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Is Tommy Edman For Real?

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Eat it, Beveridge’s Law. I think he might be.

MLB: Miami Marlins at St. Louis Cardinals Jeff Curry-USA TODAY Sports

Tommy Edman is a great story. It’s almost immaterial whether he’s actually this good; seeing a guy who is so evidently overjoyed to be playing baseball get an unexpected chance in the majors is tremendously fun even if he can’t sustain it for all that long. As fans, we cling to players like this, even if their rise is unlikely and their performance may vanish right before our eyes -- Bo Hart fit this bill, as did Jeremy Hazelbaker. More dramatically, Aledmys Diaz was an All Star as a rookie, out of a job in his second year in the majors. Flashes in the pan are tremendous to watch.

Calling Tommy Edman a flash in the pan is selling him short, though. Players who come up and make an unexpected impact don’t have to turn back into a pumpkin at midnight. Look at this year’s Cardinals roster. Matt Carpenter, Paul DeJong, and Jose Martinez were all supposed to be flashes in the pan, brief invocations of Cardinals Devil Magic that petered into nothingness after a bright few moments in the sun. Now DeJong is a defensive stalwart with some pop, and Martinez is twitching his way to an above-average batting line over 1180 career plate appearances. Carpenter has had a rough 2019, but he’s been a stalwart. Prolonging the magic seems possible.

Is Tommy Edman for real? I endeavored to find out. My first stop was prospect rankings, both ours and FanGraphs’. This sounds a little reductive, but reading prospect rankings is often an excellent way to get an idea of whether someone has real carrying tools. Let’s start with Aaron, who had Edman ranked 26th before the season. Now, that’s obviously not promising, but the writeup provides some much-needed nuance. Aaron was worried about Edman’s power, which seems like a good worry, what with a career-high home run total of 7 in 574 plate appearances and a slight frame.

Things were about to get weird, though, because home run power was coming to the minor leagues. Triple-A got the major league baseball in 2019, giving us a better idea of what kind of home run power prospects might display in the big leagues. In some forthcoming analysis I did for FanGraphs (look for it Monday), I took minor league data for 2018 and 2019 and attempted to work out how various types of hitters benefited from the change in baseballs based on their pre-existing power. That study projected Edman’s HR/FB to increase by about 7.5%. Lo and behold, his Triple-A HR/FB went up 7%. Not that his batting line got relatively better -- everyone’s HR/FB went up, after all. Still, Edman plus the new baseball isn’t Billy Hamilton out there. It’s not insane to believe he could have 10-12% HR/FB rates long-term with the current baseball.

With that out of the way, Aaron really liked Edman’s profile. He even projected a 2019 callup: “I expect to see Tommy Edman in the big leagues sooner than later. The fact he’s not yet on the Cards’ 40 man roster is a limiting factor, certainly, but I don’t think that will stop him altogether. I’d give 50/50 odds, I think, that by the end of 2019 he steals someone’s spot…” Good call!

FanGraphs had a similar ranking on Edman. They had him 20th on their list, up to 13th after the promotions the team has made this year, with a similar prognosis: good defender, good feel to hit, no power. That went better than I expected, honestly. Someone with Edman’s seemingly out-of-nowhere rise (2016 6th-round picks aren’t normally hitting Triple-A in 2018) and mixed draft pedigree isn’t usually seen as a good bet to contribute at the major league level. I feel better already.

With ex-ante considerations out of the way, it’s time to look at Edman’s production in the minors and majors this year to see what looks real and what looks dicey. First, the minor league production. Edman produced a 109 wRC+ in 49 games in Memphis this year. That’s not a terrible line for a utility infielder, and it gets better than that. You see, minor league lines aren’t park-adjusted, only league-adjusted, and Memphis plays in one of the least hitter-friendly parks in the PCL. I don’t have up-to-date park factors, as those are hard to find for the minors, but this 2016 study has Memphis playing 13% in a pitcher’s favor for hits, 20% in a pitcher’s favor for overall runs. There aren’t any parks in the majors that play that extreme over five-year stretches, and even over a one-year stretch, that would be the most extreme park in the bigs, tied with Citi Field. In other words, Edman’s batting line (.305/.356/.513) is better than it looks, even in the offense-crazy PCL.

That’s not to say there weren’t warning signs. While Edman’s 11.5% HR/FB rate isn’t crazy given the new ball, he was hitting a ton of pop ups -- 21.3% of his fly balls, in fact, didn’t leave the infield. At a rate that high, even an 11.5% HR/FB rate might be unsustainable. That’s subject to minor-league scoring data, however, and minor league IFFB rates tend to be elevated for some reason. I’m choosing to ignore that for now, though it’s a real red flag if it keeps up. So far in the majors, Edman is popping up at a below-average rate, which is an encouraging sign in a miniscule sample.

Thus far, I’m not seeing any reason Tommy Edman couldn’t be at least an average hitter in the majors. He has a track record of being an above-average minor league hitter, even in pitcher’s parks, and his power was sufficient that he got a boost from the major league ball. So far, so good. Let’s take a peek at the major league stats this year, with the caveat that anything can happen in 55 plate appearances (I’m writing this before Friday’s game).

The first thing that pops out on Edman’s line is his walks -- 1.8% is just not going to cut it. His 18.2% strikeout rate is totally fine, and in line with what you’d expect given his 15%-ish strikeout clip in the minors, but why isn’t he walking? Major league pitchers aren’t dummies, is why. If he had enough plate appearances to qualify, his zone rate would be the third-highest in the majors. Pitchers aren’t afraid of Edman, so they’re coming after him.

