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Tommy Edman, Pretty Good Player

Tommy Edman is pretty good, even if he isn’t getting enough credit for being so.

Los Angeles Dodgers v St Louis Cardinals Photo by Dilip Vishwanat/Getty Images

Back over the offseason, I was working, briefly, on a piece that I wanted to title something along the lines of, “The Ten Hottest Takes of the Offseason”, or something similarly silly. The idea was that I would come up with ten opinions that I was sure would be controversial, then argue briefly for each one. That is, quite obviously, nothing revolutionary; it’s essentially the take machine method of sportswriting that drives nearly every sports talk radio show across this great, but deeply flawed, nation of ours.

I’m not usually a big hot take type person; slow, carefully considered positions are usually more my stock in trade, which is probably why I’m not exactly the most in-demand commodity on the sportswriter market these days. (Or any other days, for that matter.) But I was going to give it a shot; a big, loud, brash column throwing around a bunch of noisy takes. Every once in awhile it’s nice to kind of cut loose and just yell some dumb stuff out and see who wants to argue.

The problem was, I ended up not being able to come up with ten hot takes. Turns out, writing obnoxious opinion pieces to air on Weasel and the Bone’s morning drivetime show must be tougher than I realised, because I’m not very good at it. I got to about six hot takes — and trust me, calling a couple of them ‘hot’ is stretching the word to absurd proportions; these takes were lukewarm at best, with one or two exceptions — and then just ran out of steam. I think I ended up using one or two of those ideas as the basis for other columns, but for the most part, I just gave up on Aaron Schafer, Take Machine.

I tell you that to tell you this: one of my hot takes was going to be that the St. Louis Cardinals were not a worse team in 2021 for letting Kolten Wong leave, because Tommy Edman was just as good a player, maybe better. At the time, there was a lot of consternation in Birdos land due to the Cards letting Wong walk over what was seen as a still-reasonable 2021 salary of $12 million, if I remember correctly. My hot take post was begun before the Cards acquired Nolan Arenado, as well, meaning that at the time it was seen as a strict cost-cutting measure, and the 2021 Cardinals were being viewed as a middle of the road, probably third-place team. (As opposed to what they ended up being, which is a...oh, never mind.)

My argument was this: Kolten Wong was roughly a league-average hitter, a good to very good baserunner, and a brilliant defender, while Edman was roughly a league-average hitter, a very good to excellent baserunner, and a plus or better defender who might not have Wong’s highlight reel ability, but who should turn in outstanding defensive numbers most of the time. I was going to argue Edman might actually be better than Wong, but I didn’t really mean that. What I did believe was that Tommy Edman would be so solid in 2021 that we would not really miss Kolten Wong.

Well, little problem with all that. Kolten Wong went to the Brewers and has turned in a career season with the bat, posting the highest wRC+ of his career at 112, while still playing plus defense, if not quite defense of the kind he was known for at his best in St. Louis. Tommy Edman, meanwhile, scuffled through much of the middle of the season, leading to his current wRC+ of 92, and played entirely too much right field early in the season, including long stretches where the Cardinals ran Matt Carpenter out at second while Edman patrolled right, largely due to a lack of really good outfield options. Edman has, to his credit, been an elite baserunner this year, adding over six runs of value on the basepaths, while Wong is just above the break-even mark for the season. Still, when we add it all up, Edman has collected 611 plate appearances and 1.9 wins above replacement according to FanGraphs, while Wong has posted 2.8 fWAR in just 429 plate appearances. If we take those numbers as gospel, it’s very hard to argue the Cardinals did not make a mistake pivoting from Wong to Edman, even with a marked disparity in cost. (Wong is making $9 million this year; Edman just $569K.)

However, there is an interesting twist to this story; namely, the fact that FanGraphs’ version of WAR seems to like Tommy Edman substantially less than maybe it should. Over at Baseball-Reference, Wong has the same 2.8 WAR, but Edman jumps all the way from 1.9 fWAR to 3.3 bWAR. The culprit, it seems, is UZR, which for some reason really doesn’t like Tommy Edman, either at second base or in right field. At second base, UZR/150 pegs Edman as a +1.2 defender, which sounds fine, but only is a player also happens to be a good hitter, which Edman, admittedly, really isn’t. On the other hand, plus/minus and DRS both think Edman is an outstanding defender, to the tune of +8 and +5 ratings, respectively, not scaled to a full season of playing time. Plus/minus thinks Edman was a pretty solid right fielder, as well, with a +3 rating in just 284 innings. DRS has him as a scratch defender in the outfield. UZR/150 thinks he would cost the team 6.3 runs over a full season.

