Tommy Edman is walking a lot more than he ever has during his MLB career. Is it sustainable? Or an early season fluke?
Tommy Edman has had an incredible start to the season. After three weeks of baseball, Edman has already produced 1.4 fWAR fueled by a 166 wRC+, three early-season homers, and +3 OAA on the season.
There’s a lot about his season that’s wildly unsustainable. That includes his HR/FB rate, which is very high for him and just bizarre considering the 2022 dead ball. And his .181 ISO – isolated power – which is entirely based on that HR rate. And, yes, even his defense probably won’t hold up. He is +7 in DRS so far, which translates to about a +40 pace. That would be one shy of the highest DRS in the stats’ history. Edman earned that Gold Glove award, but no one is confusing him with peak Andrelton Simmons.
That said, some aspects of his season could, conceivably, hold up.
His .306 batting average, for example. With an extreme contact-oriented profile and speed, he could finish above .300 if the BABIP continues to break right.
His 10.6% K rate might also hold up. Edman had a 13.7% K rate last season. In the high minors, his K rates hovered around 14-15%. 10.6% is low but not impossible for a maturing hitter in his age 27 season.
Then there’s his 11.8% walk rate. Based on his history, this one looks just as unsustainable as his home runs. But I’m not so sure that’s the case. There’s a chance – however slim – that the improvement he’s showing in his BB rate so far could hold up. Sort of.
Let’s dive into some stats, not only for Edman but for several other young Cards hitters who have matured under hitting coach Jeff Albert’s tutelage and watched their walk rates rise above expected.
First, we’ll look at Tommy Edman’s walk history, which we’ll take in developmental sections.
Low minors (A- through A+, ages 21-22) – 15.5%, 8.6%, 8.5%.
The low minors aren’t very relevant to this discussion, other than providing a baseline for Edman’s abilities. Yes, as a 21-year-old recent draftee with a mature hitting approach, low A pitchers couldn’t control the zone well enough to entice him to swing. He walked a lot, barely struck out at all, and produced a nice 151 wRC+.
He advanced quickly in ’17, but with each step up, as pitchers improved, his BB rate fell and his K rate climbed.
AA – 6.7%, 7.0%
While his walk rate was dropping and his K’s rising as he progressed quickly through the low minors, his bat played up enough to get him to AA as a 22-year-old. He received 239 PAs in Springfield in ’17 and his BB rate fell to under 7%. He also didn’t hit at that level, producing just an 80 wRC+ and very little pop. It was just too much for him too fast.
The next year Edman returned to AA with more confidence and comfort. He improved to a 108 wRC+. His walk rate, though, never recovered, and held steady well below average.
AAA – 10.5%, 6.9%
That solid hitting performance and improving defense earned him a late-season promotion to Memphis in ’18. He got 76 plate appearances and showed some patience there, producing his highest BB rate in the high minors – 10.5%.
It was a small sample size, though, and in ’19 he returned to AAA, put up another 108 wRC+ but still only walked 6.9% of the time.
MLB – 4.6%, 7.0%, 5.5%
That establishes a firm track record. Yes, in small samples, his BB rate can vary, but he was consistently well-below average in both AA and AAA.
What changed from the low minors? It’s not that his batting eye has gotten worse as he’s neared the majors. It’s that the pitchers got a lot better at throwing strikes. Edman swings at strikes, so when there are pitches in the zone, Edman is putting them into play.
MLB pitchers, of course, are even better at that than arms in the high minors. It was inevitable that as soon as he reached the majors with such an aggressive swing/contact approach, his already-low BB rate would dissolve completely.
That’s exactly what happened. During his first season, the contact paid off – he had 11 homers in around 350 PAs. He didn’t strike out much either – just 17.5%. But he walked just 4.6% of the time, which would have been in the bottom 10 of batters had he qualified for the batting title.
He settled in a bit in ’20, climbing back to 7.7% in a small sample size.
In 2021, though, it was more of what we saw his rookie year. In 691 plate appearances, he BB’ed just 5.5% of the time. That gave him a career MLB BB rate of just 5.5% in 1267 PAs.
