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Cardinals 2020 Player Preview: Tommy Edman: Sophomore Slump or Star?

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St Louis Cardinals Photo Day Photo by Michael Reaves/Getty Images

Until June 8th, 2019, many Cardinal fans, even those who had followed the club closely, had never heard of Tommy Edman. But when Jedd Gyorko had to go on the injured list with a back strain on that date, the Cardinals decided to call up Tommy Edman—who was not on the 40-man roster—over several other possible candidates. Edman would not return to the minors in 2019, started 75 games in the field, and depending on whether you believe Fangraphs or Baseball Prospectus, ended up being either the 3rd or 4th most valuable non-pitcher the Cards had all year.

Edman’s Ascent to the Majors

So who is this guy and what happened? Edman, who had just turned 24 a month before his call-up, was a 6th round draft choice out of Stanford in 2016. Not only was he not on the prospect radar at all, nobody dreamed he would make the majors in 2019. Edman had primarily been used at shortstop throughout his minor league career, but the Cardinals had Paul DeJong under contract through at least 2023 with options for 2024 and 2025. Kolten Wong was a Gold Glove caliber choice at second base who was under contract for 2019 with a 2020 club option, and third baseman Matt Carpenter was inked to an extension after a career-high 36 HR season in 2018. While Edman had started to branch out and play the other infield positions in 2018, he still projected as nothing more than bench material, and certainly not in 2019.

The first thing that happened was that Edman had shown power in 2019 at AAA Memphis that he had never shown before. For the most part, Edman had been a high BABIP, low walk, low strikeout, singles hitter, never hitting more than 6 home runs in a season, and that was over 498 PA with AA Springfield in 2018. But in just 218 PA with AAA Memphis in 2019, Edman had popped 7 home runs and increased his ISO by over 100 points. Now the Cardinals had to have known that AAA was using a juiced ball and the Pacific Coast League was a hitter-happy league, but it must have been an encouraging sign.

Edman was also in the right place at the right time. Edmundo Sosa, Ramon Urias and Drew Robinson were all available options for the call-up and all on the 40-man roster. Sosa was considered to be a better defender but he was only slashing .247/.279/.388 at the time with a dreadful 56 wRC+, a 2.8% BB rate and a 5:1 K/BB ratio. He wasn’t the best fit at the time unless regular shortstop play was needed and Paul DeJong started just about every game. Urias had come on strong offensively in 2018 in AA Springfield, but his offense went into the tank in the first half of 2019. While he was better than Sosa at the time, his slash line of .221/.342/.319 was still subpar and he was considered a worse defender than Edman. Robinson had made the opening day roster, had prior major league experience and was running a .381 OBP at the time. But his overall offensive line was worse than Edman’s, he was striking out over 30% of the time, and he had been primarily used in the outfield. Although Edman was an unknown to most, the Cards thought that on balance, it was best for the club to add Edman to the 40-man roster and start his clock early.

Edman Starts Off Slowly

On June 8th, Edman rounded out a 4-man Cardinal bench with backup catcher Andrew Knizner, Jose Martinez and Yairo Munoz. He got his first start and first MLB hit on June 14th, when he started the 2nd game of the day (the Cards had to finish the continuation of a suspended game from the day before) at second base while Wong rested against a lefty. Through June 25th, Mike Shildt used Edman as one might expect, as a pinch-hitter and as a starter at 2B when several regulars rested. Up until this point, Edman had hit a game-tying homer after coming into a game on a double switch, and had 4 total hits, including a double, but had not walked at all. He would not walk at all in 34 PA in the month of June.

Edman Takes Over Third Base

We would learn on June 21st that not only did Gyorko injure his calf while on the injured list, but that he would also undergo arthroscopic surgery on his wrist to correct an issue that had been nagging him for at least a year. Then, on June 26th, Mike Shildt decided to rest Matt Carpenter, who had been slashing .217/.327/.384 over 324 PA, and start Edman at third base to lead off. Carpenter’s 13.6% BB rate prevented his offensive profile from looking a lot worse. Carpenter took a 3-game breather, then was scratched with a stomach virus, giving Edman his 4th start in a row. Before the next game on July 2nd, Carpenter went on the IL with a lower back strain. Yairo Munoz actually got the first two starts of the next series at Seattle at third base, but in the 2nd game, Edman pinch hit for Wong with a lefty reliever on the mound and broke a 2-2 tie in the top of the 9th with a 3-run HR to give the Cards the lead and the ultimate win. Edman would then start every game until the All-Star break, a couple of times at second base while Wong rested.