So of the three big defensive systems we have access to here, two believe Tommy Edman to be at least a competent outfielder and an outstanding second baseman. The third, on the other hand, thinks he’s horrible in the outfield and just above average at the keystone. The whys of why this might be happening are really beyond me to understand, but the point is this: we have three systems, two pointing one direction, the other pointing the opposite way. I am inclined to believe the two over the one, meaning I think bWAR is probably better here than fWAR.

But here’s the thing: we don’t have to just rely on those three systems anymore. We have the even more granular and, so I have been led to believe, more objective and reliable defensive measurements of Outs Above Average, the statcast-based system used over at Baseball Savant. OAA measures things in a different way than the other systems, telling us more about what the player actually did, rather than simply attempting to measure how often a play would be made, and so should be more reliable in smaller samples.

So what does Outs Above Average say about Tommy Edman’s defense? Well, in the outfield, OAA says he’s exactly average, adding no catch probability nor saving any runs, but also not failing at a higher than average clip. The sample size is obviously very small; outfield chances accrue more slowly than those of infielders, and Edman has spent fewer than 300 innings in the outfield this year. At second base, however, OAA paints the picture of Tommy Edman as a defensive beast, racking up twelve outs beyond an average player at the position. That +12 number puts him in the 98th percentile for all players in baseball (admittedly that’s a counting stat rather than a rate stat, but still), meaning that Tommy Edman should, if OAA is to be believed, be seen as one of the elite defenders in the game right now, or at the very least a top-quality second baseman.

As for the hitting side of things, Edman is, and probably always will be, limited by the lack of walks in his profile. He is very good at making contact and avoiding strikeouts, but he doesn’t hit the ball particularly hard on average, and his aversion to free passes (admittedly, that’s as much a function of pitchers aggressively throwing strikes to a hitter they aren’t all that afraid of as it is Edman’s own level of aggression), limit his upside to probably no more than a roughly league-average hitter, even without the mid-season swoon he went through this year. Still, he’s leading the National League in doubles, his expected stats at Baseball Savant believe he’s gotten a little unlucky and should be closer to 100 than 90 in terms of wRC+, and he has stolen 25 bases in 30 tries, an 83% success rate well above the break-even point for swiping bags.

It is also worth noting that while Tommy Edman is a very suboptimal choice to play right field, all things considered, that’s not really a knock on the player himself, but rather an issue with the way the Cards’ roster was constructed (or half-constructed, as the case may be), this past offseason, and even more the simple bad luck of having every fourth outfield candidate they threw at the wall come up snake eyes until Lars Nootbaar came along and seems to have grabbed himself at least a pretty solid hold on a spot. Edman is being penalised, both in terms of stats and public opinion, for doing the job he was asked to do out of necessity. It is worth further noting that Edman has not played the outfield but four times since the beginning of August, and one of those was a late-inning switch due to a pitching change. In other words, as much as I’m sure the Tommy Edman-Mike Shildt jokes will continue, the fact is that once Shildt had good options to put in the outfield, he more or less stopped sticking Edman out there.

The thing is, the 2021 season has been a maddeningly frustrating one. The big offseason acquisition of a top player in Nolan Arenado did not transform the club into the behemoth we hoped, although I maintain that with better health this is still a playoff club, and probably a division contender. The Brewers’ pitching has gone supernova in a really interesting way, and the fact Edman’s predecessor went to Milwaukee and is having a very good season for the runaway division winners pours some extra salt into the wound. But none of this is Tommy Edman’s fault, even though he seems to have become somewhat of a whipping boy for disaffected fans, possibly in part because Jim Edmonds just seems so completely in love with the kid. There’s a bit of Bo Hart love going on there for Tommy, but the difference is that Tommy Edman is actually a really good player.

Now, as to the question of whether the Cardinals would be better off still having Kolten Wong, that’s tougher to answer. Wong has been excellent this year, but most of his offensive gains have come from hitting in a much friendlier environment in Milwaukee, while here in St. Louis the Cardinals are seriously considering moving the fences in because Busch Stadium has become a wasteland for power, to a degree that isn’t entirely being captured by park factor adjustments yet, even. The fact Wong is four and half years older than Edman and makes eight million plus more in salary is tough to ignore, also.

So my hot take of the offseason, that the Cardinals would not miss Kolten Wong because Tommy Edman is just as good, has not necessarily proven to be true. If anything, public opinion has gone the other way, with excessive pining for Wong due to the circumstances of the season not being what we would like.

And so, I offer you this late-season hot take instead of my original: Tommy Edman is pretty good. Not great, but definitely good. More than enough to hold down second base for a contending team in a year when the pitching didn’t self-destruct. And if you’re still hung up on Kolten Wong walking, then that’s fine. I’m not here to tell you how to feel, even if I think you’re wrong. But you’re missing the boat on another real success story for the Cards’ drafting and development wing, because Tommy Edman is, as I believe I said a moment ago, not to mention back in the title, a pretty good player.