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Matt Adams: 2014 season and projections in review

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A look back at Matt Adams' first full season as a starter

"a good hit"
"a good hit"
Dilip Vishwanat/Getty Images

When I begin research for these projections reviews, I attempt to make myself agnostic about the year of the player in question. This is often challenging, as I generally have strong opinions based on watching hundreds of at bats and reading countless articles over the course of the year. However, I had no such difficulty when I began digging into Matt Adams' 2014. What do you make of a young player whose batting average remained impressive and previously concerning strikeout rate dropped, but whose power waned?

On the surface, a bump in batting average is nearly irrelevant compared to a drop in slugging, especially when a player's overall on-base game remains uninspiring, but with a significant drop in K% as well as some narrative elements at play as Adams took on his first full season in the majors (Was he trying to beat the shift? What was behind the huge platoon splits? Was he healthy?), I felt more puzzled than disappointed by his end results. His three post-season homeruns provided some counterweight to my generally negative surface-level impressions as well. Let's take a look at the pre-season projections.

adams projections

It's easy enough to glance at the above and think that VEB did pretty well overall in projecting the first baseman, but a look at the key OPS and wOBA columns reveals that Adams' failure to hit for good power cost his overall line heavily even if a .288 batting average seems nice on the surface. In fact, his line is illustrative of jut how poor a statistic batting average actually is (Tom Tango had a brief and heated argument on twitter yesterday about whether BA is mostly worthless or entirely worthless, stemming from here). In light of mediocre OBP and SLG, batting .288 doesn't mean much at all. Adams' HR total is an illustrative mark, but it's even clearer when we subtract AVG from SLG to reveal isolated power. The range for projected ISO was .199 (ZiPS) to .223 (VEB). Adams ended up at .169.

Returning to the catch-all wOBA and OPS, ZiPS is your 2014 Matt Adams projections winner despite being cumulatively furthest from projecting Adam's BA and OBP based on its pre-season bearishness about his power. It is then disheartening to see that ZiPS is even slightly more pessimistic on Adams' 2015 than it was his 2014.

It's fair to say that Matt Adams' 2014 at the plate was something of a disappointment, but there is plenty beneath these results that we should look at. Before we do that, we should acknowledge that Adams was better defensively than what was generally expected. His 3.1 UZR/150 ranked 9th of 18 qualifying 1B in 2014, and 11th of 30 when the innings limit is dropped to 500, and his -7.5 defensive value was 10th of the qualifying group (remember that is vs defensive value of all positions. No 1B managed a positive mark in 2014). Adams generally showed quick feet and soft hands, and the numbers and my eyes both think he's at least average defensively, if not slightly better.

Back to the bat. 2014 saw Adams expand his zone, swing more, and make more contact than in 2013. He also hit more liners and flyballs with fewer groundballs, while his BABIP remained sturdy.

The following is all from fangraphs.

In 2013, Adams swung at 33.1% of pitches outside the zone and 62.7% of pitches in the zone for a 44.7% swing rate. He made contact with 63.4% of those pitches outside the zone, 87.7% inside, for a 76.7% contact rate.

In 2014, Adams swung at 42.2% of pitches outside the zone and 69.3% of pitches in the zone for a 53.2% swing rate. He made contact with 69% of those pitches outside the zone, 90.6% inside, for an 80.4% contact rate.

The overall percentage of pitches thrown to him in the zone was nearly unchanged at around 40%.

That all explains how Adams shaved points off his walk and strikeout rates in 2014, as the former fell from 7.2% to 4.6% and the latter from 25.1% to 20.2%.

Adams had a reputation as a free-swinger with strong contact skills in the minors (revisit John Sickels' evaluation in early 2012 here, which appears spot-on), and so movement in that direction as Matt becomes more comfortable with major league pitching makes a lot of sense. That 42.2% O-swing number isn't ideal, but there are several similarly aggressive hitters who do well. Adams swung the fith most in MLB at pitches outside the zone. The three names directly behind him are Adam Jones, Jose Abreu and Carlos Gomez. Of the four, Adams had the highest contact rate on those pitches as well as the lowest swing% of pitches in the zone.

