Matt Adams and Beating the Eye Test

Close your eyes for a second and try to visualize the best defensive first basemen in baseball. The guy with the most range, diving to snag grounders, falling over dugout walls to snare popups and chasing guys down to make tags.

What did you see?

OK, the title of this post may have tipped you off a bit, but if not for that, you probably would have visualized someone like Adrian Gonzalez. Maybe it would be more along the lines of Joey Votto, Paul Goldschmidt or Anthony Rizzo. If you didn’t put a specific name to the face, it would probably be a younger guy, pretty athletic, maybe 6-2/220, with more speed than the average first basemen who could swipe a few bags over the course of a season.

Probably wouldn’t have visualized this behemoth:

Mariners-Cardinals-Ba_Hopk

(Photo: Associated Press)

Matt Adams is listed at 6-3/260 on his FanGraphs player page and I have a feeling that’s conservative. One scouting report said Adams has “the body of a refrigerator.” The lede to his 2014 FanGraphs+ player profile, written by Marc Hulet, reads: “Adams seems intent on challenging Prince Fielder for the largest belt size among Major League first basemen.” In terms of body type, Prince Fielder is an easy comparison for Adams. Fielder is listed at 275 pounds. Fielder has been among the very worst defensive first basemen since he entered the league. There’s not a direct correlation between weight and defensive acumen, but it stands to reason that the farther you get above 250 pounds, the less likely you are to be an athletic specimen capable of fielding a major league position at an elite level.

Yet here we are.

Adams is currently your league leader among first basemen in both UZR and DRS, each being driven by league-leading range scores. Yup, the 260-pound kid nicknamed “Big City” has showcased the best range of any first basemen this year.

This is surprising, but squint while reading through some scouting reports of Adams coming up and you can see the potential for a guy who could hold his own defensively at the major league level:

From MLB Scouting Reports:

“Fringe average fielder at first base. His size and lack of speed/quickness limit his range. Does have soft hands and a solid glove capable of spearing hard hit choppers. Relatively smooth around the bag and stretches well for throws that are off line. Has below average arm strength with average arm accuracy.”

From Baseball Prospect Nation:

“He is a solid defender at first but he doesn’t move well to either side in part because of his mammoth size.”

Most scouts agreed that Adams had soft hands for a first basemen but would have trouble getting to balls on account of first-step and speed limitations due to his size. But I’m not the first one to notice that Adams is beating the eye test. A couple of articles have popped up from the St. Louis area since the start of last season praising Adams for his defensive performance. Cardinals manager Mike Matheny says Adams “moves well” and is “quicker than people give him credit for.” Adams will point to third base coach Jose Oquendo, the same guy who helped Matt Carpenter transition into a serviceable second basemen last season. Specifically, Adams credits Oquendo with positioning him on the field to make plays.

I’ve used our Inside Edge fielding data to isolate some of Adams’ most unlikely plays of the season. Inside Edge groups every defensive play into a bucket based on the likelihood of that play being converted. Each play is categorized as either impossible (0%), remote (1-10%), unlikely (10-40%), even (40-60%), likely (60-90%) or routine (90-100%). Across the board, Adams is converting plays at a higher rate than expected for an average first basemen:

1-10% 10-40% 40-60% 60-90% 90-100%
Adams 17% 67% 57% 100% 96%

Enough talk, let’s see for ourselves.

adams1

This is the one play Adams has converted this season classified as “remote,” giving it a 1-10% chance of being converted. I think that has something to do with Shelby Miller‘s half of the play, as what he did is perhaps more impressive than Adams. But that’s not to take anything away from Adams, who made a great diving snag on a hard-hit two-hopper down the line and got up quickly to deliver a nice toss to Miller for the out.

adams2

A whole lot of man nearly spilled into the Cardinals home dugout. It might not have been entirely necessary, but notice that it took four other normal-sized men to prevent that from happening. This play occured on Cardinals Opening Day, as evidenced by the nifty grass-art that momentarily appears on your screen. Some Cardinals fans may have thought, “Hey, maybe this guy will be OK for us at first base this year!” Other, more pessimistic fans may have thought, “That’s probably the best play that guy will make all year!” The latter fan would be wrong.

adams5

I think this is my favorite play of Adams’ this season, if not just for the split-second in which he is laying face down in the dirt in full starfish mode. Whenever you see a professional athlete lying face down on their playing field of choice in full starfish mode, something either incredible or awful just happened. In this instance, it was incredible.

adams3

Out of all the great plays Adams has made this season, this one is probably the most routine. Which speaks volumes about what Adams has displayed defensively that this could be considered at all “routine” for a 260-pound man.

