Since becoming a full-time starter in 2013, Matt Carpenter has been the undisputed most valuable position player on the St. Louis Cardinals at an even 20.0 fWAR. For perspective, Carpenter is essentially one bad Mike Trout season ahead of his next closest position player teammate in Yadier Molina (12.6 fWAR). Keeping this in mind, the Cardinals would be far from their .573 winning percentage (395-294) since 2013 without Carpenter’s numerous on-field contributions. However, an event that took place in the bottom of the ninth on Saturday night and its subsequent handling after the fact fueled my desire to write this post — largely in hopes of beginning constructive, but fair conversation.
We all know Carpenter is a great hitter. By wRC+ (FanGraphs primer), Carpenter, at 134 (or 34% above average), has been the 20th most prolific hitter in all of baseball since 2013 — tied with other great hitters, Buster Posey and Robinson Cano. He was a terrific lead-off hitter, and there are no complaints about his production since being moved to the three spot in the order this season — even though I still prefer him batting second. That being said, this post isn’t meant to discuss Carpenter’s hitting. We already know his skills with a bat in his hands.
Instead, let’s take a closer look at Carpenter’s performance when a bat isn’t in his hands, with the first topic being his base-running blunder from Saturday night. For whatever reason, baseball, since the incorporation of sabermetrics and even more with the public roll-out of Statcast, often turns into a weirdly fierce battle between “old school” versus “new school.” Arguments between the two camps continue to pop up on a regular basis.
Well, Carpenter’s base-running blunder falls into the rare category in which both sides readily agree. The “old school,” fundamental phrase is to “never make the first or third out at third base.” The “new school” viewpoint — using an expected runs/chance of scoring table — backs this phrase as there is a ~63% chance of scoring a run with zero outs and a runner on second as opposed to a ~16% chance with one out and the bases empty. Sure, the ~84% chance of scoring a run with no outs and a runner on third is even more desirable, but is an improvement of 21 percentage points worth the risk of falling all the way down to ~16%? Many would argue no, especially considering Carpenter’s below-average foot speed and the resting location of the batted ball retrieved by left-fielder Eduardo Nunez.
“Carpenter was not available for comment after the game.”
“‘He knows,’ Matheny said. ‘That was a case of him seeing something and trying to make it happen and afterward realizing that wasn’t the play.’”
These are real quotes from Derrick Goold’s gamer on stltoday.com. First and foremost, let me be clear that I am not a big fan of media members prodding players in the heat of the moment. Playing the game of baseball is incredibly difficult, and from the outside looking in, it’s easy to criticize a player’s shortcomings. However, if the manager isn’t going to bring it up to the player, with the premise being that he is a veteran that “knows,” my stance on the matter may change — if the player is even available for comment, of course.
Because, does Carpenter, a veteran with just over five years of service time, truly “know?” I bring this up in light of learning that through 168 plate appearances, Carpenter has already been thrown out on the bases four times (once at each base, and this does not include pickoffs, caught stealing, or force plays). The league average for being thrown out on the bases over a span of 600 plate appearances? Five. Thus, Carpenter is one out away from reaching the league average, and we are still ten days away from June baseball.
But Joe, Carpenter’s regularly taking the extra base, so it’s okay that he has aggressively run into a few outs, right? Unfortunately, this isn’t the case, either, as his extra base taken rate in 2017 is 25% — near the very bottom of the league leaderboard (349th overall, to be exact). Conversely, Dexter Fowler, too, has been thrown out on the bases four times this season, but his extra base taken rate is 70% — near the top of the leaderboard and nine percentage points above his career average. Maybe Carpenter is just having a tough start to 2017? Nope, he ran into seven outs last season, 11 in 2015, 10 in 2014, and seven in 2013 — all while possessing a modest extra base taken rate of 41%.
Moving past the base-running blunders, let’s now explore Carpenter’s defensive ability. On one hand, Carpenter’s appearances at third base, second base, and first base over the last five seasons can be viewed as defensive flexibility. However, one can also argue for defensive inflexibility as well — as he has been unable to prove adequacy at a given position. With Statcast still working itself out for rating infielders, our best current option, in my opinion, is UZR (FanGraphs primer). Admittedly, it’s best to have three consecutive seasons of UZR data before determining a player’s true talent level at a position. We don’t have this with Carpenter because he has bounced around so much since becoming a lineup fixture in 2013.
What we do know, though, is Carpenter possesses a negative UZR at each of these positions — each involving at least 900 innings (or 100 games) of data. With first base being the easiest to play of the three (and frankly, the least impactful overall), Carpenter has found a home at the position — ultimately playing a not insignificant role in the departure of the left-handed hitting, first-base-limited Matt Adams.
Lastly, and I know I started this post by saying I wasn’t here to delve into Carpenter’s hitting, but let’s at least consider one component of his hitting — his 80-grade batter’s eye. He is consistently among the league leaders in pitches per plate appearance, and his 12.8% walk rate since 2013 is the 16th highest in baseball — notably tied with feared slugger Giancarlo Stanton.
Even with such a high walk rate, Carpenter deals with nebulous strike zones on a regular basis. This isn’t new, I’ve written about it before. So far in 2017, 11.84% (49 of 414) of pitches landing outside of the strike zone have been called strikes to Carpenter — the highest rate of his career (the previous high was 11.34% in 2014). This can absolutely take its toll, no doubt about it. It doesn’t help that, as a left-handed hitter, the “usual” strike zone expands up to four inches off the outside corner of the rule-book strike zone. Yet, what’s lost in the argument against home-plate umpires is the fact that since 2013, Carpenter has also gained 348 balls on pitches that have landed inside of the strike zone. Sure, he still finds himself well in the red overall (-293), but it helps to provide at least some context.
Carpenter is on record for being primarily upset about strike number two — represented by pitch number five on the strike zone plot. Was the pitch a strike? No. Was the call egregiously bad? Nope, it really wasn’t. Heck, take a look at pitch number three in the sequence. This is one of those “gained balls” I was talking about above as the pitch clearly landed within the strike zone. Bottom line, I understand Carpenter’s frustration with the human element associated with the strike zone. I fully admit that I may be suffering from confirmation bias here, but it sure feels like Carpenter audibly complains or at the very least, looks back at the umpire in just about every at bat this season.
Matt Carpenter is the Cardinals best position player. And yes, he is one of my all-time favorite Cardinals. That doesn’t mean he exists without warts. Here’s to hoping that everyone — including his manager — can begin holding him accountable for things he can control, if given the opportunity, at least.