In 2013, Matt Carpenter had an MVP-caliber season for the St. Louis Cardinals at second base even though he wasn't the club's Plan A at the keystone. During the 2012-13 Hot Stove, the Cardinals made a run at signing San Francisco Giants second baseman, Marco Scutaro, as a free agent. The Giants outbid the Cardinals for Scutaro's services with a three-year contract worth $20 million. On Wednesday, the Giants designated the 38-year-old Scutaro for assignment, with one year and $6 million remaining on his contract.
Instead of Scutaro, the Cardinals wound up gong with Plan B at second base in 2013: Carpenter, who had 18 professional innings in the field under his belt at the position entering the year. Carpenter wound up posting a .318/.392/.481 (.381 wOBA, 146 wRC+) en route to winning the NL Silver Slugger, posting 6.9 fWAR, and a fourth-place finish in the NL MVP vote.
After such an amazing, expectations were understandably high for Carpenter within the VEB community, as reflected in our projections for Carpenter's 2014. As was typical for each player, the VEB collective forecast Carpenter to perform far better than the projection systems. VEBers predicted the highest PA total, homer total (tied with PECOTA), RBI total, batting average (BA), on-base percentage (OBP), slugging percentage (SLG), on-base plus slugging (OPS), and Weighted On-Base Average (wOBA). Except for PA total, runs scored, and OBP, Carpenter's 2014 offensive performance fell far below the VEB community projections. In fact, Carpenter underperformed every projection system in BA, HR, SLG and OPS. His RBI and wOBA were lower than every projection system except Steamer and ZiPS respectively.
The primary forces behind Carpenter's disappointing 2014 were his Batting Average on Balls in Play (BABIP) and power-hitting.
In 2013, Carpenter had a career year. His slash line (cited above) was propped up in part by an extremely high BABIP of .359. Looking at his batted-ball profile for 2013, this isn't surprising. Carpenter had a 27.3% line-drive rate, which ranked sixth in all of baseball among qualified hitters. But even with an impressive LD rate, Carpenter experienced what we might consider good fortunate in 2013 on batted balls. His Expected BABIP (xBABIP), which I explained in detail here after the 2013 season, came out at .346—13 points lower than what Carpenter's 2013 BABIP was. This gave us an indication that his batted-ball results had led to an unsustainably high BABIP that season. But even xBABIP did not foresee that dramatic falloff in Carpenter's batting production that would occur in 2014.
BABIP is incredibly volatile, which means that a stat like xBABIP is not very predictive. Just because a player had an xBABIP of a certain number one season does not mean his BABIP in the following season correlates with his xBABIP. It's very difficult to project BABIP. But, as a rule of thumb, it will typically bend toward the league's overall rate (which is usually around .300) over the long haul.
Entering 2014, Carpenter had tallied 1,057 PA and hit for a .355 BABIP in the majors. The number of players in MLB history with 1,500 PA or more and a BABIP of .355 or higher is 18. Given how few players have managed to sustain such a BABIP when their PA total climbed into the four figures, it was more likely that Carpenter's 2014 BABIP would drop than maintain. And that's just what happened. Carpenter still posted an above-average BABIP of .316, but it was well below his .359 BABIP in 2013. His BA deflated as a result, tumbling 46 points in 2014 from the year prior.
The ripple effect of a lower BA was felt in Carpenter's SLG, which fell 106 points from 2013 to 2014. It should be noted that SLG includes singles in its calculation, so a drop in singles has a negative impact on a player's SLG just as it does his BA. But Carpenter also hit for less pop in 2014. His ISO, a stat that is calculated using extra-base hits and excluding singles, fell from .163 to .103. In 2013, the MLB non-pitcher ISO was .146; in 2014, it was .138. Carpenter went from power-hitting as represented by ISO that was comfortably above average to well below average.
Carpenter's extra-base hit totals fell across the board. In 2013, he led the NL with 55 doubles. Last year, he rapped out just 33 two-baggers. In 2013, Carpenter hit seven triples compared to only two in 2014. Two years ago, Carpenter whacked 11 home runs; last season, he hit just eight. What was the cause of this across-the-board power outage?
Batters typically hit for the most power on flyballs, which makes sense since most home runs occur on flies. For example, over 4,000 homers came via the flyball in each of 2013 and 2014 while less than 160 dingers occurred on line drives in either year. Carpenter, however, doesn't hit for a lot of power on flies. He didn't even do so in 2013, when he posted an above-average ISO. In fact, his ISO is well below average for a non-pitcher. This is primarily because Carpenter HR/FB rate is low. In 2013, Carpenter posted a 6.1% HR/FB compared to the 10.6% HR/FB rate for non-pitchers. In 2014, Carpenter's HR/FB was just 4.7%; for non-pitchers, it was 9.6%. Last October notwithstanding, Carpenter doesn't hit a lot of homers.
Carpenter's above-average ISO in 2013 came thanks in part to a .053 ISO on grounders placed second in all of baseball among qualified batsmen. Such placement of batted groundballs is difficult to duplicate, as Carpenter showed last season, when his ISO on grounders dropped to the MLB non-pitcher rate. Carpenter's ISO on liners was also well above the MLB non-pitcher rate in 2013. Carpenter was unable to duplicate this in 2014. Whether that was due to an inability to consistently find the gaps or the outfield grass near the foul lines due to bad luck or improved defensive shifts, it's difficult to say. Hopefully more Carpenter line drives find the outfield grass in 2015, because it seems unlikely, given his hitting profile, that many more of his flyballs will find the bleachers.