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Tommy Edman Is Real

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The Cardinals just keep on making average big leaguers out of nothing.

MLB: NLCS-St. Louis Cardinals at Washington Nationals Tommy Gilligan-USA TODAY Sports

Now that 2019 is over, I confess that a large part of my brain expects Tommy Edman to turn into a pumpkin. I’m not saying it’s a rational part, not by a longshot, but our brains are excellent pattern matchers, and plenty of previous iterations of the new new thing have turned out that way. I’m not saying Edman is Bo Hart, but good luck convincing my brain of that fact. So to set my mind at ease, I’m digging into the particulars. Let’s not treat Edman as a one-hit wonder. Instead, let’s look at him as simply a baseball player, and see what there is to like and worry about.

Let’s start with a quick recap of his 2019. The triple slash line almost speaks for itself; .304/.350/.500, the kind of production where every number would be nice enough on its own. Underneath the surface, and not that far below, there’s cause for concern, however. A .350 OBP is certainly good, but it should worry you that it’s so close to his batting average. Edman walked only 4.6% of the time, and while his strikeout rate wasn’t horrible either, there’s no floor to his game from getting on base.

In fact, the vast majority of his OBP prowess was driven by BABIP. That’s not disqualifying, of course; plenty of players spray line drives and run quickly, using those two building blocks to sustain a high average. Lorenzo Cain is a great example; he has a career .339 BABIP, which works out to a solid .288 batting average. But if this skillset isn’t impossible, it certainly isn’t likely.

Think of it this way. There were 21 batters who qualified for the batting title in 2018 and 2019 and also had a BABIP of .330 or above in 2018. They averaged a .350 BABIP in 2018, right around Edman’s, and .324 in 2019. This population isn’t representative — it’s actually overly kind to players like Edman, because batters who start slowly are less likely to get enough playing time to qualify. Scooter Gennett, for example, had a .358 BABIP in 2018 on his way to a wild 4.5 WAR season. In 2019, he was below replacement level and hurt all year. He put up a BABIP of .304.

The point is, you can’t expect that part of Edman’s game to continue. That’s not to say it’s impossible, merely that it’s not reasonable to think Edman is going to keep hitting for such a high average. Steamer, the only projection system that has numbers up for 2020, has him at .312, and that seems pretty reasonable to me.

How about the power? Edman hit 18 home runs across all levels in 2019, after a previous season high of 7. That’s — well, 18 is a lot more than 7. It’s not completely unbelievable, though: 2019 coincided with the superball-esque major league ball being used in Triple-A. Slugging percentage in the PCL increased from .423 to .477, and while Edman’s increased by more, it wasn’t totally out of the question to see a power spike in his age 24 season given the backdrop.

And it’s not as though he put together a season of being Mark McGwire or anything. 12.1% of his home runs left the yard, below average in this wild year of power. Only 4% of his plate appearances ended with a barreled ball, roughly league average. He hit his average ball in the air at 90.6 mph, basically Dexter Fowler territory and among the bottom 25% of all major leaguers. In fact, looking at the home runs misses the point. I don’t think it would be all that surprising if Edman kept up a similar but lower home run rate next year. It’s not as though it’s all wall scrapers:

No, what’s really intriguing about Edman’s 2019 is that he got nearly as many extra bases from doubles and triples as he did from home runs. That’s not a new thing for him, either: he’s done it every year he’s been a professional. Some of that comes down to the fact that Edman is really fast; his average sprint speed was in the top 25 across all of baseball last year, and he gets out of the box at warp speed.

Want a silly way of looking at it? Think of all the non-home-run, non-single hits a player gets in a year as triples opportunities. Six players converted more of their triples opportunities into triples than Edman did, and they read like a track team: Dee Gordon, Adalberto Mondesi, Mallex Smith, Fernando Tatis Jr., and Garrett Hampson. This is probably not going to continue — those guys are all pure speed guys in a way that outstrips Edman.

So if you want to forecast some regression, that’s a pretty good place to start. Turn a few triples into doubles, and potentially some doubles into singles, and the power calms down a bit. Turn a few home runs into doubles, another reasonable assumption, and it comes down some more. Turn some singles into outs due to a lower BABIP, and then we’re really knocking down his slugging percentage.

Steamer takes all that into account and projects Edman for a .274/.321/.419 line next year. That’s still a serviceable major leaguer, a 95 wRC+, even after cutting down all these categories where Edman excelled in 2019. So I guess if you have one takeaway from this middling article, let it be that. Edman might look like devil magic, but he projects as basically a league average bat before you get to his defensive and baserunning value. Those are notoriously difficult to project, but if you think he’s above average defensively (and I do), that makes him an above-average major leaguer right now.

But I’m not interested in leaving that as my takeaway. I want to cherry pick and add to his projection slightly. The easy place would be the extra base hits, but I’m not confident that they’ll keep dropping at the rate they have. So instead, let’s look at his walk rate. Edman had never walked less than 6.7% of the time in any stop in the minors, so his 4.6% rate last year was shocking. Steamer projects a 5.7% walk rate, which is better, but still not quite what I’d expect from someone with his skillset.

Two things drive my view. First, Edman has an extremely low swinging strike rate, which keeps him in more at-bats, leading to more deep-count walks. Second, the Cardinals have been really good at generating walk rate out of swing-happy guys, which gives me hope. Paul DeJong is nothing like Edman, but he’s an example of an approach that might work. DeJong started swinging less after his 4.7% walk rate debut, and has increased his walk rate every year he’s been in the majors. Kolten Wong made himself into a high-walk guy after reaching the majors by swinging less after an aggressive approach in his first few years in the majors, and he did it with a similar power and contact profile to Edman.

Heck, Matt Carpenter started with a high baseline, but he also improved his walk rate after a few years in the majors. The Cardinals seem to have an organizational philosophy of trying to coax more walks out of their hitters, whether it’s fringey-hitting guys like Wong and DeJong or standouts like Carpenter. Betting on Edman to improve his walk rate (and HBP rate, another way he resembles Wong) seems like a good gamble.

But he doesn’t have to. He already projects like an average regular, something that would have been hard to believe only six months ago. And if you dig into the numbers, there’s as much reason to see upside as there is downside. What a wild thing to say about a guy who was barely in the picture as a long-term major leaguer before 2019.

And uh, quick postscript: this article was pretty meh. I’m right in the stretch run of finishing up the annual comments for the Cardinals for BP this year, so things are all a bit of a jumble and I spent less time on it than I wanted. But uh, Edman good. Projections good. Upside better! Bam, there’s your tl;dr.