That all seems pretty damning to an argument that his current 11.8% could hold up. However, his MLB rate is lower than his rate in the high minors. And the Cardinals have a hitting coach that’s successfully helped low-walk hitters develop a better eye in their prime seasons.
Why do I think Edman could sustain a higher BB rate than his career suggests? Because we’ve seen it before. Consider the following case studies:
Bader’s BB rates in the high minors were a lot like Edman’s. He had a 7.0% in AA and a 7.1% in his long stop at Memphis. When he reached the majors, he experienced the same kind of regression that we saw from Edman. As a rookie, his BB rate dropped to 5.4% in 92 PAs. The next season it climbed a bit to 7.3% in a more reasonable 427 PAs.
It was in his third full season, Jeff Albert’s first, that he took a significant step forward. That year he walked an amazing 11.3% of the time. He proved it was no fluke in the shortened 2020 year.
Yes, he dipped in ’21 to 6.7%, but he’s back to a 9.5% rate this season.
In the high minors, Paul DeJong fit this same mold. He had a 7.2% walk rate in AA and just a 4.7% in AAA. When he arrived in the majors, DeJong predictably walked just 4.7% of the time – that’s about as bad as a walk rate can get. The next year, ’18, DeJong bounced back to a still-pretty-bad 7.3% walk rate.
Then Jeff Albert came. In ’19 DeJong hit 30 homers and added 2 percentage points to his BB rate – 9.3%. Impressive! And he’s been able to hold pretty steady since, including a 9.7% rate this season, despite his horrid start at the plate.
TON fits here, too, though not as cleanly. O’Neill’s BB rates in the minors were pretty good. He had a 10.8% rate in AA and an 11.1% rate in his first run through AAA. Once moved to the Cardinals organization, that fell to 6.2% and 10.6% in Memphis over parts of two seasons.
When he reached the majors, his BB ability disappeared. In ’18, he managed just 4.9%. The next season that climbed to 6.6%. Considering the inconsistency in his playing time, that was predictable. In ’20, though, things turned. Despite a terrible overall season, his BB rate climbed to 9.6%. In his breakout ’21 season, he fell back to 7.1%, after not walking at all for the first few weeks of the season. He’s sitting at 10.5% in ‘22.
The Jeff Albert Effect
It just shouldn’t be any surprise that part of Jeff Albert’s approach to hitting instruction is helping players learn to take walks. Nearly every young hitter who has received significant playing time with the Cardinals has seen their BB rates increase under his instruction.
If the pattern established by DeJong and Bader applies to Edman – and I don’t see why it couldn’t – we could imagine an increase to 8-10%. That’s still below league average but significantly better than his established history.
The Statcast data matches this hope. So far, Edman is seeing just 46% of pitches in the zone. His chase percent is below last season – 27.1 to 28.2. More significant is his overall swing rate, which is down from 47% in ’21 to 43%.
This year, Edman is seeing fewer balls in the zone. He has fewer swings at balls outside of the zone. And fewer swings overall. All of that is a recipe for an improved walk rate.
It’s also all things that a smart hitting coach would have worked on with Edman, who is himself a smart player.
Is that enough evidence to argue that Edman’s current 11.8% BB rate will hold up for the season?
Nope. But I do think that something in the 8-10% range is possible. That’s a touch below average but much more palatable than the mid-5’s he’s shown in his MLB career.
What does that kind of rate mean for his overall production? Quite a bit! More walks to go along with his high contact approach and excellent defense should keep him in a starting role in the middle infield, even if the power disappears.
That version of Edman would look a little more like the 2019 version of Kolten Wong who translated a .285/.361/.423 line and excellent defense into 3.6 fWAR in just 549 plate appearances. That’s the best non-Matt Carpenter season the Cardinals have seen from second base this century.
Of course, it’s still very early. And Edman all of this could be a small sample size mirage. It is possible, though. Because it’s what Jeff Albert does. And in a season where the planned lead-off hitter – Dylan Carlson – is Arctic Glacier cold, it would be a very welcome positive development.