Even among the likes of Willy Adames, Mallex Smith, and Tommy LaStella, Edman’s walk rate is low, but that’s largely an artifact of the sample size. His numbers look pretty similar to those guys, and they walk in the 6-7% range. Edman will probably never be a high-walk hitter, even though he has a decent batting eye and makes a lot of contact, because pitchers just aren’t going to let him. Batting with no one on and none out also suppresses walk rate (because pitchers walk batters less in that situation), and he’s leading off a decent amount at the moment, so I’m not sure we’re going to see the walks tick up. It wouldn’t be a surprise to see his strikeouts fall a bit given his tremendous contact skills, but we can’t hope for much more from him there.

A quick cursory look at his HR/FB rate should tell us to expect regression. 17.6% is high, and three home runs in seventeen fly balls isn’t enough to form any kind of reasonable sample. In the absence of better data, I’d expect that to fall to around 10%, which could put a real crimp in his production. Change one home run to an out, and Edman falls from a 119 wRC+ to 100. Small samples are wild that way.

Luckily, we do have better data. Statcast is out there feasting its grubby little radar eyes on every single pitch in baseball this season. Let’s take a gander, shall we? The most comprehensive contact-quality stat in the Statcast toolbelt is xwOBA, which calculates the wOBA a hitter’s batted balls have produced when averaged across all similar batted balls and adds them to their non-contact results to get an expected wOBA. Edman stacks up shockingly well here, with a .352 xwOBA that’s nearly as high as his .357 wOBA (league average is .319 this year). Does that mean it’s all deserved? Hooray!

Yeah, not so fast. xwOBA isn’t what you’d call a predictive stat; it just tells you what Edman has done so far. The good news is, what he’s done so far isn’t smoke and mirrors. His home runs maybe have been a little lucky (their xwOBA makes them look like two of the three “should” have been doubles), but he’s been unlucky not to have a higher BABIP, which cancels out. Statcast thinks he should be batting .290 with a .515 slugging percentage, which sounds closer to what I’d expect Edman to produce (though still kind of a wild slugging percentage).

Going a level deeper, I like what I’m seeing. Edman’s average exit velocity on line drives and fly balls is a middling 91.9 mph, which is much better than I expected. For comparison, Alex Bregman, Jorge Polanco, and Gleyber Torres are all just below Edman on the list. He has enough pop, in other words, to matter. What’s more important than average exit velocity, though, is the distribution, and Edman has excelled here so far.

Statcast has a statistic called “Barrels” that is essentially the number of balls you hit that are tremendously likely to go for extra bases. It’s a subset of the hardest-hit and truest-angled balls that a batter can hit. Edman has turned 23.8% of his line drives and fly balls into barrels, a rate that’s in the 85th percentile in all of baseball. How predictive is this? I mean, it’s certainly not zero. Looking at batters who put 50 balls in the air in both 2018 and 2019, barrel rate has a .5 r-squared from year to year. That’s very high indeed, suggesting there’s some skill in making solid contact repeatedly.

Edman, of course, doesn’t have 50 balls in the air yet. Heck, he doesn’t have 50 batted balls. I used a very (very very very) rough inverse-squares formula to regress Edman’s barrel rate to the mean, and came up with an 18.8% predicted barrel rate on air balls going forward. That’s comfortably above the league average of around 15.5%. In other words, even in this small sample, Edman’s result is probably telling us something, though it’s still very early to believe much of it.

That about does it for the metrics I’m comfortable with looking at in this small of a sample. Edman seems like one of those bat-to-ball middle-infield types who become a lot more playable if they can make solid contact, and he seems to have a repeatable-enough swing to put that outcome in play. There are other things to like, too: Edman’s fast (the 12th-fastest maximum sprint speed in baseball this year per Statcast) and sure-handed. His flat bat path matches up well with the high-fastball movement analytical teams are increasingly subscribing to. He’s downright fun to watch. Truly, Edman has a lot going for him.

So, what does that mean going forward? Projection systems aren’t really believers. ZiPS, particularly, doesn’t buy it; it has him batting .248/.300/.352 the rest of the way. I’m not quite so negative; ZiPS and projection systems in general are sketchier when home run rates get so wonky, because a .104 ISO might make sense before Edman just put up a .208 ISO in Triple-A with the new ball, but it looks decidedly weirder now. Let’s be kind, then, and split the difference.

Could Edman keep up his current 119 wRC+ pace? Probably not. I’m going to need more evidence before I believe he’s Tommy the Barrel Monster. Could he be a 100 wRC+-ish bat who provides speed and defense? I think that’s totally within range. It’s worth noting, too, that he has the kind of skillset that has often played up in the majors recently. He seems, so far, to be good at barreling up the ball, and that’s more important than raw strength when the baseball is super-balling its way out of stadiums like 2019.

Two thousand words in, I don’t have much of a conclusion for you. Nothing about his Statcast profile makes Tommy Edman look like a mirage. His minor league track record looks for the most part legit. Still, he’s a tiny dude who was a sixth round draft pick not too long ago. Projecting something wild seems short-sighted. None of that matters, though. He’s awesome, out of nowhere, a breath of fresh air in a grind of a season. Here’s to Edman surpassing projections for years to come.