St. Louis Cardinals: Finding Comps For A Matt Adams Position Change

Feb 27, 2017; Fort Myers, FL, USA; St. Louis Cardinals first baseman Matt Adams (32) smiles as he comes up to bat during the fifth inning against the Boston Red Sox at JetBlue Park. Mandatory Credit: Kim Klement-USA TODAY Sports
Feb 27, 2017; Fort Myers, FL, USA; St. Louis Cardinals first baseman Matt Adams (32) smiles as he comes up to bat during the fifth inning against the Boston Red Sox at JetBlue Park. Mandatory Credit: Kim Klement-USA TODAY Sports /

The St. Louis Cardinals are experimenting with using Matt Adams as an outfielder. How can we expect him to handle the new position?

Saturday morning, Derrick Goold reported that the Cardinals were working with Matt Adams on the Spring Training practice field on playing left field. The first time I remember this even being mentioned by fans was back at the end of February, and now the St. Louis Cardinals are giving the idea a chance.

There is plenty of reason to support this experiment. First, Adams has a career 122 wRC+ (100 is average) against right-handed pitching. The Cardinals want that bat in the lineup when possible, and positional flexibility would unlock more plate appearances.

Additionally, the St. Louis Cardinals might want to build his trade value. Right now, as a power-platoon first base option in today’s slugger market, he basically has none.

Lastly, and perhaps most importantly: it’s Spring Training. So far, he’s simply received instruction in Spring Training practice.

One of the biggest complaints about Adams has always been his lack of positional flexibility. Now that he’s trying to push himself, he’s greeted with even more complaints about playing somewhere other than first base.

As Brenden Schaeffer of KMOV points out, there’s no harm in letting Adams attempt to expand his usefulness. The Cardinals lack MLB-ready depth in the outfield and do not have a left handed outfield bat. If he looks competent enough in practice, the team can test him in exhibition games.

Regardless of how he looks in the outfield during spring, the reality is the result will be unreliable. The decision will be based off the eye test and a few in-game plays. However, we can look at other players who have spent time at both positions to project how Adams might handle the outfield.

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Using the FanGraphs leaderboards, I filtered to find players who spent 500+ innings in a given season at 1B and/or a corner outfield spot over the past ten years, resulting in a sample size of sixteen players. While each specific player’s playing time split between 1B and OF varied, the sample includes approximately 32,000 outfield innings and 32,000 first base innings.

I scaled each player’s Defensive Runs Saved (DRS), Ultimate Zone Rating (UZR), and Defensive Runs Above Average (Def) to one thousand innings. Then, keeping in mind any and all small sample size caveats necessary, I compared their stats by position.

First, I want to look at Def. Since Def does not include a positional adjustment, we can use it to compare the players’ raw defensive quality. This is important because six players in the sample were corner outfielders before moving to first base. If age factored in the defensive translation, we’d expected Def to be lower for these players when playing first base than outfield.

St. Louis Cardinals
St. Louis Cardinals /

Age does not appear to play much of a role, as the players were 1.4 runs better on average per 1,000 innings when playing first base. This suggests that while first base may be an easier position to play, a corner outfield spot is not significantly harder.

Looking at UZR (below), there’s a noticeable positive relationship that shows the sampled players may actually have been better outfielders than they were first basemen. This relationship exists even though ten of the sixteen players were primarily infielders during their time in the minor leagues.

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St. Louis Cardinals /

While there does appear to be a positive relationship, the average UZR/1000 shows that players lose five runs of value after moving from first base to the outfield. This is due to the fact that the two biggest differences (by far) were in the negative direction, with Lucas Duda losing 30 runs and Hanley Ramirez losing 20.

One takeaway from this might be that there is a greater downside risk in moving a player from the first base to the outfield. When it goes wrong, maybe it goes catastrophically wrong.

While the transition for Duda and Ramirez went terribly, the other fourteen players lost only two runs of value, on average. In fact, seven of those players, including four who were primarily infielders throughout the Minor Leagues, improved when moving from first base to the outfield.

Looking at DRS/1000 (below), the data shows a very slight negative correlation, which would indicate that a player loses a small amount of defensive value by moving from first base to the outfield. Given how small this difference is, however, it’s relatively safe to say that, on average, players maintain their defensive value as measured by DRS when moving between first base and the outfield.

St. Louis Cardinals
St. Louis Cardinals /

While it seems counter-intuitive that it would be as “easy” to play the outfield as first base, the data shows that players who spent time at both positions held similar value at each on a rate basis. Granted, we’re dealing with a very small sample size, but it’s worked so far.

Part of the difference may simply be from the positional adjustments associated with each position. In fact, the five-run drop in UZR corresponds almost exactly with the difference in positional adjustment between first base and LF or RF.

Another worthy note is the fact that Adams would be the sixth-best defensive first baseman in this sample. While certainly not a guarantee, it suggests Adams could adjust to a position change better than most.

Additionally, his speed should improve after losing all the weigh this offseason. While there’s not a great public measure for speed, we can use Speed Score (Spd) to get an idea. Even though Adams has been below average over the past three seasons, he’s posted a similar Spd as Brandon Moss and Matt Holliday. Believe it or not, both Moss and Holliday have been about average or better in LF for their careers.

Next: St. Louis Cardinals Show Interest In Derek Norris

It’s hard to tell what any of this means, given the extremely small sample sizes I had to work with. However, it does not appear that professional first baseman are totally inept at playing the outfield, so there’s no reason to dismiss the possibility for Matt Adams before we see him play.