After the All-Star break, Carpenter had been activated from the IL and started the first game back at third base, but Edman also started at second base while Wong sat against Arizona lefty Robbie Ray. After Wong pinch hit for Bader in the bottom of the 8th, he would stay in the game at second base, and to all of our surprise, Edman moved from second base to center field. Edman would return to the bench for the next 3 games, but Carpenter would be forced to leave that third game in the bottom of the 7th inning after fouling a 3-2 pitch from Pirates’ reliever Kyle Crick off of the top of his right foot. Edman had to come in and finish Carpenter’s at-bat, and Carpenter would go on the injured list the next day. Edman would start 14 out of the next 15 games to close the month of July, with 13 of the starts at third base. Up until this point, the only problem people had with Shildt’s usage of Edman was having Edman lead off, when he had a .296 OBP, only 5 walks in 125 PA and a 5:1 K/BB ratio.

Infielders in the Outfield

In the middle of July, Harrison Bader lost his center field job and Shildt started to get cute with his outfield usage. On July 21st, Shildt used a bench lineup for a getaway game at Cincinnati starting Bader in center and Munoz at third. Munoz went 3-4 with a triple and a solo HR, driving in two of the Cards’ three runs in a 3-1 victory and just missing the cycle by a double. Munoz would start the next six games, with 3 starts in center field and two in left field. Feeling he needed a reset, the Cards optioned Bader to AAA Memphis on July 29th, which was an open date, and recalled Lane Thomas the next day. Gyorko would go on the 60-day IL to make room for LHP Adalberto Mejia and then be traded to the Dodgers the next day, further securing Edman’s roster spot.

Tyler O’Neill, who had been playing left field almost every day since Marcell Ozuna went on the disabled list with broken fingers on June 29th, was scratched from his scheduled start on August 1st with what was thought to be a minor hand issue. When Ozuna was activated from the IL on August 3rd, the corresponding roster move was to place O’Neill on the IL with a left wrist strain. With Bader in Memphis, Munoz got the start in LF over Lane Thomas, and then in Oakland on August 3rd, Munoz got the start in RF with Jose Martinez in the DH spot. Martinez had been awful in the field, and his offense was a shadow of its former self.

The next day, on August 4th, Carpenter was activated from the IL, Rangel Ravelo was optioned to AAA Memphis, and here is where things went from the ridiculous to the sublime. For the August 4th game at Oakland, Carpenter started at third base, Jose Martinez was the DH, and Shildt started Edman in right field. Fans—especially VEB people—couldn’t understand it. At this point in the season, Edman was slashing .248/.281/.411 with a 3.7% BB rate and 20.7% K rate and an 80 wRC+ in 135 PA. Shildt would only say that Edman was an athlete and we needed a left-handed bat.

Of course, there were several problems with this. Although Edman did have some clutch hits at times, nothing he had done at that point indicated that it was important to keep his bat in the lineup, especially in right field. Edman had 2 starts in center field with Memphis in 2019, but aside from that, he hadn’t played the outfield since high school. Meanwhile, Lane Thomas, who had led the organization in home runs in 2018 was a real outfielder with speed, who was languishing on the bench and couldn’t buy a start. What about the outfield defense? The “left-handed bat” comment confounded us, as the switch-hitting Edman had always been a much stronger offensive player from the right side of the plate, especially from a power standpoint. People rightly questioned whether this was the right time—the Cards were in a pennant race, just one-half game behind the Cubs for the NL Central Division lead—to be conducting experiments. The most anyone could say for the move was that at least Shildt hit Edman 8th that day instead of leadoff.

