Cardinals: Matt Adams In Left Field? Not Sure It Will Work, But Don’t Forget Chris Duncan

Matt Adams is getting lots of attention for making three catches in Tuesday’s 2-1 loss to the Cubs. A first baseman by trade, Adams is a neophyte in left field, having never played there until the late stages of this year’s Camp Jupiter. This experiment, while worth a look, should have gotten underway at the beginning of spring training.

Adams has a career .284 average vs. RH pitching.

I just wish the Cardinals had started this sooner, just to give the not-as-big man more experience at a new post.

So as Adams begins his journey in left field, expectations are understandably low. He’s basically a trainee out there, learning on the job, and everything he does in LF should assessed accordingly. I think Cardinals fans will be supportive, as they should be. If Adams messes up, I think they will have empathy.

This is hardly an exact parallel, we can look to Chris Duncan as a reference point … an example of how this position switch can work, depending on the goal.

If it’s all about finding a spot for LH-swinging power bat in starts against RH pitching, this fits.

If you are willing to sacrifice defense for extra offense, then this is a way to do it.

Of course, it isn’t that simple. Didn’t Cardinals GM John Mozeliak and manager Mike Matheny spend months talking about the absolute necessity to clean up their team’s defense after the carelessness of 2016?

Mozeliak and Matheny spoke of the need to streamline by placing fielders at their best defensive position instead of moving them around to line up in unfamiliar places.

In that context — we need a better defense! — the Adams experiment goes against the Cardinals’ stated objectives. Having a chance to move the athletic, rangier Randal Grichuk to LF was part of the reason for signing Dexter Fowler to play center.

It’s not as if Adams will be a daily presence in LF. I just wonder how far Matheny is willing to go with it, especially if Adams has problems tracking balls, and getting to balls, that aren’t hit right to him.

There were a few anxious moments Tuesday as Adams settled under the fly ball on his three catches. Bottom line, he recorded three outs and got the job done. It’s also no reason to start hyperventilating. These were routine plays.

Back to Chris Duncan …

Dunc was also a first baseman by origin. But manager Tony La Russa obviously took note of Duncan’s strength and power and intimidating ability to clobber right-handed pitchers. So the Cardinals shifted Dunc to left field. He wasn’t smooth, but was more than adequate. Duncan did a commendable job in left field. Duncan took considerable abuse from haters on online forums, but his defense wasn’t bad.

Duncan’s two best seasons were 2006 and 2007, before his career took an unfortunate turn because of a neck injury and related problems. In ’06, Duncan was a minus 1 in Defensive Runs Saved in left field. In ’07, Dunc was a minus 3 in Defensive Runs Saved.

His defense was slightly below average, but that didn’t matter.

Duncan’s bat was a killer against RH pitching.

During 2006-2007 combined, Duncan blasted big-time numbers against righties.

We’re talking about a .292 average, .380 OBP and scary .578 slugging percentage for an excellent .957 OPS.

Over his two peak seasons Duncan’s slugging percentage vs. RH pitching ranked 11th in the majors. His OPS ranked 13th. Duncan also homered every 13 at-bats, which ranked 9th.

The tradeoff — deduct a little defense for a TON of high-impact offense — was the right thing to do. Hell, it was the automatic thing to do. La Russa would have been an idiot to neglect taking advantage of Duncan’s thunderous power against RH pitchers.

Adams has done well against RH pitchers during his career, batting .284 with a .331 OBP and .479 SLG for an .811 OPS. But Adams isn’t as dangerous as the 2006-2007 Duncan.

And you may not know this, but Grichuk actually has a superior slugging percentage (.500) vs. RH pitching during his MLB career. If Matheny is basing a lineup choice on platoon splits, consider this: Adams has a career .811 career OPS vs. RH pitching, only six points higher than Grichuk’s .805.

Hmmm….

So as this experiment continues, we’ll have to see if Adams’ offensive performance justifies frequent turns in left field.

Or justifies sitting Grichuk, who runs faster, is more athletic, can cover more ground, and has more tools than Adams.

Much of that depends on Grichuk’s consistency in his offensive performance. Grichuk needs to play.

(Question: if the skipper is basing decisions on spring-training stats, then why isn’t Jose Martinez in left field?)

Defense was an issue with Matt Holliday, who was deep on the negative side (minus 34 Defensive Runs Saved) in his final six seasons as the Cards’ left fielders. Holliday’s defensive limitations certainly factored into the team’s decision to decline his option for 2017.

So if you replace Holliday in a desire for defensive improvement in LF … and you put a newbie in LF … and the converted left fielder struggles at his new position … and the manager is playing musical chairs with his defense again, as was the case in 2016 …

Then how, pray tell, have you advanced in the quest for a more efficient and capable defense?

Adams is a good first baseman, with 14 Defensive Runs Saved over the past three seasons.

But Carpenter lives there now.

In theory, you could revise plans by giving Carpenter some starts at third base when the Cards face a RH starting pitcher. Had Matheny thought about all of the sooner, the Cardinals could have given Carpenter some work in left field this spring.

I know, I know … the Cardinals wanted to install Marp at first base and leave him there instead of having him hop around to second base, or third base, or left field, or whatever.

Good grief, now I’m playing fantasy musical chairs with the defensive alignment.

I’m doing the Matheny Shuffle!

I admit, it’s tempting.

Sooner or later the Cardinals will need to decide if defense really matters.

It’s easy to talk about improving your defense, but we can find the truth on the lineup card.

Thanks for reading …

–Bernie 

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