Tommy Edman is a star. It’s as simple as that. He may be an unheralded star, but a star is a star nonetheless.
He’s not the typical star either. Generally if you ask a fan if a certain player is a star you might as well ask a different question: Would you want him batting (or pitching) with the game on the line? The answer to that question would have a strong correlation with the answer to the first question.
That’s the problem for Tommy Edman. If the game was on the line, you wouldn’t want him hitting.
I don’t want to speak for everyone but I think there’s at least five other hitters on the team that would be preferable to Edman — Arenado, Goldschmidt, Pujols (vs an LHP), Donovan, and probably Nootbaar. There may even be more that I’m not naming.
Edman is a different kind of star. He’s a defense and baserunning star. What has really pushed him into the stardom stratosphere, though, is a better bat.
IF you’re not convinced that he’s a star, let’s look at WAR. Edman ranks 14th among position players in fWAR (5.6) and 4th among position players in bWAR (6.5). Overall those numbers rise slightly to 15th and 6th, respectively, when pitchers are added to the tally.
I think most people would call a top-15 player a star. And that’s exactly what Edman is. What I want to do in this piece is dive into how he got there.
Last year, Edman posted a 91 wRC+. He did the same the year before. It’s hard to call a player a star when he’s a below average hitter. The real difference for Edman this year has been his bat.
I’ll spend plenty of time discussing how his bat has been more dangerous in 2022 but what I want to start with is a discussion of how surprising it is that Edman’s bat has broken out this year. Let’s start with the negatives first.
Tommy Edman is hitting more ground balls, fewer line drives, and fewer fly balls. He also has a career high chase rate that’s nearly 3% above league average and a career high whiff rate (though it’s still 5% below the league average).
So, that means he’s become an above average hitter by hitting more groundballs, chasing more and whiffing more. That’s usually not a winning combination. If I had seen only those numbers, I wouldn’t have assumed a 20 point increase in Edman’s wRC+.
Edman’s breakout has come in other ways.
The infielder has never been considered much of a power hitter, and for good reason. He’s never had a league average exit velocity and he hits a lot of ground balls.
That’s not necessarily changing, but all of a sudden, Edman’s batted balls have become more dangerous in the air.
Last season, he compiled a 70 wRC+ on fly balls. That’s incredibly low. Players usually get the bulk of their production on balls in the air. Line drives are one thing. Hitters always put up gaudy numbers on line drives.
Fly balls are supposed to bring a lot of production too. In fact, the league average wRC+ on fly balls is 131. Last year it was 141. So, Edman’s wRC+ was literally half the league average. Factor that in with a high ground ball rate and it makes sense why he was a below average hitter in 2021.
That’s changed this year, though. His wRC+ on fly balls is 122 this year. The last time he posted a wRC+ on flyballs that high was his rookie season, and we all remember how well he hit that year.
So, even though Edman is a ground ball hitter, his fly ball production is what has allowed him to break out.
Let’s find out why that is.
The main reason is that Edman is hitting the ball harder. His exit velocity has eclipsed the league average for the first time in his career (88.8 mph vs league average of 88.4). Keeping that in mind, it’s no wonder his fly ball production has moved back toward the average.
That’s been the key for him. His barrel rate is still below average but his hard hit rate isn’t. He may not be finding the ideal combination of exit velocity and launch angle as often but he is certainly hitting the ball hard more consistently than he ever has.
Exit velocity is huge on fly balls. A few extra ticks can be the difference between an outfielder getting burned or a fly out. It can also mean the difference between a ball going over the fence or staying on the field.
It’s no wonder Edman has a career high home run total with two weeks left in the season. And that’s with him hitting fewer fly balls. We can only imagine what more fly balls would mean, especially since he only has a 69 wRC+ on grounders (and that’s a career high).
Exit velocity truly does go a long way for hitters. It’s especially important for hitters like Edman who don’t hit a ton of line drives.
His fly balls are no longer lazy outs. He can actually be productive when he hits the ball in the air and that has allowed him to take the next step at the plate.
