ST. LOUIS — Batting left-handed is not a mandatory requirement for starting at first base in the National League. It only seems that way.
Twelve of the 15 clubs list a lefty hitter as their primary first baseman on mlb.com’s depth charts and two others, the Nationals and Marlins, started a lefty at the position in 2014. That leaves Arizona’s Paul Goldschmidt, the league’s premier player at the position, as the NL’s only returning established, right-handed-hitting first baseman.
While you might be surprised to learn so many of the NL’s first basemen hit from the first-base side of the plate, you are likely to shrug over this point: Most of the NL received little production from lefty-hitting first basemen against lefty pitchers.
For example, the Mets’ Lucas Duda hit 30 homers and .253 overall but managed only two homers and a .180 batting average against left-handers. Adam Lind, the Brewers’ replacement for Lyle Overbay, went 2 for 33 against left-handers for the Blue Jays last year. LA’s Adrian Gonzalez finished at .202 with four homers against lefties, compared with .303 and 23 homers against right-handers.
Miami’s Garrett Jones hit .221, San Diego’s Yonder Alonso .216 and Pittsburgh’s Pedro Alvarez .175 against port-siders. Philadelphia’s Ryan Howard hit 10 homers off lefties but also struck out 70 times, a startling 43.4 percent of his at-bats.
Only the Cubs’ Anthony Rizzo finished with a .300 batting average or an OPS over .770 against lefty pitchers, impressively finishing at .300 and .928, respectively.
All of these first-base struggles should not be overlooked when contemplating the future of the Cardinals’ lefty-hitting first baseman, 26-year-old Matt Adams. His struggles against left-handers — .190 batting average and .590 OPS, compared with .318 and .854 against right-handers — were evident throughout last season and have made him a candidate to be platooned sooner rather than later. The Cardinals made no secrets that slugger Mark Reynolds was signed as protection for Adams at first base, even though the righty Reynolds fared better against right-handers than lefties last season.
But the Cardinals figure to enter 2015 with Adams as their everyday man at first. They should, too, and for more reasons than he’s not the only first baseman in the league to scuffle against southpaws.
For one, Adams was playing regularly for the first time in 2014, so he should have a better idea about a lot of things in year No. 2. "You know that being an everyday player at this level is different than being an everyday player at the minor league level," manager Mike Matheny said. "There is a learning curve that comes along with it."
Though Adams denied throughout the season that he was dealing with elbow soreness, Matheny admitted at the Winter Meetings that "at times the elbow bothered" his big slugger.
Adams should have a better chance than most to hit all kinds of pitchers because of his short swing. His problem was due more to his approach, specifically a tendency to chase those lefty sliders that break low and outside the strike zone.
Adams also proved on the big stage that he could produce against top lefties when he delivered homers in the postseason off Clayton Kershaw and Madison Bumgarner. Those, however, represented nearly half of the five homers he hit off lefties all season, including the playoffs.
As much as Adams worked on hitting left-handers last offseason — even having his dad, a lefty, throw him batting practice — his numbers were down in 2014 compared with his rookie season, when he hit .231 with three homers against left-handers. You can be sure Adams has not slacked off in his efforts this offseason.
"That’s continuing to be on the to-do list," Matheny said. "Those are things that are going to allow him to be out there (on the field) on a more consistent basis, which he was out there very consistently this year."
Overall, Adams’ first season of playing daily had to be considered a success with a .288 batting average in 142 games. His homer rate dropped significantly — from 17 in 319 plate appearances to 15 in 563 — but he showed decent power with 34 doubles. Factor in his surprisingly strong defense and that he carried a .300 batting average all the way to late August and you can see why the Cardinals believe Adams can make a productive everyday player.
As productive as most of his lefty-hitting brethren in the National League, anyway.