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What to do with Tommy Edman

Edman’s minor league profile and current production does not match with his usage. Why is he seeing so much playing time — even in the outfield — and how should the club use him?

St Louis Cardinals v Cincinnati Reds Photo by Joe Robbins/Getty Images

Before Wednesday night’s walk-off loss, the Cardinals offense was inspiring a renewal of hope. A double-header sweep by the lowly Pirates followed by a lackluster weekend series against the Indians, which included a 14-2 trouncing, had left Cardinals nation licking their wounds. The offense was disappearing. The pitching staff, which had been so good, was showing signs of fatigue from the relentless schedule. There were problem areas throughout the roster.

Sunday, however, brought needed change. The club put up seven runs and Adam Wainwright threw a complete game. Nothing like a magical moment to spark some optimism!

It was noted with some surprise by many here on VEB that Tommy Edman started that game in left field. He went 2-4.

Maybe it was superstition. Perhaps it was strategy. Regardless, on Monday the Cardinals traveled to the hitter’s paradise of Cincinnati and Edman was again in the outfield. The short-stop-when-DeJong-is-out started in left and went 2-5 with a double. The Cardinals won 7-5.

On Tuesday it seemed a foregone conclusion. Edman was back in the outfield. The Cardinals bats came alive, winning 16-2 over the shell-shocked Reds. Brad Miller continued his MVP-like season and Tommy Edman went 3 for 7 with another double.

During that three-game stretch, Edman raised his batting average and slugging percentage by over 30 points.

Heading into Wednesday’s contest, Edman carried a respectable .274/.343/.379 slash line. His walk rate is somewhat improved over last season, but his power remains down. In 105 plate appearances, Edman’s WAR is .5. Projected over 600 plate appearances (if this were a full season), Edman would be on pace for an acceptable 2.8 fWAR.

All of that is fine. Not great. Not elite. But not bad, especially for a player who has spent most of his time at SS. Tommy Edman has been a fine player.

There is absolutely a place for a player like Edman on a roster and often in a lineup.

The problem is that it seems like the Cardinals are expecting more than fine from him. Edman is second on the team in plate appearances and defensive innings, behind Paul Goldschmidt. COVID ravaging the club’s infield depth is part of this. Another part is that the club has set expectations for Edman based on his surprising 2019 debut.

An 850 OPS (his ‘19 total) switch hitter who can provide good defense at 6 (probably 7) positions? That dude’s gotta play!

Well, despite what his stats from last year say, that dude isn’t Tommy Edman.

There’s little to no reason to believe that Edman’s 2019 season was much more than a small-sample-size, high-BABIP’ed fueled aberration. Edman is a fine player. He is not and won’t be a great one.

To understand this, set aside slash lines for a moment, and consider each stop that Edman made in the minors in their context. Edman’s slash lines fall within a significant range: from a terrible .247/.298/.347 to an incredible .305/.356/.513. However, his context-specific wRC+ reveals a player who performed consistently across diverse offensive environments. From A ball through AAA as a 22-24-year-old, Edman produced wRC+’s of 118, 106, 80, 108, 108, 108.

That was followed by a 123 wRC+ last season in the majors, the highest he had produced above his first stop in pro ball. That 123 wRC+ last season, as good as it looks on the surface, has nothing to support it. It came with an unsustainable .346 BABIP, by far the highest ISO and HR/FB% of his pro career, and a walk rate of just 4.7%.

Edman probably had his luck-induced career year as a rookie.

His minor league profile sets a much clearer picture of Edman’s likely MLB career. Edman has consistently shown that he is a good average hitter, who can carry a slightly higher than expected BABIP because of his speed and contact ability. However, that contact ability comes with very little power and a walk rate that is consistently average or below. He can play everywhere on the defense and can run the bases.

What role would you carve out for a player with that profile? Everyday “must start” player regardless of position or who he displaces? Or useful, jack-of-all-trades master-of-none utility infielder?

