TThe road to the major leagues is anything but conventional for most prospects in baseball: top tool players flame out, high school players move faster than expected, college players hit the wall in High-A and never get out of the bus leagues. Matt Carpenter's contract extension over the weekend is proof that the cream can certainly rise regardless of where the journey starts.
The Consummate Collegian:
Growing up a coach's kid is always hard, I've got firsthand knowledge of those expectations and my old man didn't have near the storied career that Rick Carpenter has carved out for himself in Texas: 700 wins and 3 Texas State Championships -- two of which shared with his son at Elkins High School.
Matt continued on to TCU where he reached base in 210 of his 241 games and setting school records for games played and at-bats despite missing most of his junior season due to an elbow injury that required Tommy John surgery. It was his sound approach that likely got him on the Cardinals radar and they drafted him in the 13th round of the 2009 draft at #399 overall, barely squeezing into the top 400 players drafted that year.
Carpenter began his professional career with the Batavia Muckdogs, on what was likely one of the more talent laden rosters a low-A team might ever see, featuring future big leaguers Matt Adams (fresh out of Slippery Rock), Joe Kelly, and Kevin Siegriest in addition to Carpenter, who was there for all of 37 PA's. Slashing .469/.541/.563 triggered a quick promotion to the Quad Cities, where Carpenter continued to hit just like he was back in college: .295/.405/.390, pounding out base hits and demonstrating a great eye while struggling to hit with much power, the absence of which had likely caused most teams to ignore him in the draft despite his excellent contact abilities at the plate.
Under Mozeliak, the Cardinals are known to promote quickly should a player demonstrate abilities that transcend their current level, and Carpenter was no different, earning a promotion to A+ Palm Beach at the end of the '09 season. This may have been a tad too quick, as it's the only point in Carpenter's minor league career in which he struggled, hitting just .219/.286/.342 in 128 PA's. Nearly doubling his strikeout rate while the walks fell into the single digits certainly created some doubts about whether the Texas kid could hit better pitching as he rose up through the ranks -- perhaps he was one of those college kids who would be mired for a career in A ball, never being able to handle the velocity and better command of pitchers in the higher ranks.
Opening the 2010 season at Palm Beach after being stiffed on the non-roster invite list for spring training, Carpenter picked up where he'd left off in the Quad Cities prior to his first taste of the Florida State League, posting a .280/.438/.400 in his first 100 odd PA's, walking just over 20% of the time. It's here that we begin to see real skill formation come to life as Carpenter's approach at the plate moves into another stratosphere.
It's not unheard of for players to post 20% or better walk rates in the low minors since pitchers at those levels are generally young and haven't harnessed their command quite yet. Even so, it's one of the few skills that correlates with offensive success as a player graduates to higher levels, with the caveat being that an above average power or hit tool is generally thought to be required at that point to avoid being challenged with strike after strike when entering the batter's box. Carpenter didn't seem to possess either at Palm Beach: .280 is ok, but not setting the world on fire, and he'd barely slugged at all above short-season ball, hovering right around the .400 mark in what was nearly 300 professional PA's. More questions, fewer answers, but one hell of an interesting batting eye.
Promoted to AA in May of 2010, Carpenter proceeded to blossom into the pearl we see today, posting a .409 wOBA in 472 PA's at Springfield. Questions about the power profile quickly were buried under 41 extra base hits and Carpenter continued to crank out bases on balls at an above average rate, logging a walk in over 13% of his plate appearances. Solid, yet unspectacular in the field and no sure path to the majors ahead of him with rookie David Freese playing the hot corner for the big club, progress seemed anything but assured.
One thing was for certain though: The approach was one of the best in the entire minor leagues and that meant a very promising future.
Promoted again, like clockwork, Carpenter began 2011 as the starting 3B for the Memphis Redbirds. He proceeded to put up nearly the exact same line as the year before in Springfield -- 40+ extra base hits, an above average walk rate, .300+ batting average. Doesn't matter what league you stick Matt Carpenter in: He's going to draw double-digit walks, see lots of pitches, and smack 20+ doubles, mostly into the right-center gap. This would be Carpenter's last full campaign in the minor leagues.