adams7

One thing I’ve gathered from this exercise is that Adams appears to have no trouble going to his left. If you want your first basemen to have a strong side, you probably want it to be his left, as it’s more likely a ball hit to a first basemen’s left-hand side will turn into extra bases than his right-hand side. This one wouldn’t have been extra bases, but a couple above could have been, so good for Matt Adams.

adams4

Here we go! Here’s the kind of wacky stuff I hoped I might find. Raise your hand if you thought there would be a play this year where Matt Adams succesfully chased down Chris Young. Put your hand down, damnit, no you didn’t. This is about as athletic of a play as a first basemen gets a chance to make and boy did Matt Adams own it. He was aided a bit by Young not coming out of the box right away, but he still fielded a unique ball cleanly and covered the ground necessary to make the tag.

adams6

Wait, what? I’m not sure I’ve ever quite seen a play like the one Adams made above on Young against the Mets. Yet four days later he did almost the same thing against Jordy Mercer and the Pirates. This one is more on pitcher Eric Fornataro for not getting over to first base to cover the bag. For some reason, his first instinct was to move towards third base. But again, Adams fielded the ball cleanly and did what he needed to do to get the out. Look at that tag!

Now, half a season’s worth of defensive data is not enough to declare Matt Adams a plus defender. In a similar-sized sample to begin his career, Adams graded out slightly below average. You really shouldn’t start to trust defensive numbers until you get close to a three-year sample size. But Adams has been putting his work in, and for the time being, this season, it appears to be paying off.

Compared to other major league first basemen, Adams has been impressive. Compared to other human beings of his size, Adams has been really impressive. As the old adage goes, “Don’t judge a book by it’s cover.” As Adams’ teammate and similarly surprising defensive whiz Jhonny Peralta will tell you, oftentimes there’s more than what meets the eye.




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August covers the Cleveland Indians and their Double-A affiliate, the Akron RubberDucks, for the Akron Beacon Journal and ohio.com. He tweets often about the Indians, assorted nerdy baseball things and also other stuff, too. He'd like it if you followed him on Twitter @AugustF_ABJ, but you don't have to.


31 Responses to “Matt Adams and Beating the Eye Test”

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  1. RMR says:

    There’s also the issue of people treating defensive statistics like measures of ability instead of performance. Especially given the comparatively small sample size of defensive chances and measured variance, we shouldn’t be at all surprised to see a guy whose true talent may be limited having a really, really solid half-season.

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    • True! I hope this point comes across as clear in the post. This isn’t me saying “Matt Adams is a Gold Glove first basemen now,” this is me saying “Matt Adams has done some surprisingly good things this year! Take a look!”

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    • tehzachatak says:

      You’ve actually kind of got this backward – defensive stats(well, UZR, anyway – I am unfamilar with the methodology behind DRS) ARE a measure of ability, not performance, UNLIKE hitting stats.

      Your overall point is still accurate, because in the limited sample size, the UZR numbers, while of course not MEANINGLESS, are a pretty bad measure of his true ability. You need to regress Adams’ numbers back mostly to the mean. His career performance is 2.9 UZR/150 in about a season’s worth of innings – so we regress this mostly back to the mean, and we’re at roughly 1.0 UZR/150, which doesn’t tell us a whole hell of a lot.

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      • tehzachatak says:

        clarification: saying UZR is a measure of ability is kind of a stretch. But UZR is, by definition, not just a measure of what actually happened, like batting average is.

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  2. tz says:

    First impression GIF by GIF

    GIF#1 – Shelby Miller would make a great NHL goalie, defending the crease like that

    GIF#2 – Adams legs kicking as he’s precariously balanced on the dugout fence is the funniest thing I’ve seen in a long time

    GIF#3 – Adams impersonating a roadkilled wild boar replaces GIF#2 as the funniest thing

    GIF#4 – A young Greg Luzinski might have looked like that. If the #@$%! Phils didn’t kill the poor SOB by putting him in LF.

    GIF#5 – You European soccer stars think YOU know how to flop!

    GIF#6 – Note to Chris Young: Stop, drop and roll is great advice for oncoming flames, not so great for an oncoming freight train

    GIF#7 – Matt Adams putting many a defensive lineman to shame with that pursuit.

    Thanks for the post August.

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  3. Big Daddy V says:

    I’ll give him some credit. In the last GIF, he turns a routine play for the second baseman into a very difficult one for himself.

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    • tz says:

      Adams must be cheating to his right, given how he looked on that play vs the grounders to his left. I’ve seen Cabrera stray too far in front of his 2B in a similar manner.