Projection systems strongly support the second view.

For the rest of the season, ZiPS has Edman at .270/.323/.399. Steamer agrees: .268/.320/.406. Both systems see Edman as a 92 wRC+ player. That’s well below average for starters, even among middle infielders.

Three-year ZiPS has Edman providing a .308 wOBA this season before progressing to a .314 at age 27.

Every other piece of Edman’s statistical profile except his 2019 MLB peformance is consistent. His 2020 season, with his current 99 wRC+ (as of Thursday morning), provides some hope that he might outperform 50th percentile projections, but he’s still a very long way from being the player he was last season.

Who is Tommy Edman? He is an asset to a club as a high-contact, defensive-oriented support infielder.

Maybe Shildt and company need to start factoring that into his usage.

This is old news, but the Cardinals have a wealth of young outfielders that need playing time. Yes, some of those outfielders are struggling – particularly Carlson and O’Neill – but the club has to show these potentially high-output outfielders even the smallest amount of patience.

Consider what Edman just did. Despite entering the weekend with the second-most plate appearances on the club, it took him just three pretty-good but not-awesome games to raise his season’s stats from depressing to exceeds expectations.

This is a literal statement: If Tyler O’Neill has two solid games in a row, with an extra-base hit and a homer thrown in, he would probably be even with or surpass Edman’s current wRC+. Same for Carlson. Bader’s already ahead of Edman anyway, with a handful of powerful performances scattered amidst a bunch of shaky plate appearances. The club has so few games this season that everything about a player can change in the span of a day.

So, why is Edman starting in the outfield? Why is he a lineup lock, despite his weak offensive profile?

It’s certainly not because of longterm projections. This is where the Cardinals stated desires for the season – getting a look at their young players – is butting up against the reality of a compressed season.

Streaks matter over a short period of time. A “hot player” means more to a club over a few games than a talented player.

In a 162 game season, talent usually wins. All the hots and colds even out for all the players. In a normal season, Brad Miller might have an incredible two weeks followed by a forgettable two months and his final stat lines are likely to fall within a relatively predictable range. That’s the nature of baseball.

Tommy Edman is playing right now because Shildt likes the way he is swinging the bat. While Tommy was getting hot, the rest of the outfield was growing cold. The solution was simple, right? Plug Tommy in to left, benefit from this short stretch of production and live with the consequences later.

It doesn’t seem like Shildt has much patience for patience. With the club hovering around .500 and desperate for a spark, it’s hard to blame him.

The Cardinals, though, and especially management, have to balance that with proper expectations for its players. That goes for Edman and also for their stable of still unproven outfielders. Sure, ride some hot streaks as they happen but don’t let a streak influence the club’s picture of a player’s true ability over the long haul.

Brad Miller is not a perennial MVP candidate. Tommy Edman is not an 850 OPS infielder.

Tyler O’Neill is not a sub-650 OPS hitter. Dylan Carlson will get better against changeups.

There is also space for Edman where he belongs: on the infield. As he continues to age, Matt Carpenter’s profile is becoming increasingly bleak. While Edman and Miller are hot, the club should definitely consider sitting Carp more regularly. With double headers coming and few off days, Wong and DeJong also need a few days off here and there. All of that should allow Edman to start 4/5 out of 7 games a week. That’s more than enough playing time for a player of Edman’s true capacity.

Resetting those expectations for Edman allows the outfield to re-enter its gladiator-death-match cycle, where there are few clear answers and a lot of stat-line carnage. Talent, as well as streakiness, should play a role there, as well. With Fowler out, though, the club has 4 guys to play and 3 spots. It really doesn’t take a creative genius to find significant playing time for everyone. It just doesn’t need to include Tommy Edman.

Edman looks like he might exceed projections. But it also looks like he’s going to miss 2019’s expectations. It’s time to recenter those on who Edman really is and value him for what he can actually provide.