Edman would go on to start 7 of the next 13 games though August 19th in right field, at first as the long side of a platoon with Jose Martinez with Carpenter back in the lineup at third base. When Jose Martinez had to go on the IL on August 12th, Edman would continue to play almost every day at either third base when Carpenter would DH against the Royals, at second when Wong would occasionally rest against a left-hander or in right field. Randy Arozarena (who was tearing the cover off the ball in Memphis) and Lane Thomas only got a couple of starts each. When Harrison Bader was recalled on August 20th, that pushed Fowler back to right field, and ended the Edman outfield experiment for the most part during the regular season. Edman would only get 4 more starts in right field the rest of the regular year.

Carpenter Gets Benched

At the time of Bader’s recall on August 20th, Carpenter was slashing .215/.324/.367 with an 85 wRC+. According to Fangraphs at that time, Edman, who was slashing .271/.302/.425 with a 90 wRC+ in 189 PA, was more valuable in terms of WAR than Carpenter had been in 396 PA and 95 games. Carpenter and Edman platooned the next two games while neither man got a hit. On August 22nd against the Rockies, Shildt sat Carpenter against a right-hander in favor of Edman, who went 2 for 4 with a double. Edman would start the next two games at third base. Wong fouled a pitch off of his toe in that 2nd game, which caused him to rest for 3 games and restored Carpenter to the lineup at third base, with Edman shifting over to second. When Wong returned to the lineup on August 28th, Carpenter went back to the bench. Carpenter would start 15 games the rest of the year, but three of those were due to doubleheaders, three were games where Fowler or Bader rested with Edman in right field, and Edman rested another day. Carpenter only got the other 8 starts to close out the regular season because Wong injured his hamstring running the bases on September 19th against the Cubs.

Edman started at third base for the first two games of the NLDS with Carpenter on the bench, until Shildt decided to bench Bader after Game Two. For the last three games of the NLDS and the first two games of the NLCS, Edman started in right field with Dexter Fowler at center field and Carpenter at third base. Edman returned to third base for the final two games, with Carpenter back to the bench for the rest of the series. Edman closed the regular season with a .304/.350/.500 slash line.

How Real was Edman’s Season?

When you look at Edman’s final slash line of .304/.350/.500, you might think it was awesome and he should play every day somewhere for sure. But take an arbitrary point like August 20th, the date that Bader came back from Memphis and Edman stopped playing in the outfield. Before that game, Edman had a .271/.302/.425 slash line with a 90 wRC+ in 189 PA. From August 20th until the end of the regular season, Edman slashed .345/.406/.593 with a 162 wRC+ in 160 PA. He ran a .383 BABIP during that stretch, which was 40 points higher than any other month he played during the season. He also hit 6 out of his 11 total home runs during that period (all 6 hit between September 6th and September 23rd).

On September 11th, Edman’s OBP was .309 with 16 games to go. From September 20th through the final game on September 29th, Edman was hit with a whopping 5 pitches—literally he got hit every other day during that stretch—despite never being hit by more than 3 pitches in any of his minor league seasons. Being hit 5 times in the final 9 days boosted his OBP by 15 points. Edman also hit 3 of his 7 total triples in the last 10 days of the season, despite only having 3 before September 4th. Until the final 40 days of the season, Edman didn’t do much offensively at all, and it’s a fair question to ask whether Edman just got hot for one month and is closer to the below average .302 OBP/90 wRC+ player he was by late August. On the flip side, however, one might point out that the pre-August 20th version of Edman only had 189 PA, so it is difficult to tell which version is real, and Edman could have settled down after it was clear he was the starter going forward.

Despite all this, Edman was a 3.2 WAR player according to Fangraphs, which was 3rd best of the non-pitchers (behind DeJong and Wong) and a 2.3 BWARP player according to Baseball Prospectus, which was 4th best of the non-pitchers (behind DeJong, Wong and Bader). This can be viewed as a referendum on just how disappointing the Cards’ offense was.

