When the St. Louis Cardinals promoted Tommy Edman to the Major Leagues three months ago yesterday, it felt like the wheels were being turned for a few years on the Memphis Shuttle. While Edman had hit well for the Memphis Redbirds in 2019, he was not a particularly acclaimed prospect–FanGraphs ranked him 20th among Cardinals prospects entering the 2018-19 off-season and Edman was creeping up on Rule 5 Draft eligibility at the end of the season. Edman came up as a replacement infielder for the injured Jedd Gyorko and his presence didn’t come across as a particularly big deal.
Yesterday, Tommy Edman started his 57th game of the season, this time for his tenth start of the season in right field. Since his promotion, Edman has become a mainstay in the Cardinals lineup–since June 8, when he debuted, Edman ranks behind only four Cardinals players in games played and plate appearances–Paul Goldschmidt, Paul DeJong, Dexter owler, and Kolten Wong. And even that number doesn’t quite convey how much Tommy Edman has played, since he originally played in the kind of periodic spot duty one might expect from somebody promoted to be a reserve utility infielder–since the All-Star Break, only Goldschmidt has had more plate appearances.
As Edman became a ubiquitous mainstay in the Cardinals lineup, a semi-frequent comparison in some circles was to Bo Hart, the 2003 injury call-up who came out of nowhere to succeed well beyond expectations right off the bat. But Bo Hart was a 26 year-old non-prospect well into Rule 5 eligibility who played almost exclusively at second base, succeeded largely thanks to an impossible-to-maintain batting average on balls in play, and seemed to be the living embodiment of the “scrappy white guy” stereotype who succeeds simply on the basis of wanting to succeed more than everybody else. And Tommy Edman is…none of those things.
Upon his arrival, Edman wasn’t a player who was putting up gaudy statistics because he had incredible BABIP luck–he was a player who, quite drastically, was putting up rather pedestrian statistics, but was doing so in a way that suggested he had real baseball skill. He cleared 200 career plate appearances in the Majors on August 23, and through the end of that game, his BABIP was a fairly normal .318–a little higher than league-average, but considering he has above-average speed, that isn’t an outlandish expectation. But his wRC+ stood at 91, hardly a mark of superstardom. At third base, Edman’s most common position, 91 would rank him below all 24 MLB leaderboards-qualified players at the position. Of the 55 qualified outfielders, he outranks just seven, and that is a group primairly of premium defensive center fielders. At second base, Edman fares a little better–above six of twenty-one qualified players.
Edman’s numbers didn’t scream offensive juggernaut, but they also felt real. He flashed decent power, hitting five home runs and twelve additional extra base hits (his three triples also spoke to his speed). And since Edman cleared the 200 plate appearance threshold, his offense is even better. In his next 60 plate appearances, he sported a 131 wRC+, hitting two home runs (both on Friday) and continuing to fly on the bases while providing impressive defense at three different positions (Edman has not played shortstop at the Major League level, but there is little reason to believe he couldn’t at least fake it at the position–his not playing is more of a reflection on Paul DeJong than it is on him).
But he is also benefiting from a BABIP spike–during those 60 plate appearances, his BABIP stood at .348–it’s not a totally cartoonish mark, but it goes beyond the “okay this might just be because he’s fast” level of believability. That Edman remains a lineup mainstay through this streak of good fortune is at least more understandable, even if it isn’t particularly wiser, than when his results weren’t there.
Tommy Edman has become over the last couple months kind of a proxy for Ben Zobrist–a switch-hitter with decent power and all sorts of positional flexibility. The big difference, by far, between the two is that while Zobrist has consistently put up double-digit walk rates throughout his career, Tommy Edman has been fighting to get his walk rate above 4% this season (though given his free-swinging tendencies, maybe he’s been fighting to avoid it). In the minors, Edman walked more, but not to any particularly notable extent.
A poor man’s Ben Zobrist is still a very good player, one particularly valuable in an era of diminishing bench sizes. As a bench player, he’s very appealing. As a starter, he’s adequate, but perhaps not a player that any team should be unflinchingly comfortable starting every day. Much of Edman’s playing time, particularly lately, has been at third base, where he has started over Matt Carpenter, who has struggled throughout 2019. But although Carpenter looked genuinely lost at the plate throughout much of the season, he has come around in a huge way lately, to an even greater extent than Edman–over the last month, Carpenter has been an above-average hitter, and particularly in recent weeks, his offense has picked up even more (granted, also benefiting from a sharp BABIP spike).
Much of Edmania has been inescapably tied to the team’s overall success since he came up to the Majors–the Cardinals were one game above .500 when Edman made his debut, 3 1/2 games back in the division, and over the last three months, they’ve played at a nearly 100-win pace. The rest of the team around him has surely been a much bigger contributor to this improvement than Edman himself, but superstition and the general sentiment of “if it’s ain’t broke don’t fix it” is difficult to overcome, as is the natural sense that complaining about the lineup of the best team in the league over the last two months is just an annoying spoiled fan thing to do.
But projections moving forward don’t suggest that regularly starting Tommy Edman is the prudent move. Can a playoff team survive Tommy Edman in their lineup? Absolutely. But this particular potential playoff team projects to thrive even more with other players in the starting lineup instead. ZiPS has taken notice of Matt Carpenter’s diminished offensive production, and his rest-of-season projected OPS is over 50 points lower than his preseason projection. But he still projects to be superior to Tommy Edman, and he will almost certainly be penciled in as the starting third baseman to start the 2020 season.
This may seem pessimistic on Tommy Edman, but in 2019, he has established himself as a very useful piece not only for the 2019 Cardinals, but for the Cardinals going forward. He has vaulted past the now-Los Angeles Dodger Jedd Gyorko and Yairo Munoz as the team’s utility player du jour and, barring injury, is a certainty to at least crack the team’s hypothetical postseason roster. As a versatile switch-hitter, Edman is the idealized modern bench player. He still needs to overcome his walk allergy before the Cardinals should trust him as an everyday player, but he should provide years of utility competence ahead of him as a buffer while he tries to figure that out.