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Matt Carpenter as The Best Matt Carpenter (And Also a Little Bit as Joey Votto)

Matt Carpenter is having his best season in the majors yet. Why and how are the questions we ask here.

Caylor Arnold-USA TODAY Sports

The cherry and pineapple flavoured gummi worms are the best. When I was a kid, I liked the green and red ones that were lime and cherry, but since the candy industry has decided they hate humanity and want to make us all suffer with the scourge of apple-flavoured misery, I now rip the green portions out of those worms and eat only the red parts. Green and red gummi worms can (semi-violent sex act redacted).

The red and white, though, do an heroic job of helping me forget about the nightmare of sour apple anything. So thank you, red and white cherry-pineapple gummi worms. Next time I buy a bag, perhaps I will eat them while listening to Debby Boone's "You Light Up My Life". Or maybe the Flamingos' "I Only Have Eyes for You". I wonder which song would make the gummi worms feel more special? "You Light Up My Life" feels a little more wholesome; I'm afraid the Flamingos song might give the gummi worms the wrong idea, and they might expect things to happen that I'm not necessarily looking to happen.

Yellow and orange gummi worms, you are admirable in your serviceability, and I appreciate the contrast you offer by having no red at all in your oeuvre. Maybe you get Meatloaf's "Two Out of Three Ain't Bad". Because I do, in fact, want you, orange and yellow gummi worms. And I do, in fact, need you, especially as a contrast to red and white gummi worms and green and red that only get the red part eaten. But I'm sorry, yellow and orange gummi worms, I'm never going to love you. But don't be sad, yellow and orange gummi worms. Two out of three really isn't bad.

So Matt Carpenter is having a really good season. Big news, right? Even if we had somehow forgotten the fact that Carpenter has been one of the best, most productive players in all of baseball over the past four years, his performance just this season has been completely impossible to ignore. I don't know if Matt Carpenter is an MVP candidate this season or not; somehow my gut tells me he probably isn't. But looking at the production, maybe he should be.

Beginning with his first more-or-less full season with the Cardinals in 2012 (he accumulated 340 plate appearances that season over 114 games), Marp (man I hate that nickname; there has to be something better), has put up the following wRC+ numbers: 124 in that most of a season that convinced the club he needed to be on the field, 146 in his 2013 second-base breakout, 117 in his somewhat-hilariously disappointing 2014 season (and by hilarious I mean it's funny to think about how much of a letdown that 4.0 WAR season seemed to be at the time), and 139 in last year's shocking power explosion. In other words, in every season since he became a full-time big leaguer (if not always a full-time starter), Matt Carpenter has been a well-above-average offensive producer.

What's more interesting, though, is the fact that throughout his run as said plus producer, Marp has not really yet done it the same way twice. His first taste of the bigs in 2011 featured a 20% walk rate, but also a complete lack of hard contact of any sort. That 2012 season, though, Carpenter started to look something like the grinding on-base monster we've all come to know and love. He walked 10.0% of the time, and kept his strikeout rate in check at 18.5%, which isn't elite, by any means, but considering the number of deep counts he got into, anything less than 20% would have to be considered encouraging. He also made plenty of solid contact, running a a .169 isolated slugging percentage and carrying a BABIP of .346. Sure, that BABIP had some good fortune built in, but there was also the fact Marp's soft/medium/hard contact rates suggest a player who should carry a high BABIP. To wit, Carpenter posted just a 7.9% soft contact rate that year, to go along with  57.9% medium and 34.2% hard hit rates. In other words, when Carpenter made contact, it was usually of reasonably high quality.

The next season, Marp was even better. Handed the second base job to begin the year as a way to keep his bat in the lineup, Carpenter took the spot and ran with it, coming close to wining the NL MVP Award. To be honest, 2012-2013 is probably the least Marp has changed offensively from one year to the next, as he posted a nearly identical ISO (.163), as in 2012, to go along with a similarly high BABIP (.359), and roughly equivalent quality of contact numbers. His soft% actually went up slightly, from 7.9% to 10.2%, but his line drive rate also increased from 23.8% to 27.3%. Line drives are the most correlative batted-ball type with hits in general, so the fact Carpenter put so many balls on a line in 2013 puts that high BABIP into at least some sort of context.

The biggest difference in performance from 2012 to 2013, though, was Marp's remarkable decrease in his strikeout rate. He dropped his K% from 18.5% in 2012 to just 13.7% in 2013, while maintaining an eerily perfect 10% on the nose walk rate. So he hit the ball roughly as hard, walked exactly as often, and cut his strikeout rate by nearly a third. That's how you construct a near-MVP season.

Then came the 2014 season, and our misguided sense of disappointment. What's interesting is you can see exactly what happened to Marp that year, just by looking at the numbers. The trendline he established in 2013, becoming more selective at the plate, continued. He walked even more often, raising his BB% to 13.7%, and his strikeouts increased just slightly to 15.7%. What we can see with those numbers and some others, though, is a Matt Carpenter that had gone too far in the direction of passivity. His BABIP fell 41 points, to a mere .318, and his ISO plummeted from the .160s to .103. His soft contact percentage rose to 14.9%. More interestingly, he hit far more balls to center field than he had previously. In 2013, Carpenter had maintained essentially an even split between pull% and center%, which seems a very good balance. In 2014, he dropped nearly five percentage points off his pull numbers, and his contact rate to center increased by six full percentage points.

