For some reason, Matt Carpenter has been one of the more frustrating members of a frustrating team, the 2017 Cardinals. As you probably know, Matt Carpenter was tasked with filling the third spot in the batting order once manned by Matt Holliday and Albert Pujols before him. I’m on record saying the change wouldn’t be a problem for Carpenter. Obviously, I was wrong.
Since Carpenter was moved from the three-hole, many Cardinals fans (at least those on Twitter) have soured on him. He’s not a good defender (more on that later) and an atrocious base runner. Moreover, he’s too selfish to bat anywhere but leadoff, so trade him and play Luke Voit.
Hold on. Take a minute to consider what has just been proposed.
There are people who want to trade someone who just last year most resembled David Ortiz, Kris Bryant, Josh Donaldson, Jose Bautista, and Mike Trout in favor of Luke Voit, who has 56 career plate appearances.
Let’s take a look at Matt Carpenter in all three facets of the game, shall we?
If you are going to argue that Matt Carpenter is a below average defender at second or third, you wouldn’t have an argument from me. (Although, he’s -11 DRS at second in his career, eight of those came in 2016 while in 2013 he was even at second base). He doesn’t have enough range to play in the middle of the diamond. End of story.
At third, he’s -8 DRS in his career. Not great there, either.
First base, well, that’s a different story. In 2017 Carpenter is +2 DRS at first. A couple days ago, he was +4, and I wonder if somehow the play against the Mets (when Rosenthal didn’t cover the bag) counted against him. Regardless, the Cardinals have found a spot to play Carpenter where he is a net-positive in the field. So what if the prototypical first baseman doesn’t bat lead off?
Okay, here’s where things get really interesting. The instinct when looking at Matt Carpenter’s offensive profile is to notice the .252 batting average. Batting average is not the be-all-end-all of offensive statistics. In fact, it’s probably one of the least informative. To start, let’s take a look at Carpenter’s walk rate (BB%) and strikeout rate (K%) from 2013 to 2017.
Matt Carpenter is an interesting hitter because he has continued to evolve. In 2013 he hit .318 /.392/.481 on the back of a franchise record 55 doubles but only hit 11 homers. In the 2014 postseason, he hit a bunch of homers and that carried over into 2015 when he hit 28 homers but struck out in 22.5% of plate appearances. Over the last two seasons, however, he’s brought his K% down to 18.0% while maintaining a career high 16.7 BB%.
A big part of that is Carpenter’s plate discipline. In 2015, at Carpenter’s power peak, he swung at 22.5% of pitches out of the zone (O-Swing%). He’s making less contact than 2013-14, but more than 2015, and he’s whiffing less than the last two seasons. What we’re seeing is a hitter merging the two offensive profiles we’ve seen in his MLB career: on-base menace and middle of the order threat.
While Carpenter’s BB% and K% trend in positive directions, he has put quality swings on balls in play too. He’s got a 50.0% fly ball rate, which on its face isn’t so great. He’s pulling the ball 45.8% of the time, however. Where do most home runs and doubles come from? Fly balls to the pull side.
Why are we seeing poor results, then? Part of it is due to a .277 BABIP, while his xBABIP is a solid .321. Contrary to popular opinion, however, Carpenter has been excellent. Take a look at Carpenter’s stats since June 1st:
Focus on that 134 wRC+ on the far right. That’s better than the wRC+’s of Andrew McCutchen, Anthony Rizzo, and Nolan Arenado. One difference is those three aren’t married to the lead off spot like Carpenter is. It’s frustrating that Carpenter can’t seem to produce in the middle of the order. But he’s still an exceptional hitter and it’s nonsensical to want him traded.
The Carpenter critics are right; he’s a poor baserunner. According to Fangraphs, he’s a -1.o BsR (base runs above average). If that’s your best defense for wanting Carpenter traded, I simply don’t agree.
Matt Carpenter is who he is. An exceptional hitter, average to below-average defender, and poor base runner. That adds up to a pretty darn valuable player. And a 13th round pick who has produced 22.1 WAR in his career has already exceeded expectations. Cardinals fans should appreciate Matt Carpenter for what he’s done and what he continues to do, despite being an imperfect player on an imperfect team.
Thanks for reading.