Matt Carpenter came into this season as an underappreciated player. That’s what happens when you are a low average, high OBP, high power guy who is also not entirely impressive on defense. Add in baserunning that appears to be bad and that’s basically the formula I would come up with if I wanted to create a player better than he seems. Unfortunately, Matt Carpenter has actually been bad so far this year.
Jedd Gyorko’s red hot start has created a legitimate positional battle where there previously did not appear to be one. He has a 191 wRC+ with only a .360 BABIP - which yes that’s extremely high, but normalize that to .300 and it would still be a better hitter than what Matt Carpenter was expected to be before the season. I’m not suggesting that he will continue hitting this well, but he has undeniably raised the expectations going forward.
On the surface, this appears to be an easy to solve battle. Matt Carpenter’s rest of the season (RoS) ZiPS projection has him with a 115 wRC+, which is rather significantly down from his original projection of 123. Jedd Gyorko has raised his preseason projection from 106 to 112. Fairly easy argument here right? Gyorko with a 112 wRC+ and his defense is clearly a better option to start at 3B than Carpenter with a 115 wRC+ with his defense.
Well, not exactly. There’s a wrinkle here. Jedd Gyorko has not been particularly great against righties in his career. In fact, he’s been below average. Gyorko has come to the plate 1,738 times against righties and managed a 95 wRC+. Alternatively, in 654 PAs, he’s mashed lefties to the tune of a 125 wRC+. Now ZiPS doesn’t separate the projection by splits, but given that he has a career 103 wRC+ and his expected performance is now 112, you can add the difference and expect a 104 wRC+ against righties (not a perfect system but I don’t know of another solution). Against lefties? Well, its now 134 wRC+. Gyorko should start against literally every lefty the Cardinals face this year.
But it works the same for Carpenter. First off, there’s no contest against lefties. With a career 110 wRC+ against lefties and a career 129 wRC+ overall, you can reasonably expect him to hit lefties to the tune of an 96 wRC+. With his defense - which I will get to - that’s a below average player. His career wRC+ against righties though is 137, which means you can adjust his 2018 performance to 123 wRC+. Now we have a legitimate debate here.
First off, Carpenter’s defense is a lot harder to gauge than your average player. Defense is already hard to value. But with most players, they either stay at the same position or move down the defensive spectrum. For example, Fowler moved from CF to RF this year, but because he played his entire career at CF, it’s not that hard to figure out what he should be valued at in RF until the numbers are sufficient. Just take the UZR/150 you expect in CF and add whatever the positional difference is. That’s theoretically how it works anyway.
Carpenter, however, makes things complicated. After being tried all over the field in his rookie season, he played the majority of his first season as a full-time starter at 2B. When Kolten Wong came to the majors, he moved to 3B for the 2014 and 2015 seasons. In 2016, he played a near equal amount at 1B, 2B, and 3B throughout the season. In 2017, he moved to 1B basically full-time. To figure out how his defense is at 3B specifically, you need to use all this data because 1) his stats at 3B are way too spread out to just use his career and the last time he played over 1,000 innings was 2015 2) he has probably declined as a fielder and 3) 2016 and 2017 is the most relevant data.
Since the positional adjustment for 2B and 3B is the exact same, I am assuming these numbers transfer to the other position. So if he is a -5 fielder at 3B, he’s a -5 fielder at 2B. If you take issue with this, for what it’s worth, this actually hurts Carpenter more than it helps him. He’s been a worse fielder at 2B, though naturally the sample is about half of what’s necessary to make any sort of definitive declaration on how good his defense is there.
After the 2015 season, Carpenter had played 3,085 innings at 3B, which made it very nearly a good sample. He was a -3.7 UZR/150 fielder. His above average numbers at 1B, and atrocious numbers at 2B and 3B in 2016 brought that down. At 2B/3B, I figured he was roughly a -4.6 UZR/150 fielder after that season. In 2017, he was graded as net average at 1B with 100 inning samples at both 2B (-23.2 UZR/150) and 3B (13.4 UZR/150). The penalty for playing first is -12.5 runs and the advantage of playing 2B or 3B is +2.5 runs, so his 1B innings roughly translated to -15 fielder at 3B. Factoring in the 2B and 3B numbers, it lowered to -13 UZR/150. As you can imagine this hurt his numbers. Coming into the 2018 season, I have his UZR/150 at -6.1.