The picture is clear: this was a Marp creeping past the edge of being disciplined and patient, and falling into the trap of out and out passivity. He was overly patient, too concerned with working deep counts at the expense of hitting his pitch, and content to simply cut his swing down nearly every time at bat, serving singles into the middle of the field. He was still a productive hitter, but in the character-creation screen of Matt Carpenter, offensive force, the sliders had been pushed too far toward conservative and passive to be the best hitter he could be.

Then came the reaction of 2015, when Carpenter turned the script upside-down and, without any warning beyond vague reports of Matt Holliday giving him some piece of advice along the lines of, "grip it 'n rip it, brophus," became a bona fide power hitter.

The immediate difference was obvious, as Marp swung far more aggressively, more often, than he had in 2014. His Z-Swing% rose drastically, from 49.4% in 2014 to 60.1%. The out of zone swings rose some as well, and the contact rate fell, but not terribly. This was Matt Carpenter attacking pitches in the zone, looking to drive the ball and do damage, and the results were startling.

For the first time in his big league career, Carpenter pulled the ball more often than he hit it up the middle. His pull% shot up from 31.9% to 39.3%, while his cent% dropped from 43.4% to 36.8%. His line drive rate shot up nearly five full percentage points, to a slightly absurd 28.5%. His groundball rate fell from 41.0% to 29.7%. The BABIP barely moved, but the main reason is because far more of those hard-hit balls left the yard. Balls over the fence are not, by definition, 'balls in play', and so do not help with that statistic. The isolated slugging says it all, though; from passive Marp in 2014 to tactical aggression Marp of 2015, the ISO went from .103 (weaksauce), to .233 (kickin' ass and chewing bubblegum, often forgetting bubblegum).

The only real downside to this newfound sluggeriness was a significant uptick in his strikeout rate. That sub-20% K rate I mentioned earlier as being pretty outstanding for a player who worked so many deep counts? Well, forget that bit, as Carpenter's strikeout rate ballooned to 22.7%. Not terrible, obviously, but unusual for him, certainly, and a point against his new approach. Sure, the power was great and all, but that sudden seven percentage point jump in strikeout rate hurt his batting average, and thus his overall on-base skills. It was a fine tradeoff for the extra power, but it was a tradeoff all the same.

And now, finally, we come to 2016 Matt Carpenter. We all wondered, I think, what sort of Carpenter we would see this season. After all, it's been a different version every year, even if the versions have all been quite productive. So what version did we get?

Well, to put it bluntly: we got the best version. Period.

What Matt Carpenter has done this year is nothing short of amazing. He's actually pulling the ball even more this year, all the way up to 46.1% of the time, and has gained those extra pulled shots at the expense of going to the opposite field. His ISO is the highest of his career, at .263. His soft contact percentage is the lowest of his career, at 6.8%. His medium% is 49.2%, slightly lower than last year. The number that really matters is this one: 44%. That's the percent of contact Marp is making this year that falls into the 'hard' category. That's incredible.

Even more incredible, though, are the changes in Carpenter's walk and strikeout rates this year. He raised his walk rate from 12.2% last year to a slightly absurd 16.2% so far in 2016. And that strikeout rate that provided basically the only real negative data point from the Slugger Experiment of 2015?

He's dropped it five and a half percentage points, from 22.7% to 17.2%.

So what we have here, ladies and gentlemen, is what appears to be the absolute best version of Matt Carpenter. Or at least the very best version we've yet seen, and a version it's very difficult to imagine him bettering in the future. His BB:K ratio is actually closer to 1 this year than it was in 2014, when he went passive in order to try and get those numbers as close together as he could. His isolated slugging percentage is easily the best of his career, and roughly in line with Albert Pujols's career ISO mark. (Admittedly, that includes some weak Anaheim years, but still.) His BABIP is high, but not to the point one would think he's due to regress and fall off. He's pulling the ball more, sure, which could make him more shiftable, but he's also hitting over 90% of his balls in play at least hard enough to be in the 'medium' contact category, and nearly half of those are in the 'hard' classification.

There's also this interesting tidbit about that ISO: it would be the second-highest isolated slugging percentage of Joey Votto's career. And why am I mentioning Joey Votto, you might wonder? Because the Matt Carpenter we're seeing this year looks remarkably like what we've seen Votto do for most of the past decade, and I find that fascinating. Marp's BB% and K% this season are 16.2 and 17.2%, respectively; Votto's career marks are 15.8% and 19.0%. Carpenter's career soft/med/hard% numbers are 11.2%, 53.7%, and 35.1%, while Votto's are 11.3%, 51.7%, and 37.0%. And, of course, Carpenter is making even more hard contact this year than the rest of his career.

I admit there's probably not a whole lot in the Joey Votto comparison that we should count on necessarily telling us much about the future of Matt Carpenter. But after watching the man they call Marp (still ugh on the nickname), for over four full seasons now in Cardinal red, it seems we're seeing what the best form of Matt Carpenter might be. He walks a huge potion of the time, strikes out barely more often than he walks, hits for elite-level power, and basically refuses to make anything resembling soft contact. The fact the ultimate form of Matt Carpenter (at least, so far), just happens to look surprisingly like Joey Votto is really just a fun little side note that appeals to me because I've enjoyed watching Votto himself play so much these past several years, in spite of the fact he's doing so in the wrong shade of red.

Too long, didn't read: Matt Carpenter is awesome. He's also specifically awesome this year in kind of an awesome way; a way that suggests he has basically taken the best parts of his game from various previous evolutions or iterations and pulled them all together to form what at least appears to be the perfect version of himself.

In other words, Matt Carpenter is having a really good season. But you already knew that, right?