Edman’s Projections

The projection systems don’t buy his 2019 season at all. PECOTA from Baseball Prospectus pegs him at a .262/.309/.413 over 560 PA with an 89 DRC+ and 1.1 WARP. DRC+ is the go-to overall offensive metric from BP that accounts for park effects, quality of pitching opposition, weather, umpires and a whole host of other factors, and is their competitor statistic to wRC+ from Fangraphs. You can read more about DRC+ here (free article). John LaRue also wrote about DRC+ in December of 2018 here, and his article gives additional links to the explanation of DRC+ and its methodology. Baseball Prospectus didn’t even believe that Edman’s season was as strong as Fangraphs did, giving Edman a 110 DRC+ with a standard deviation of 6. That means that they were confident he fell somewhere between 104 and 116, but definitely not as high as 123. Despite those differences, both systems have him at right around 10% below average for next season offensively.

The other projections are a tad more favorable, but not much. None have him with an OBP higher than .324 or even an average wRC+. ZiPS projects him for 2.3 WAR, which is the highest of the projections that use fWAR, but a 91 wRC+, which is the lowest of the projections that use that metric. Apparently, Dan Z agrees with BP that Edman will play more than the other projection systems, but will not take advantage of the extra playing time. Most likely, none of the projection systems believe that Edman will be able to .343 BABIP his way to an above average offensive line in the major leagues for a full season, especially after the league has had a look at him. And whether they believe that the ball will be de-juiced or that his new found power is not real, they don’t buy Edman as someone who can slug .500.

Edman’s Future

Whether Edman’s 2019 season was legit or not, he’s not going anywhere any time soon. Shildt loves his work ethic, his athleticism and his coachability. Edman does have good speed, and was the Cards’ best base stealer in terms of percentage last year, stealing 15 bases while only being caught once. He stole 9 bases in Memphis last year without being caught and stole bases at an 84% clip the year before in Springfield. His legs can turn singles into doubles and doubles into triples. Baseball Prospectus had him edging Bader for the Cards’ best base runner last season, while Fangraphs had Wong ahead by .5 BsR. Either way, his speed and instincts on the bases are a tool that Shildt can use.

How much Edman plays I feel will largely rest on what happens with Matt Carpenter. Other than walk rate and ISO, Edman beat Carpenter in every important category, including base running and defense. Because of Carpenter’s 2018 season and contract extension, he will get every chance to reclaim the third base job and redeem himself from his historically poor 2019. If Carpenter struggles out of the gate, the only question will be how long Shildt lets it linger. He pulled the trigger about two weeks after Carpenter came off of the injured list in August. Will he pull it in mid-May or early June if Carpenter flounders early?

Shildt could also choose to rest Carpenter, DeJong and Wong more, and even Fowler, instead of running the same lineup into the ground throughout the season. If Shildt does that, then Edman could get 500 PA by not really being a bench player. DeJong played 156 games at shortstop last year and looked worn down at times towards the end. With over 2000 innings played at short, Edman is a credible option there to give DeJong some rest. Both Wong and Carpenter could be sat against tough lefties. Hopefully, the Edman in the outfield experiment is over and O’Neill, Bader and Thomas get the bulk of that playing time. While Edman may not be as valuable as his 2019 season indicates, his overall skill set, when deployed properly, is a valuable one, and he will be a mainstay of the roster in 2020.

2019 Statistics

349 PA, .304/.350/500, 11 HR, 16 BB, 61 SO, .346 BABIP, 123 wRC+, 110 DRC+, 3.2 fWAR, 2.3 BWARP

2020 Projections

PECOTA

560 PA, .262/.309/.413, 14 HR, 30 BB, 102 SO, .302 BABIP, 89 DRC+, 1.1 BWARP

ZIPS

576 PA, .269/.315/.408, 12 HR, 33 BB, 98 SO, .308 BABIP, 91 wRC+, 2.3 fWAR

Steamer

481 PA, .275/.322/.421, 11 HR, 27 BB, 80 SO, .313 BABIP, 96 wRC+, 1.2 fWAR

Fangraphs Depth Chart

484 PA, .272/.319/.414, 10 HR, 28 BB, 82 SO, .310 BABIP, 93 wRC+, 1.4 fWAR