers for his plate discipline (BB% and K%); batting average on balls in play (BABIP); soft/medium/hard contact percentages; pull/center/opposite field percentages; and line drive, groundball, flyball, and infield flyball/pop-up percentages. One caveat here- Fangraphs lists infield flyball percentage (IFFB%) as the percentage of flyballs that go for pop-ups, or stay in the infield. What I’m listing in the table below is the percentage of outfield flyballs and percentage of infield flyballs as a percentage of all batted balls, rather than infield flyballs as a percentage of all flyballs only.

Matt Adams, Batted Ball Rates and Plate Discipline

Matt Adams 1st Half 2nd Half
Matt Adams 1st Half 2nd Half
BABIP 0.303 0.136
BB% 9.4% 6.3%
K% 20.7% 17.2%
Soft 17.0% 25.5%
Medium 42.9% 53.2%
Hard 40.1% 21.3%
Pull 52.4% 38.3%
Center 30.6% 34.0%
Oppo 17.0% 27.7%
LD% 21.8% 12.8%
GB% 35.4% 29.8%
OFFB% 39.5% 48.9%
IFFB% 3.1% 7.2%

His walk and strikeout rates are both down in concert with one another. He’s taking slightly fewer walks per strikeout in the second half, but it’s not much of an outlier. Beyond that, five specific items jump out and most of them are almost certainly related. His flyball percentage has spiked at the expense of line drives, he’s hitting more pop-ups, his BABIP has cratered, he’s hitting a lot more soft contact at the expense of hard contact, and he’s hitting to the opposite field much more.

Now you see why I split out infield flyballs/pop-ups as a percentage of all batted balls. Taken in the aggregate, he has hit almost as many pop-ups in the second half as he did in the entire first half. Those extra pop-ups will sap his BABIP while spiking his soft contact percentage. He’s getting under the ball more, less effectively, while also hitting to the opposite field at a higher frequency. Now we have our clues. With this in mind, we can start digging in to his specific strike zone info, how pitchers are approaching him, and how it’s affecting him.

First, here’s a 30-game rolling average graph, courtesy of Fangraphs, showing the percent of pitches against Matt Adams in the strike zone this season. I’ve added my own emphasis, in gray, to show the second half.

It’s not completely isolated to the second half- pitchers started pumping more pitches into the strike zone against him around mid-June as well without any slippage in Adams’ production until the second half. Still, it’s hard not to notice the increase in pitches in the zone over the last 25 games or so played by Mayo. For the first two months of the season, approximately 45 games, he was mashing at a .316 ISO clip, with a 10.6% walk rate. No wonder pitchers didn’t want to give him anything to hit.

We now know that pitchers are attacking him more in the strike zone. Where, specifically, are they going after him? And how is it affecting him? Here’s a heat map showing where pitchers are attacking him more in the second half compared to the first half, as well as a heat map showing the change in his xwOBA by zone.

Before going further, allow me to justify using xwOBA. It has lost its charm as a predictive tool after this Baseball Prospectus article about it earlier this season. That said, it still works well as a descriptive stat, and it should do a great job of capturing where Matt Adams is producing less desirable launch angles and exit velocities.

Observing the pitch percentage difference by zone, we can see that pitchers are going further outside on Adams. He’s seeing a collective 5.5% more pitches on the outer third of the strike zone at the expense of 5.3% of pitches in the bottom middle of the zone and bottom middle just outside the zone. They’re also climbing the ladder on him more, with a gain of 3.7% in the middle-top of the zone.

However, looking at the xwOBA graph, going upper middle isn’t helpful for opposing pitchers. Hell, it’s not productive against any hitter. Try living on center cut/nipple high fastballs and you’re not going to be in the league for long. Adams has even gained in productivity there. Upper middle is not his problem.

Generally speaking, his production on outside pitches aren’t his major trouble areas, either. Sure, he’s declined up and away and middle away, but he has also gained low and away and up and away outside the strike zone. It’s a problem, but it’s not the biggest problem. The biggest problem is the dive in production on pitches on the inner third, as well as up and in outside the strike zone. It also doesn’t help that he has collapsed on pitches in the center-bottom of the zone. Here’s how that last part looks, right before the All-Star break on July 14th- perhaps a harbinger of things to come:

Other folks are more suited to make these next assumptions and they can feel free to correct me. However, this situation sure seems to make a lot of sense. Pitchers are coaxing Adams to lean out over the zone to get the outside pitches, then hammering him inside under his fists, or they hammer the bottom of the zone. At that point, his options are to do what he can on the inner half, or go the other way- and his spike in opposite field batted balls in the second half provides evidence that he’s doing just that. The problem is that neither of these options leave him with much of the power he exhibited in the first half. It’s a Sophie’s Choice of weak inner half (or bottom-middle) contact or becoming a very large slap hitter.

By the way, here’s how that weak contact looks when pitchers get in on his fists. It happened in May, before the dip in production, but it’s another good example of what’s happening to him:

Using Statcast’s awesome search function, we can also find our added pop-ups. Searching for Matt Adams’ pop-ups on pitches on the inner third of the zone, plus up and in outside the zone, yields three results since July 15th. He had only six of those before July 15th in more than three times the plate appearances.

We now have most of our answers. Matt Adams has dipped in production in the second half because pitchers are finding easy strikes on the outer third, then busting up his kitchen or low in the zone middle-in for pop-ups and weak contact. He’s trying to adapt by going the other way on the outer third, but that still leaves him with less thump than you’d want.

All of that said, I can’t reiterate enough that we’re still dealing with only 64 plate appearances. If he had a bad kale smoothie the night before a weekend series in DC, suddenly he has 10 to 15 poor plate appearances unrelated to anything else, full of pop-ups and weak contact. Such a kale smoothie or unrelated incident would skew things disproportionately in a 64 plate appearance sample size. Everything about this acquisition is still solid. They just need to fix a few things to get him back on track. Or, you know, give him some salsa.