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Luke Voit might be learning the outfield and that’s fine

The botched Matt Adams left field experiment should not scare the Cardinals away from positional versatility

St Louis Cardinals v Pittsburgh Pirates Photo by Justin K. Aller/Getty Images

In March 2017, following an off-season in which long-time St. Louis Cardinals left fielder Matt Holliday went to the New York Yankees after the Cardinals did not exercise their 2017 option for his services, and in which 2015 trade deadline acquisition Brandon Moss similarly departed via free agency (in his case, to the Kansas City Royals) with little-to-no effort from the Cardinals to retain him, the Cardinals were forced to explore options for outfield depth.

Because the team had signed Dexter Fowler to play center field, 2016 center fielder Randal Grichuk shifted to left field, but somebody had to be the backup plan. Would it be Tommy Pham, whose center field experience made him a natural candidate to assume a corner outfield spot, and whose 111 career OPS+ indicated potential to be above-average offensively? Nope—Pham began the year in Memphis. How about Jose Martinez, who earned a spot with St. Louis in lieu of Pham, was primarily a corner outfielder in the minors, and, it turns out, was a superb hitter in 2017? Try again.

It was Matt Adams, previously the starting first baseman before being usurped due to another Matt Carpenter defensive switch, who became the secondary option in left field. There was a logic to it—Adams was an above-average Major League hitter (relative to all hitters rather than comparing him to starting first basemen, who have a much higher standard) and left field, while generally considered more difficult than first base defensively, is not such a premium spot that a sub-par fielder cannot make up for it with offense.

It is hard to articulate how bad Matt Adams was defensively in left field in 2017. His .926 fielding percentage was dreadful, but it’s a very flawed statistic because it does not properly account for range. By Ultimate Zone Rating, which (obviously) considers range, Adams was below-average in 34 13 innings as the Cardinals left fielder, but this is far too small of a sample size for evaluating a player (also, he was above-average by UZR in 95 left field innings with the Atlanta Braves). The numbers were poor and the eye test went no better. Consider that Dave Cameron of FanGraphs titled his evaluation of the situation “What’s the Point of the Matt Adams Outfield Experiment?” It was a question many of us were asking.

The emergence of Tommy Pham as a formidable backup a formidable starter the greatest player in franchise history a very good starting left fielder helped cover up how poorly the Matt Adams left field experiment went. The Cardinals tried to find versatility but in reality overextended Adams and turned what could have been a useful reserve (even if Adams could only play first base, Matt Carpenter logged double-digit starts at second and third base in 2017) into somebody jettisoned for Juan Yepez, at best a minor prospect.

In 2017, twenty-six year-old Luke Voit, a St. Louis-area (Wildwood) native who attended Missouri State University (none of this is relevant information in discussing him as a player, but it is against the law to not mention these things when talking about Voit), made his MLB debut and was fine. In 124 plate appearances, his wRC+ was 94, though he hit the ball hard enough to suggest his true talent exceeds his 2017 results—his expected wOBA of .325 cleared his actual wOBA of .316, and his isolated slugging percentage, a reflection of his raw power, of .184 equaled that of Corey Seager.

He could afford to draw more walks, as he drew one in just 5.6% of his plate appearances, but Voit did tend to draw them at a reasonable rate in the minors. His overall minor league hitting production continued to climb as he rose through the ranks—in 307 plate appearances at AAA Memphis last season, Voit triple-slashed .327/.407/.565, for a 152 wRC+. He was the minor league equivalent of Freddie Freeman, and while it would be unreasonable to expect Voit to be that in the Majors, he showed serious promise.

But entering Spring Training, Luke Voit is making an effort, like Matt Adams the year before, to transition from a MLB first baseman without a spot ready for him in the majors to a more versatile fielder who would make more sense to employ on benches which have, thanks to expanding bullpens, shrunk over the years.

The resemblance of the Voit experiment to the spectacular failure that was Matt Adams in the outfield last Spring is easy to see, but there are a few key differences between the two experiments.

  • Luke Voit has some experience in the outfield. Granted, not much experience, but more than Adams. While Matt Adams had only played first base throughout his entire professional baseball career, Voit not only played in 12 games in left field in Springfield during the 2016 season, recording 23 putouts, 2 assists, and zero errors, but he began his professional career as a catcher. Voit is unlikely to become a premium defensive left fielder, but there are more signs of versatility than there were for Adams.
  • The Luke Voit experiment is several months in the making. Here is an article from Ben Frederickson of the St. Louis Post-Dispatch from November 10 regarding Luke Voit’s determination to crack the big-league roster by making himself a useful backup outfielder. Per’s Jenifer Langosch, Matt Adams didn’t begin taking reps in the outfield until March 18 of last year, closer to the end of Spring Training than the beginning. Adams to the outfield, while whispered about before March 18, was hastily arranged in practice. With Voit, there appears to be more planning involved.
  • Luke Voit can learn the position in the minors. Voit, to his credit, is a fiery competitor who wants to make the 25-man roster out of Spring Training, though this is not particularly likely. Even if no more free agent position players are signed, a bench of a backup catcher (Carson Kelly), a useful utility infielder (Greg Garcia), a hard-hitting pinch-hitting threat who can serve as a backup at first base and the outfield (Jose Martinez), and a backup center fielder (Harrison Bader or Tyler O’Neill) seems to be the most likely arrangement, with the team carrying eight relievers (the cutoff, going by the team’s official depth chart, is John Brebbia making the bullpen and Ryan Sherriff missing it). Matt Adams was entering his fifth season as a full-time MLB player and while he could have been sent to AAA to work on his fielding, it would’ve been much trickier from a human resources perspective than it would be for Voit, far less established as a Major League player.

The Matt Adams experiment was more poorly constructed than it was poorly conceived. Giving it a try in Spring Training was never the problem—the Cardinals knew what he would be as a first baseman, and trying to catch lightning in a bottle was worth the attempt. And while the Cardinals organization is stocked with outfielders, even after the departures of Randal Grichuk and Stephen Piscotty, it wouldn’t hurt to find another one if Voit has that potential. If he doesn’t, and he truly can only play first base competently, then he can stay in Memphis for the foreseeable future, but it’s for the best for the Cardinals and for Voit to see if he can expand his role.