The next thing Edman has done is figure out how to hit fastballs.
Last year he had a .311 wOBA against heaters. This year, that figure has risen to .359. His exit velocity against the pitch is also 1.6 mph higher.
It’s not simply fastballs, though. The real difference is that he’s adjusted and learned how to hit velocity. In 2021, he batted just .196 against fastballs at 95 mph or more. This year, he’s batting .315. That’s a heck of a change.
It’s tough to be a productive hitter if you can’t hit a fastball. Edman learned that last year. If a hitter can hit fastballs well enough, he doesn’t need to be productive against anything else.
Don’t believe me? Let’s use Edman as an example. Here are his numbers against the different pitch types.
Edman vs. Pitch Types
|Exit Velocity (mph)
|Whiff Rate (%)
|Exit Velocity (mph)
|Whiff Rate (%)
I wouldn’t say he’s been productive against non-fastballs this year. In fact, he was actually more productive against them last year.
But it doesn’t matter. He’s raking fastballs and almost 60% of the pitches he sees are fastballs. No wonder 10 of his 13 home runs have come against the heater.
He has learned how to hit velocity and that has made him an above average hitter.
Positional Change and Baserunning
I listed this point second because I don’t want it to seem like a cop out. Tommy Edman has not become a star simply because he plays a different position.
Yet, it’s still important to note that Edman moving from elite second baseman to elite shortstop has been huge. Shortstop is another level. It’s the most valuable infield position and the hardest one to play (not considering catching).
We all knew how good of a defender Edman was at second base but that’s was not a guarantee that he could handle a more demanding position.
Positional changes aren’t always straightforward. We’ve seen Tyler O’Neill struggle a bit in centerfield this year after playing Gold Glove defense in left field last year.
Credit is due to Edman for not skipping a beat. There were questions about his arm strength but he has shown more than enough. Don’t be fooled, though. His arm isn’t elite. His footwork is. Edman gets to balls quickly and sets himself up to make a good throw.
He’s never going to make the Nolan Arenado type plays where he goes deep in the hole and throws across his body with enough strength to reach Goldy on the fly. He’ll make every other play, though, and he’ll make it look easy.
As I wrote on Sunday, Edman could be a Gold Glover at either second or short this year. That’s not something you can say about too many players.
And this is what makes Edman a star. He’s not a great hitter. He’s good but he’s not great. But when you add good hitting to Gold Glove quality defense at a premium position and elite base running, you get enough value to make someone a top 15 player.
And make no mistake about it, Tommy Edman is an elite base runner. In fact, he’s the elite base runner. Nobody else even comes close according to Fangraphs’ BsR metric. Edman is at 8.1. The next highest player is Jon Berti at 7.1.
Edman is also tied for second in MLB in stolen bases. What’s even more impressive than his total of 31 is the fact that he’s only been caught 3 times. Cedric Mullins also has 31 stolen bases but he’s been caught a whopping 10 times.
Edman can take extra bases without costing his team an out. There’s plenty of value in that. He’s aggressive but not too aggressive and this helps him get into scoring position and generate runs.
Hitting is the most valuable tool. An elite hitter is almost always a star player. That’s not the only avenue to stardom, though. Elite defense, elite base running, and above average hitting is more than enough to catapult a player into stardom.
Last year, the discussion about Edman centered on the issue of whether or not he should hit leadoff. That question has died down this year. That’s partly due to the emergence of Lars Nootbaar and Brendan Donovan but it’s also due to Edman’s production this year.
Edman has become a star the same way that Tyler O’Neill became one last year.
Now, Edman needs to prove that this season isn’t a fluke. He needs to keep feasting on fastballs but he’s already shown that he belongs at short and nobody questions his base running ability.
He’s one of the best players in baseball even though his stardom may look a little different. He has the lowest wRC+ of any player ranked in the top 37 in fWAR but that doesn’t matter. He adds a ton of value to this team and the St. Louis Cardinals have needed everything he has provided.