St. Louis Cardinals: Will the real Lane Thomas please stand up?

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Lane Thomas #35 of the St Louis Cardinals bats during a game against the Cincinnati Reds at Great American Ball Park on September 1, 2020 in Cincinnati, Ohio. The Cardinals defeated the Reds 16-2. (Photo by Joe Robbins/Getty Images)
Lane Thomas #35 of the St Louis Cardinals bats during a game against the Cincinnati Reds at Great American Ball Park on September 1, 2020 in Cincinnati, Ohio. The Cardinals defeated the Reds 16-2. (Photo by Joe Robbins/Getty Images) /
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It’s hard to gauge St. Louis Cardinals outfielder Lane Thomas after his two seasons with the big club.

St. Louis Cardinals outfielder Lane Thomas was the apple of fans’ eyes following the 2019 season after his small sample size showed strong numbers and advanced metrics to back them up. But he cratered in 2020, albeit in another abbreviated showing, so it’s difficult to figure out where Thomas stands with the team.

A wrist injury cut Thomas’ season short in 2019, but the stats showed promise: A slash line of .316/.409/.684 excited fans, and he was only improving as the season progressed before he was knocked out. He had an expected batting average of .287, which showed he was fortuitous in some ways, but it was still a strong number that had the potential to be repeated.

While Thomas’ 2019 with the Cardinals had fans singing his praises, clouds had formed for him in Triple-A in 2019 before he was promoted to the big club. While his line of .268/.352/.460 appeared consistent with his performance at Double-A in 2018, he also struck out more often and hit for less power despite Triple-A’s status as a launching pad that year.

The 2020 season fans were looking forward to from Thomas never materialized, but of course that wasn’t all his fault. As we all know, COVID-19 prevented the season from being its normal length, and Thomas wound up with nearly as many plate appearances as he had in 2019 (40 in 2020 to 44 in 2019). But this time, Thomas’ production collapsed.

A slash line of .111/.200/.250 isn’t going to win you any admirers, and Thomas never looked right in his brief time, which very well could have been a result of his testing positive for COVID-19. But the deeper statistics also show the pendulum of luck had swung to the other side. His exit velocity was less than 1 mile per hour slower than in 2019, and the percentage of balls he hit on the sweet spot actually increased.

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Fans’ expectations of Thomas have receded drastically in one year, and that’s not entirely fair. While it was likely putting too much on him to expect him to repeat his 2019, giving a player who has consistently performed well in the minor leagues flak for a poor performance in 2020 after he fell ill and had bad luck seems to be selling him short.

Thomas’ role in 2021 will likely be as a fourth outfielder, serving as a reserve when Dylan Carlson, Harrison Bader or Tyler O’Neill take a day off, and he should serve well in that role. The trade of Dexter Fowler to the Los Angeles Angels solves the issue of the crowded outfield and should allow Thomas a fair chance to show what he can do.

While the law of averages is a tired point in baseball, it’s used for a reason. Thomas likely won’t repeat his 2019 season, but he probably won’t experience the lows of 2020 either. When Thomas finally gets a full season’s worth of plate appearances (and the way the season is shaping up to look in 2021, that may not occur this year), he should provide production as a decent reserve.

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As Thomas looks to find his footing after a rocky 2020 season, fans should give him another chance to prove his mettle. He could even find his way into the starting lineup if someone else falters, and this post-hype sleeper could be just what the Cardinals need in the outfield.

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