One of Matt Adams' four home runs this spring came off a left-handed pitcher.
JUPITER, Fla. — A group of St. Louis Cardinals that included Matt Adams had just finished an agility drill during which much laughter was heard as players shuffled from cone to cone at the quick commands of trainer Rachel Balkovec. Think "Simon Says" for big leaguers.
"That looked like a lot of fun," Balkovec was told afterward. She thought so, too, partly because she had been able to accomplish one of her daily objectives.
"My goal is to get Matt Adams to smile at least once during the day," she said.
She was serious, too. Coaxing a chuckle from Adams is not as easy as you’d think for a 25-year-old who is living his dream. It’s not that Adams is a sourpuss. It’s just that the young man with the nickname Big City is all about business at the ballpark. Even though Adams entered this spring with plenty of job security, he remains as intense about his work as he was last year when he slugged his way onto the Opening Day roster.
Adams sees the situation as clearly as anyone. He knows more is on the line for him this year. No longer is he the big-swinging rookie with the neat nickname whose considerable contributions were considered more of a bonus than expected.
This year the Cardinals are counting on him. They did not even attempt to bring back Carlos Beltran because they believe Adams is ready for everyday duty. They have uprooted one of the game’s most productive hitters, Allen Craig, to plant Adams at first base. They have to be thinking that if he managed 17 homers as a part-timer, he should approach 30 as a full-timer.
The lefty slugger certainly has the swing to do so. He has the strength, too, even after changing his diet and dropping about 15 pounds off a frame listed at 260 a year ago.
The key is all about his approach. Specifically, his approach against left-handed pitchers. Even more specifically, his approach against sliders from left-handed pitchers.
If Adams can avoid swinging at the deliveries that dart down and well outside of his strike zone, he should be fine. Of course, laying off a lefty’s late-breaking twister is easier said than done.
"A lot of lefties hide the ball really well with their motion," Adams says. "Then they have that good late break that looks like a strike and all of a sudden it breaks off the plate. As a hitter, if you commit early, you’re screwed. But if you’re able to slow things down, pick up the spin and recognize that it’s a slider that’s going to break off the plate, then you’re in good shape."
Adams spent his offseason preparing for the challenge. A couple of times a week, he would put his pitching machine on slider mode and practice, sometimes just watching pitches to be able to recognize which ones were apt to slide out of the strike zone.
"I have to be patient enough where I’m not hurting myself swinging at balls out of the zone," Adams said. "When I go bad is when I start rushing and then I start chasing balls out of the strike zone. If I stay with my timing, I usually can see the ball pretty well. If my rhythm and timing are off, it makes me go get the ball instead of letting the ball come to me."
Adams’ offseason work has paid off early. He has gone 6 for 15 with one home run against left-handers in spring training. While certainly a small sample size, the Cardinals have tried to give Adams his chances. He has more at-bats against lefties than anyone on the team. Going into Tuesday’s game against the Marlins, Adams led the Cardinals with four homers and was hitting .311 in a team-most 45 at-bats.
Though Adams hit only .231 in limited opportunities against left-handers last year, the Cardinals say they’re not concerned. They believe what he needs most is a chance.
"Some of that is getting comfortable with it," manager Mike Matheny said. "It’s more about the approach than the swing, and he’s got a nice approach going."
Like most lefty sluggers, Adams has a tendency to pull the ball. Against left-handers, however, that is not advised. Take it from lefty-hitting Matt Carpenter, who hit .294 against lefties in his breakout season last year.
"You can’t try and pull a left-handed fastball and expect to see and hit a slider," Carpenter said. "You have to take what they give you. Lefties are used to having that off-speed pitch breaking into their bat. Against a left-hander, it’s breaking away. You can’t try to do too much."
Adams has a capable teacher who has been in similar shoes. John Mabry, the club’s hitting coach and a lefty hitter, finished his playing days with a better average against lefties (.270) than right-handers (.262).
"You have to learn to get comfortable against them," Mabry said. "When I was coming up in the minors, I was batting in the middle of the lineup and every night, I’d see a left-hander in the seventh inning. When you’re playing every day in the big leagues, you see a left-hander in the seventh every night. He just needs the repetitions. He got them in the minor leagues, and he did well. It’s going to carry over."
You’ll know it is when you watch Adams laying off those in-the-dirt sliders. Watch him do so often enough and you might even see a smile, every now and then anyway.
You can follow Stan McNeal on Twitter at @stanmcneal or email him at firstname.lastname@example.org.