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    • Moves Like Munenori says:

      That’s ridiculous. What made this play difficult was the pitcher not covering. As a corner infielder, if you can get your glove on the ball you make the play instead of depending on the middle infielders to cover the hole and the middle on every play.

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    • nota bene says:

      Adams has been guilty several times of being overaggressive in ranging to his right and going for balls that really should be the 2B’s. But anecdotally, he seems to be getting better at that with more PT.

      I think tz might be correct that he sets up a little further right than a lot of 1B do.

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      • Ryan says:

        I think a lot of that “cheating” is because of just how good he actually is going to his left.

        I’m not going to put him in the same tier as Pujols since Pujols was that good for a long time but Pujols played a lot farther to his right than many because of a similar ability to go to his left.

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  4. Sparkles Peterson says:

    Shelby Miller’s execution on that play was certainly remarkable, but only because he got a terrible jump covering first. I’m hesitant to give him a lot of credit for making up for that, and I don’t think Inside Edge knocked it down to <10% because of Shelby's late start.

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    • Moves Like Munenori says:

      Right. The rubber and the first base bag didn’t suddenly grow farther apart. Miller got a bad jump because he was probably shocked that Adams got to that ball.

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  5. Jesus Mejia says:

    He is positioning himself better but that’s part of being a good defensive player. For what i have seen here Fagerstrom is right on the spot, an avg first basemant cannot make those plays.

    What it’s extraordinary is that he can do that with that type of body, that says a lot about his body control.

    with that defensive value, down the line he is going to be more valuable to them than Craig.

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  6. Fletch says:

    I will now add “full starfish” to my idiom repertoire. Thank you for that.

    Oh and good article too.

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  7. Emcee Peepants says:

    Is it just me, or does he appear substantially less corpulent in the GIFs than he does in the photo?

    Also, this was the 3rd image in a GIS for Prince Fielder:
    http://www.theonion.com/articles/ondeck-prince-fielder-puts-dozen-donuts-on-bat,9791/

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    • If he’s 260 now, he must have been 300 last year, because he looks a lot leaner than he did in 2013. I’d suggest he might be a little lighter than that listed weight, because he’s definitely improved at first over his time with the Cards.

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  8. MLB Rainmaker says:

    For a dude with a funny name, you sure write a good article. I’d say if you would have posted this article without the GIFs, I would have railed on you about the shortcomings of UZR in the era of the shift, but the video speaks for itself — Big City got leather.

    Big kudos for putting in the effort for a high quality piece!

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  9. Johnny says:

    Adams walks at a 2.4% rate. That is VERY scary.

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  10. Anon says:

    I don’t agree with the title of the article. The eye test making a judgement from watching someone play. It is not assuming a result based on body type.

    After Craig went down with the lisfranc injury last year, Adams played 1B full time for the rest of the season. During that time, he played above average defense (my impression from watching). Adams defense is a case of stats supporting the eye test.

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  11. vince says:

    First step and ultimately instincts are the most important factor in range. There is no reason an overweight athlete would be lacking in instincts. This should not come as a huge surprise that a fat guy can play a good 1B. You don’t need speed whatsoever to play there. Step-and-a-dive…

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    • Ryan says:

      And quickness.

      Much like Yadi, Adams has very, very quick hands and feet. He’s not fast but man is he quick.

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  12. Bryan says:

    Looks to me like the Cardinals pitchers need to do a better job covering 1st base. Not to take anything away from Adams.

    Mostly on the last gif. But also in the one before it where the pitcher kinda just gives up on being useful. And in the one with Shelby Miller, it looks like Miller may have gotten a late break.

    Basically Adams is covering up bad fielding by the pitchers.

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  13. Kirk Lazarus says:

    Everybody knows you never go full starfish.

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  14. frivoflava29 says:

    Think he’s got a great eye, makes up for maybe some physical deficits. I really like watching him bat, this adds to the fun. Thanks for the post!

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  15. x says:

    “Don’t judge a book by it’s cover”
    PSST its is the possessive one

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  16. Interesting article, ta for all the gifs too. As a Cardinals fan, I’ve been watching him do his thing since he came here, and he’s been great. He’s slimmer than last season and is doing a lot more at 1B – less power, it would seem, but I’ll take his average over a few extra HRs.

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    • Gene says:

      Well, he seems to have recovered his power stroke since coming off the DL, so if he keeps that up I’ll be ecstatic.

      And BTW, did you check out his SB in yesterday’s game?

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  17. nota bene says:

    Dude’s also got three triples this year.

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