Can Matt Carpenter Replace Carlos Beltran in the St. Louis Cardinals Lineup?

Elsa

Matt Carpenter provided a crucial home run in NLCS Game 3 after replacing the injured Carlos Beltran. What can the Cardinals expect from their rookie utility player in Game 4?

**UPDATE: Matt Carpenter will start at first base tonight. Allen Craig will start in right field.**

I'm a confessed panting veteran nerd at heart with Carlos Beltran atop my list of favorite players. I could watch him take lefthanded swings all day, everyday and find my life fulfilling. I love watching him glide around the outfield. Heck, even his playoff fashionable stubble is smooth. When Beltran was pulled after grounding into a double play in the first inning of Game 4, I began mumbling to myself. Because I was sitting alone at a bar, the bartender and other patrons gave me a strange look. They didn't understand, couldn't understand: The Cardinals just lost Beltran for the game and perhaps longer.

Cardinals manager Mike Matheny replaced the veteran slugger with rookie utility man Matt Carpenter. Another confession: I'm what Joe Strauss has labeled "a hyperventilating prospect geek" (there is no conflict in being a fan of veterans and young players). Largely due to Azru's influence, Carpenter has been atop my list of Cardinals prospects to watch for years. His 2012 was a sort of payoff to following Carpenter as he ascended through the Cardinals system. Or, at least it was before his homer against Giants ace Matt Cain, who pitched brilliantly yesterday, which was a new and even better payoff.

My fellow bar patrons gave me more looks when I hollered and shot a triumphant fist into the air as Carpenter's dinger landed beyond the Cardinals bullpen. A rookie replacement homering for the greatest postseason hitter of all-time (minimum 100 PAs) is one of those special postseason moments that one never forgets and I say that as a fan who realizes how incredibly lucky I've been to have witnessed so many such moments over the past two Octobers. The reporting on Carpenter's heroics off the bench have only endeared him more to me.

BJ Rains of Fox Sports Midwest includes this quote in his writeup on Carpenter seizing his opportunity:

"It came out of nowhere. I didn't even realize he had hurt himself and Mike came up to me and told me to grab my glove go to right and the next thing you know I'm in the game."

In a postseason interview with Jim "The Cat" Hayes, viewable at the above link to Rains's article and reported by USA Today, the Texan humbly downplayed his success hitting off Cain as a "small sample size":

"With a guy as good as he is, you can't look at a small sample size like that and think you've got this guy figured out,'' Carpenter said. "I got a pitch to hit and was able to put a good swing on it.''

After the homer, Grantland's Jonah Keri has labeled Carpenter the next David Freese, which seems a little awkward since Carpenter is a third baseman by trade and Freese's primary backup at the position. To be sure, Carpenter was the hero of Game 3, and there's always a chance he is this October's Freese. However, if Beltran's injured knee sidelines the veteran, Carpenter needs to be the next Beltran, so to speak.

If necessary, can the lefthander adequately replace the veteran outfielder?

Beltran the postseason player is something that feels more like legend that reality. His October production has been touched on time and again in print and on television. One could describe his career postseason production as "Ruthian" but that understates how elite it has been because Beltran has been better than Babe Ruth in the postseason, with an OPS of 1.316 to The Great Bambino's 1.211. While it's not impossible that Carpenter could hit at such a level for the next two, four, or six games, it's unfair to expect him to do so. If you believe that Beltran has an innate talent for hitting in the postseason, then you likely also believe that Carpenter stands no chance of matching his production. There isn't a bigger Beltran fan around, but even I don't expect him to continue to hit better than The Babe. Because of this, I feel Carpenter stands a good chance of filling in for Beltran, at least with the bat.

During spring training, Rick Hummel of the Post-Dispatch reported on the increased power Carpenter was showing at the plate. The rookie worked with hitting coaches Mark McGwire and John Mabry and made adjustments to his swing which helped him hit for more power.

This spring, he has grown even more in the art of driving the ball, better utilizing the lower half of his body in working with hitting coaches Mark McGwire and John Mabry.

"The power has shown up a little more than in years past," said Carpenter, whose eight doubles lead the team.

"We've liked everything we've seen," Cardinals manager Mike Matheny said. "I think he looks different. I think many people have said it's going to be hard for him to have a better spring than he had last year, but I think he's had a better spring. Last year, we saw a guy spray the ball the opposite way. This year, we're seeing a guy drive the ball and spray it."

Early in the regular season, Carpenter's increased power was notable. In July, Azru took note, stating that he didn't "know who the heck Matt Carpenter is" anymore, writing:

Clearly his swing has changed -- and anyone who saw him in the minors and watches him now can see it -- but it's a fairly radical transformation in results.

At the time Azru wrote this, Carpenter had a 9.0 percent walk rate and a .209 ISO. The walk rate was far lower than anyone expected from Carpenter. His ISO was substantially higher than anticipated.

In the minors, Carpenter's best skill was his feel for the strike zone. His career walk rate in the minors was 14.5 percent. Carpenter walked at this high rate, despite never demonstrating elite power. His highest ISO in the minors was .172, and that was in the hitter's paradise of the Texas League while playing his home games in the lefthanded hitter's haven of Springfield.

As the season progressed, the Carpenter of the minors began to show through and, by the end of the season, Carpenter walked in 10.0 percent of his PAs and hit .294/.365/.463. Carpenter's .169 was nearly equal to his minor-league high in Springfield. The power he showed in the regular season may be somewhat fluky, though, as Lil' Carp smacked seven triples in his 340 PAs. For comparison, he had 11 triples in 1,448 minor-league PAs. With a high BABIP of .346 and a triples-boosted ISO, Carpenter put up the exact same wOBA as Beltran did during the 2012 season: .355.

Player

PA

HR

XBH

BABIP

BA

OBP

SLG

ISO

OPS

wOBA

Beltran

619

32

59

.291

.269

.346

.495

.227

.841

.355

Carpenter

340

6

33

.346

.294

.365

.463

.169

.828

.355


Batting in the No. 2 spot, Carpenter will get on base due to his excellent grasp of the strike zone. Yesterday's homer notwithstanding, Carpenter is unlikely to match Beltran's pop. Carpenter hits more gappers than roundtrippers. Even with his strangely high triples total, Carpenter's ISO is still significantly less than Beltran's. Given his skill set, Carpenter ought to be able to set the table for the heart of the order. Hopefully the heart of the order can rouse from its collective slump and knock him home.

As noted above, Carpenter is a third baseman by trade. He's an adequate first baseman, as well, but a poor outfielder. This is not to say Carpenter hasn't improved in the outfield as the season has progressed. He has. But, since his early-season outfield defense was so poor, he had and continues to have a lot of improving to do. Thus, Carpenter will be a defensive downgrade in right field from Beltran.

With his Game 3 homer after coming off the bench to replace an injured Beltran, Carpenter has cemented a passage in Cardinals postseason lore. With the seriousness of Beltran's injury not yet known, the rookie utility player may get the opportunity to pen an entire chapter. If he does, the chapter is likely to be filled with many more walks, singles, and doubles than homers. Stepping into the second spot of the batting, that would suit the Cardinals just fine.

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