There's a great scene which opens Sam Walker's 2007 book Fantasyland: Walker is in the Minnesota Twins clubhouse when Jacque Jones notices a copy of Ron Shandler's Baseball Forecaster under his arm. Jones insists on getting a look at the book and reading what the fantasy guide has to say about him.
It's not good.
Jones was coming off consecutive .300 seasons, but Shandler notes a variety of problems with things like his underlying walk and strikeout rates, and the conclusion, as Walker summarizes it, is simply: "This guy is horseshit."
A tearful Jones defends himself by saying there are aspects of his game the numbers don't measure, that he's always working to improve, and so on. Jones batting average plummeted to .254 the next season, and he would only put up one more year in his career with a wRC+ above league average.
That scene, for me, has always illustrated two things about baseball: Players always believe they can change and improve their game - as they must to compete at the level they do. But very few of them actually can.
Matt Carpenter just might be an exception.
On a recent episode of the Best Podcast in Baseball, Carpenter told Derrick Goold about how his approach changes from season to season. He noted that after leading the league in hits in 2013, he led the league in walks in 2014. Then, in 2015, his goal was more power and the result was 28 bombs. Carpenter is confident he can combine the best of each of those approaches in 2016.
Most of the time, when I hear a player say something like this, I just kind of shrug it off as another Jacque Jones moment. Sure, players can tweak things here and there. But by the time they've reached the major leagues, they tend to be very close to maximizing their potential. They are who they are. But when it comes to Matt Carpenter - and I'm not sure I can justify this - but I kind of believe him?
Okay, the stuff about leading the league in hits and then walks is maybe a little specious, with both being counting stats, yada-yada-yada. But if 2014 was the year he focused on walks, he did push his BB% up by 3.4%. Last year's power surge was even more dramatic. His ISO skyrocketed to 50 points above what he had ever posted, even in the minor leagues. He hit more home runs in his 665 PAs last year than in his 1,766 previous Big League PAs combined.
As Ben Markham put it, Matt Carpenter has been ever-changing. The question is whether these changes are due to conscious changes in approach, or just the natural fluctuations in the universe.
One reason to believe Carpenter has the power of a shape-shifter is that he has publicly acknowledged his planned changes in approach. And as we all know, as long as you call "bank" on your shot ahead of time, it still counts when it goes off the glass.
The success of a ballplayer comes down to two things: The physical tools they were gifted with and their ability to consistently harness and utilize those tools. There are plenty of guys in the annals of baseball with prodigious physical tools, but whose approach never evolved beyond "grip it and rip it", and therefore spent their careers hitting 500 foot home runs in Triple-A.
Matt Carpenter skews to the other end of the distribution. His physical tools, on their own, may not be elite. He ranked 153rd in average exit velocity last season. But in terms of his ability to harness the tools he has, make adjustments and maximize the impact they can have on the game: I don't think there are many better than Matt Carpenter.
As I first saw Jeff Sullivan put it, Carpenter is a baseball scientist.
So, what kind of numbers will we see from The Scientist this season? The VEB Community buys into a repeat of last season, with just a slight dip in home runs and slugging, but a spike in batting average and OBP. The other projection systems expect regression pretty much across the board, and especially in power. Of course, projection systems are not well suited to a man with such control of his powers as Matt Carpenter. Last year, they all undershot his home run total by at least 18 and his slugging by 100+ points.
While Carpenter has promised the best version of himself, there is of course some push and pull within the numbers. The more aggressive approach of 2015, which yielded the power surge, surely also contributed to the career high 22.7% strikeout rate. But if you buy into Matt Carpenter's ability to tune his approach at the finest level, I would expect a good amount of the power to remain, and the strikeout rate to settle down maybe just a bit under 20%.
Matt Carpenter has promised the best version of himself in 2016. Let's meet back here in October and see if he delivered.