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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.