That sounds about right to me. Some of you may think that’s too high, but as the ardent Carpenter defender, I actually think he’s underrated on defense too. I’m not suggesting he’s good - I just called him a -6.1 fielder, which is unquestionably bad. But his arm makes his defense seem much worse than it is.
Gyorko’s defense was much easier. At 2B in his career he’s been a -0.5 UZR/150 fielder, otherwise known as average. At 3B, he’s been a +2 UZR/150 in his career and given he only has 1,359 innings, that’s also known as average. Now you may quibble that he looks better than that and I won’t necessarily argue, but I don’t think it’s reasonable to say he’s better than a +5 fielder at the most. So here’s how the two players compare against righties if they were given a full season (600 PAs)
Carpenter: 123 wRC+, -6.1 UZR/150, 0.0 BsR 3.5 WAR
Gyorko: 104 wRC+, +5 UZR/150, -1.0 BsR 2.9 WAR
It’s pretty close! I gave Gyorko the benefit of the doubt and assumed he was a +5 fielder so for the moment, I still think Carpenter is the right call against righties. With regards to the BsR, Gyorko isn’t a particularly good baserunner. His career number is at -6.6 and he was at -2.5 last year. Per year, he graded out as about -1.2 and honestly I probably should have cost him more runs because he hasn’t accumulated anywhere near 600 PAs at any point in his career. Given that and the generous UZR figure, 2.9 is a very aggressive estimate of Gyorko against righties and probably not accurate.
*Carpenter has been +5.5 BsR for his career and was average last season, so contrary to what you probably think, he’s not a bad baserunner.
And if you’re wondering here’s the comparison between Gyorko and Wong against RHP only over a full season:
Gyorko: 104 wRC+, +5 UZR/150, -1.0 BsR, 2.9 WAR
Wong; 101 wRC+, +3.6 UZR/150, +3.7 BsR, 3.1 WAR
This is not necessarily as close as it appears, because I still gave Gyorko optimistic numbers, not what I’d project. Also, I’d probably take the over on Wong’s defense. He’s never looked better than he has so far this season.
Last question: who sits against lefties then? Unfortunately, this one is not a competition between players who are all 3 WAR. Again, these stats are assuming if both players got 600 PAs against LHP only.
Carpenter: 96 wRC+, -6.1 UZR/150, 0.0 BsR, 1.3 WAR
Wong: 81 wRC+, +3.6 UZR/150, +3.7 BsR, 1.6 WAR
For what it’s worth, Carpenter’s 110 wRC+ is over double the PAs that Wong has against LHP. The jury is still out on Wong against LHP. He strikes me as the type of hitter who wouldn’t be particularly bad against lefties, but obviously that hasn’t been borne out of the numbers. In any case, Wong should probably start over Carpenter against lefties. His defense and baserunning is just that good. Although that baserunning figure is probably a bit high since he would get on base a lot less against lefties than righties and have less impact on the basepaths. I don’t think it would make up the difference though.
Assuming Carpenter gets it together, and given his batted ball luck and Statcast data, he will, you could probably play any two of the three players and it wouldn’t make much of a difference on the season win total. Unless Mike Matheny decides to sit Gyorko against lefties. He is a massively better option than either Wong or Carpenter against LHP. Carpenter or Wong against a LHP? Not a huge difference. Gyorko, Wong, or Carpenter against righties? Again, not that big of a difference. But Gyorko versus the other two against lefites? It’s not close.
So public service announcement to Matheny or anyone reading this who can get the word to Matheny. DON’T EVER SIT GYORKO AGAINST LEFTIES.