There probably isn't much Adams can do about making that much contact outside the zone other than swing less, but given that patience isn't likely to ever be a key part of Adams' game, perhaps it would be beneficial if he could swing at a few more pitches in the zone.  Wait, did I just suggest that Matt Adams should swing more? I guess I did. Swinging outside the zone too often in 2014 didn't prevent him from hitting for average, and he does bad things to baseballs he puts into play on pitches in the zone. Swing at them, Matt.

Here is last year's for comparison:

I'll continue howling in the darkness for Hit F/X to give us better light, but Adams' 2014 LD/GB/FB buckets look good even if we understand they're rather undefined. His linedrive rate rose from 19.4% in 2014 to 24.3% in 2014, and his FB% increased similarly from 36.1% to 41.2% while groundballs fell the 10% difference implied by the other numbers from 44.4 to 34.5%. That's a much better line for a power hitter than what he had in 2013. He popped the ball up more as his IFFB% jumped from a minuscule 2.6% in 2013 to 8.1% in 2014, but 8.1% isn't at all concerning in itself, as many good hitters pop-up far more often.

Let's take a look at the spray charts:

Source: FanGraphs

and from the last two seasons:

Source: FanGraphs

There was a lot of airtime filled, ink spilled, and band widthed over the idea that Adams was trying to poke the ball to left to beat the shift, and he certainly appeared to try that occasionally, but I don't see much evidence above that it was anything more than something he toyed with as an circumstantial tool, and he confirmed as much in interviews. He had a few more popouts down the left field line, and it'd be interesting to try to figure out the cause there. Those look like the increase in IFFB% and probably are also the reason his average flyball distance dropped a bit in 2013. Despite the drop in homers, he hit plenty of deep flyballs in 2014. If he yanked a handful more down the line rather than into the rightfield gap and if he had his nine playoff games, during which he hit three round-trippers, in July, his homerun total would suddenly look a lot better.

There's also been floated the notion that hitting coach John Mabry has instructed hitters to sacrifice power for contact, but reading one of the few discussions he's participated in doesn't support this. His philosophy seems to be: 1. Find a pitch to drive and drive it. 2. If you can't find a pitch to drive, do what you can with what you're given by the pitcher. 3. Don't forget the situation of the inning and game. Plenty of folks have cherry picked out-of-context sentences from Mabry to prove that he has some sort of anti-power policy. Allow me to pick a sentence from the linked article:

But if you’ve got a guy who can hit the ball out of the ballpark 20 or 30 times, you want him hunting more pitches to hit out of the ballpark.

I don't think he's talking about Daniel Descalso. Here's one from Mike Matheny:

I think that everybody just thought that we were either brainwashing them not to hit home runs or else they all lost it collectively and both of them are ridiculous.

I don't see a lot of evidence that the organization's hitting policy was the culprit. Adams hit plenty of deep fly balls and had plenty of power in 2013 under the same regime.

Finally, when considering Adams' 2014, we shouldn't forget that he wasn't a paragon of health. He wore his elbow brace for the first eight weeks of the season despite claiming the joint, which had bone spurs followed by surgery in 2012 and irritation in late 2013, was fine, but then he removed the brace in late May. A calf injury cost him three weeks shortly thereafter, and he suffered a minor oblique injury in September. None of these things should be taken as excuses for his power outage, but better health next season certainly won't hurt.

I think some will recommend more patience from Adams and others might call for a more specific mechanics or approach-based change, like trying to pull everything out to right, but the more I look at what he did in 2014 relative to what we always thought he was and what some of his peers have done, another year of swinging away seems wise. He's a natural hitter, and he has a lot of power in that swing, even if he didn't show it as regularly as we might like last year. And while he has had horrendous platoon splits thus far in his career, I agree with Joe Schwarz that Matt's minor league track record and the league-wide tendency for platoon split outliers to regress toward more typical numbers make Adams likely to improve in that regard. Rather than interfere with his promise before it's had time to fully develop, it might be wisest for him to stick with what made him successful at every stop along the way and for us to recall that the 26 year-old is entering just his second full season in the majors.

Grip it and rip it, Matt Adams.