Is Tommy Edman poised for a sophomore slump?
Same verse, new year for the Cardinals. A young prospect arrives in St. Louis out of nowhere and then goes on a tear that earns them consistent playing time to finish out the season. Fans spend the offseason clamoring for said player to get a larger role in the next season, but when the time comes, the player fails to produce.
In 2015, it was Randal Grichuk who put together a dominant year at the plate with an .877 OPS and 17 home runs in 103 games for the Cardinals. But in 2016, he struggled with a full season in the St. Louis outfield that included a brief demotion. He’d be traded to Toronto a year later.
In 2016, it was Aledmys Diaz who burst onto the scene after being designated for assignment the year before. He would become the team’s starting shortstop and #2 hitter, carrying a .400 batting average into May. But in 2017, he would struggle offensively and defensively and would lose his starting job to Paul DeJong, got demoted, and then traded to Toronto that next winter.
In 2017, it was DeJong’s turn to be the guy. He took Diaz’s starting job and hit 38 home runs between St. Louis and Memphis with a 123 wRC+ in the big leagues. But in 2018, DeJong would be just an average offensive producer.
In 2018, it was Harrison Bader who arrived mid-season and put up a .756 OPS while establishing himself as arguably the best defensive center fielder in baseball. But in 2019, Bader would end up demoted in late July while hitting .195 with a .648 OPS.
The last season, it was Tommy Edman who debuted on June 8th and would go on to hit .304 with an .850 OPS over 92 games for the Cardinals as one of the most versatile players on the roster. The question is whether Edman will establish himself as a legitimate starting player or will he be the next player to succumb to the sophomore slump upon increased expectations in year two?
I’ve said it before. There’s a real chance that Edman is the next Cinderella whose ride will turn into a pumpkin when the clock strikes midnight. Part of it is to keep myself from becoming attached to a player that I enjoy watching, but another part is the experience of having seen it happen year after year.
Edman will take a step backwards, the question is only how large?
Over his 349 plate appearances at the big league level last season, he put up a 123 wRC+. That would be the most productive season he’s had in comparison to the league since he tore up low A ball in 2016 to a 151 wRC+ after being drafted in the sixth round out of Stanford. Because of that arrival out of nowhere, none of the projection systems are too keen on him, with the five available at Fangraphs suggesting that he’s likely to between a 91 and 97 wRC+ player. Just below the 100 wRC+ that would be league average. Matt Carpenter was a 95 wRC+ last season.
Another issue that Edman will need to confront is his 4.6% walk rate, which was 253rd of 273 hitters last season that took at least 300 plate appearances. His walk rate the last couple seasons in the minor leagues floated around 7%, so we may see some slight improvement here from Edman in year two, but it still means that his batting average will be the primary driver for his overall offensive value. That’s opposed to players like Carpenter and Dexter Fowler who have a higher performance floor than Edman does because they walk two to three times more often. Even Bader walked 11.3% of the time last season.
The plus for Edman is that he makes good contact more often than most. Edman had a 24.7% line drive rate with the Cardinals last season and a 22.7% line drive rate if you include his time in Memphis. He’s posted a better than 22% line drive rate in three of his four seasons of professional baseball. All of Major League Baseball averaged a 21.4% line drive rate. Edman ranked 46th of those same 273 hitters with at least 300 plate appearances. Right behind some guy named Mookie Betts.
But can he maintain that line drive rate? That’s the golden question and it will drive his value.
Last summer when Mike Shildt was forcing Edman into the lineup by playing him in right field over other more experienced outfield options, it was in large part because he was a line drive machine at the plate.
Edman hit .304 with a .500 slugging percentage last season. Looking at the model I built to determine whether a player is outperforming or underperforming their expected results, it suggests that Edman’s batted balls should have yielded a .285 batting average and a .487 slugging percentage. So there alone you can likely pencil Edman in for some regression since he outperformed expected results.
Further, if you adjust Edman’s line drive rate from 24.7% to that 22% rate mentioned earlier and distribute the difference to the other two batted ball results-so still giving him the benefit of having put those balls into play-Edman’s projections fall to a .276 batting average and a .478 slugging percentage.
At that point, we’re not really looking at an obvious starting caliber offensive player anymore.
The plus for Edman here is that he was hitting line drives at the end of the season about as well as he had all season long. In theory, that’s when the league should have been catching up to him and figuring out how to exploit his weaknesses and he was able to not just to maintain, but improve.
So that’s a lot of words and numbers to say that it will be pretty unlikely for Tommy Edman to duplicate his 2019 season in 2020. Don’t expect it.
I agree with many of the major projection systems on Edman except for his slugging percentage. I believe that with his line drive abilities, he has the ability to flash more power than expected. And in the end, it’s going to be that power that will determine whether he’s a starting caliber player or just another utility infielder.
Jon Doble has been writing about the St. Louis Cardinals since 2010. You can find him on Twitter at @GroundRuleDoble. Thank you for reading.