Falling Behind to Matt Adams: A Pitcher’s Worst Nightmare

matt adams

As the St. Louis Cardinals continue their surge up the National League Central totem pole — they’re two games out of first place after their 5-2 victory over Pittsburgh Wednesday evening – Matt Adams continues to pour on the production from the middle of Mike Matheny’s lineup, leading the roster in batting average (.335), slugging percentage (.538), wOBA (.380) and wRC+ (147) among players with at least 300 plate appearances this season entering Thursday’s action.

Adams, a 23rd-round pick from Slippery Rock University (PA) in 2009, proved he had the wherewithal to be a well-rounded hitting first baseman in 2013 with the Cardinals, batting .284 with a 129 OPS+ over 319 plate appearances. He’s elevated his game to another level of productivity this season, however, batting .336 (third-highest in baseball for qualifiers) with a 144 OPS+ despite clearing fences less frequently — 3.5% HR-rate, 5.7% in 2013 — and cutting his BB/K ratio in half (0.14 this season, 0.29 last season).

Without question, the biggest adjustment Adams has made this season in comparison to last has been his eagerness at the plate — offering at 52.6% of all offerings thrown to him after being significantly less eager in 2013, when he posted a 43.9% swing rate. That, along with swinging and missing roughly seven percent less frequently, has had a big say in that batting average and OPS+ jump.

Doug Glanville offered his own theory behind Adam’s productivity this season during ESPN’s Wednesday night baseball telecast, saying that Adams has been been “deadly” when ahead in the count this season. This observation could not have been more spot-on, as the 25-year-old owns a .636 weighted on-base average in hitters’ counts in 2014, which is presently the highest mark in baseball. Last season, his wOBA when ahead in the count was .465, which was essentially league average (.457).

Matt Adams 2013

strike-zone

As we can see, there has been little limit to Adam’s power and plate coverage this season when ahead in the count. While pitchers have been cognizant of his ability to mash the ball with incredible efficiency in these situations — locating 48.6% of their offerings in the strike zone compared to 55.2% last season — the country-strong lefty has mashed non-strikes to the tune of a .875 slugging percentage compared to last season, when he failed to record even one base hit on non-strikes when ahead in the count.

Adding to the insight provided by ESPN’s telecast Wednesday night, Rick Sutcliffe pointed out that Adams has this season become a line-to-line hitter rather than relying heavily on going up the middle with most of his balls hit into the field of play. Again, this is spot-on, particularly when Adams is ahead in the count.

Hit locations in hitters’ counts
HLOp% HLCt% HLPl%
1. 2013 10.6% 57.6% 31.8%
2. 2014 18.2% 40.9% 40.9%

Last season, 57.6% of Adams’ pitches hit in play when ahead in the count were located to center field – highest among left-handed batters with at least 70 plate appearances in these situations. That mark has decreased to 40.9% this season (lower than league average), and the results are showing in the form of a hitters-count BABIP increase of nearly .150 (.150!) points, improving from .311 last season to .458 now.

Interestingly, this defies the trend stating that as a batters’ hit frequency to center field decreases, so to will his overall BABIP. One would think spraying the ball to all fields would increase the likelihood of balls in play falling for hits, but evidently that is not the case this season.

Whatever the trend, it’s plain to see that Adam’s increased aggressiveness has paid dividends this season — especially in hitters’ counts, where he’s spraying the ball to all fields and finding holes in defenses as a consequence. He’ll need to shore things up when behind in the count — his .248 wOBA in pitchers’ counts this season is actually lower than the .268 mark he generated in 2013 — but it’s obvious that pitchers’ worst nightmare (right now) is tossing anything to Adams in hitters’ counts.

Alec Dopp is a contributor to Gammons Daily and also covers the Milwaukee Brewers prospect scene for BrewCrewBall.com. You can follow him on Twitter @alecdopp.