Matt Carpenter's road to the major leagues is unique, but hardly uncommon. Many players get drafted after their senior year of college. Many players do not reach the major leagues and receive playing time until they are twenty-six years old. There have been 59 players who have received at least 300 plate appearances in their age-26 season in the last 20 years alone, including Bob Hamelin, who won rookie of the year. Based on that information, I thought it would be easy to find a decent amount of players like Carpenter who got late starts in the majors, but achieved great success by their age-27 seasons. I was wrong.
Carpenter is one of twenty-seven players with at least a 7-fWAR season at age twenty-seven in the past forty years. Another thirty-two, including Ichiro Suzuki's rookie year, posted an fWAR over six at age twenty-seven. Removing Ichiro, these fifty-eight players entered their age-27 season with varying levels of experience. Robin Yount leads the way with over 5200 plate appearances. As for Carpenter, take a look at the graph below.
See that pair of tiny little bars on the far left side? That represents Matt Carpenter with 359 plate appearances and fellow 2013 breakout player, Josh Donaldson, with 328 plate appearances. No players in the last forty years had entered their age-27 season with under 1,000 plate appearances and achieved an fWAR of at least six until last season. Lowering the standard to an fWAR season of at least four, finding 184 matching seasons, here are the players with the lowest number of plate appearances prior to their age-27 season who put up productive seasons. Shown below are plate appearances prior to the Age-27 season and then the statistics for the Age-27 season.
Outside of Donaldson, I wanted to find another player with a similar background to Carpenter. I started my search on fangraphs leaders page. I searched all hitters over the past fifty years through age twenty-seven. There were 1,323. Matt Carpenter's fWAR thus far is 8.3 so I limited the parameters to players who had an fWAR between six and twelve. I was down to 346 players. Carpenter was able to achieve his high fWAR total in just 1076 plate appearances so I removed anyone with over 1500 plate appearances and narrowed the field to 47. Carpenter has 278 games so I limited the field to 378 games removing another 17 players. A handful of players had not yet played their age-27 season, a few guys were catchers, and a few guys had significant playing time before turning twenty-six, leaving just six players. I eliminated Brian Giles and Josh Hamilton as they never went to college. Todd Frazier was a first round pick so he's gone, too. David Eckstein performed very well, but was average-to-below average offensively.
Before getting to the two closest players based on my fangraphs search, I ran a similar search on the baseball-reference play-index. Using the same age, rWAR, plate appearances, games, and position played requirements immediately narrowed down the list. Using the same criteria above, I further whittled away players until I had only two.
Dan Uggla showed up in the first search. Like Carpenter, he did not receive meaningful playing time until he was twenty-six. He excelled on offense and played second base for the Marlins beginning in 2006. Unlike Carpenter, Uggla's calling card was his power, hitting 58 homers in his first two seasons. Dan Uggla also never had any seasons near as good as Carpenter's 2013. He has never posted an fWAR above 4.5, while rWAR has his first two seasons combined at 4.8 which prevented him from showing up on both searches. Uggla is a solid comparison for Carpenter and he has had a solid career prior to struggling mightily last year.
A more interesting comparison to Carpenter goes back much further in time. Merv Rettenmund, perhaps known more recently as a hitting coach, got his start for the Orioles as a 25-year old in 1968. Like Carpenter he bounced around between positions to receive playing time. In 1969, he still received just 226 plate appearances for an Orioles team that made the World Series. His role increased the following season for the World Series champs, hitting .322/.394/.544 in 385 plate appearances. Despite never having a set position, Rettenmund would have a career year at age twenty-eight in 1971. In 589 plate appearances, he hit .318/.422/.448 for an fWAR and rWAR of 5.8. He bounced around the league for another dozen years without approaching the success he had in 1970-1971.
One player made it through to the end of both searches. John Valentin may sound like a disappointing comparison for Carpenter, but he had a very solid career. He had more hype coming out of college. Drafted in the fifth round out of Seton Hall, Valentin received a reported $40,000 signing bonus. He made his debut at twenty-five with the Red Sox in 1992, playing most of his games at shortstop and third base. At age 26, he hit .278/.346/.447. He followed that up the next year with .316/.400/.505 good for a 4.3 rWAR and 4.1 fWAR in only 355 plate appearances due to the strike in 1994. He would have his best season the next year, posting an fWAR of 8.2. He had three more solid seasons before a lack of effectiveness ended his career.
No player really matches well with Carpenter's current career arc. Very few players have come out of nowhere to have the success that Carpenter has had while getting such a late start to their careers. He may never have quite the season he had in 2013, but that will not make his career any less remarkable.