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Matt Carpenter Gets His Due

A player who graduated to the majors without an everyday position. A player who entered the season locked in a battle for second base playing time. A player that was regarded as holding down second until the arrival of a top prospect. That player is now an All-Star. That player is Matt Carpenter.

"Look Ma! Just Hands!"
"Look Ma! Just Hands!"
Ezra Shaw

Matt Carpenter was named to the All-Star team yesterday. The winner of the player's vote, he's compiled a compelling case for the slot. Consider that he's hitting for a .383 wOBA, which is good for 9th in the National League. His park adjusted offense (wRC+) is good for 8th in the NL and he's third in fWAR though there's a significant defensive component to that which reasonable people can disagree on. Looking more closely to his second base peers, it's hard to see anyone even close to Carpenter's performance this year in the National League.

After half a season of more than acceptable defense and clearly impressive offense, it's worth remembering the simple fact that Matt Carpenter is clearly besting pre-season expectations. ZiPS expected him to hit .257/.346/.388 good for a .324 wOBA. Subjectively, there was hope but little true optimism for success.

  • Joe Strauss: "I think it's a noble experiment but still believe it a risk to overexpose Carp there."
  • Derrick Goold: "Matt Carpenter has the potential to be better at second. He should hope to be as successful [as Skip Schumaker] in the transition."
  • Rick Hummel: "This might be a stop-gap move until 2011 top draft pick Kolten Wong is ready, presumably next year."
  • Jeff Gordon: "Mastering the double-play turn will remain a challenge, but Matt seems athletic enough to master the footwork."
  • LBoros: "If Carpenter can hold the spot down for a year or two, it gets a bat into the lineup that otherwise would be on the bench."

The point of that exercise is less to pillory the soothsayers than to recall the legitimate and healthy skepticism that Matt Carpenter was up against heading into the season. Would Carpenter even have the job competing against Daniel Descalso? What kind of player was Carpenter really going to be? He'd spent his time in the minors putting up gaudy walk rates but didn't show much power until park effects in AA and AAA gave him a boost. Then his first year in the majors, he finds a power stroke playing primarily in a pitcher's park. That's a weird storyline for a player.

If you look at Matt Carpenter's offensive profile though, he's not really a high walk rate guy. Nor is he really an elite power hitter. Instead, he's an elite contact hitter.

That phrase conjures up a history of negative memories for some Cardinals fans. It often acts as code for scrappy players with little value outside of a relatively high batting average (e.g. Miles, Aaron). Carpenter is a different kind of contact hitter though.

Begin with what Matt Carpenter is known for: his ability to get on base. Carpenter's .391 OBP ranks 5th in the NL and 11th overall. Interestingly, Carpenter has increased his OBP by .026 points compared to last year despite seeing his walk rate drop. His BABIP is up a touch and at .355 is admittedly in that area that makes you wonder whether it's lucky/sustainable. (Aside: The Cardinals seem to have a lot of hitters like this in recent years. Matt Holliday, Allen Craig, David Freese, Jon Jay. I suspect this is not an accident.)

What Carpenter has really done though to improve his OBP is cut down on his strikeout rate by almost 30% from 2012 to 2013. While Carpenter is putting up those 15% walk rates like he did in the minors, he has found a way to continue to reach base: force the opposition to play defense all the time.

The on base percentage and low strikeout rate don't really show just how great a player Carpenter is at this kind of thing. When I saw Carpenter in the minors, what was striking was how little he swung the bat. In an entire weekend, he never swung at a bad pitch. His recognition skills are off the charts and now that he's in the majors, that's even more clearly spelled out. Here's some objective data in that vein:

Swing % Outside Zone Swing % Inside Zone Swing % Contact % Outside Zone Contact % Inside Zone Contact % Swinging Strike %
Matt Carpenter 22.9 57.7 38.8 76.8 97.2 90.7 3.6
Average Player 30.4 65.3 46.2 66.7 86.9 79.6 9.2

Carpenter swings far less than the average player. He's fifth in qualified hitters for swing rate. And, of the top 10, only Ben Revere swings a infrequently as Carpenter while barely ever missing (swinging strike %). Ben Revere has a .042 ISO. Matt Carpenter has a .172 ISO. To be so selective, to never miss what you're swinging at and to put the ball in play with authority ... there just aren't players who do that like Matt Carpenter does. The closest approximate to Carpenter's performance is another middle infielder who the flirted with the Cardinals in the offseason: Marco Scutaro. Even then, the comparison isn't a great one as Scutaro is more Ben Revere than Matt Carpenter in terms of overall performance.

What Carpenter does isn't terribly obvious. He only has 8 home runs. The defensive metrics like him. He has 1 stolen base on the season. He's always putting the ball in play. There isn't anything that is surface level extraordinary about Carpenter's game, which is probably why he is getting in via the player's vote and failed to crush the less qualified Brandon Phillips in the All-Star fan voting circus show.

Carpenter isn't flashy and he's a different player than what he was in the minors. He's a contact hitter in the best of ways. He doesn't fit any of the neat, surface-level stereotypes for baseball players. He hits for too much power to be a scrappy grinder. He doesn't hit for enough power to be a slugger. He's not a speedster on the bases. He's not a defensive wizard. Matt Carpenter defies the easy label.

Or at least he did. Now, he's simply "Matt Carpenter, All-Star".