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A Look at Matt Carpenter’s extension

Also an appreciation of Matt Carpenter

Division Series - St Louis Cardinals v Los Angeles Dodgers - Game Two Photo by Harry How/Getty Images

There is a necessary disclaimer I must share before opining about Matt Carpenter’s still fresh extension. I would like to remain objective and pretend that I can look at this contract from a purely Xs and Os perspective. I would like to pretend extending Matt Carpenter is the same as extending or signing any old player. But I must be honest: I cannot be objective about Matt Carpenter.

My fandom of Carpenter is inextricably linked to my love of advanced stats. In the summer of 2010, I gradually and stubbornly started to accept and learn about sabermetrics. By 2011, I had been turning to Fangraphs rather than the back of a baseball card to look towards players’ seasons. This coincided with Carpenter’s rise through the minor leagues.

In 2010, Carpenter was a 24-year-old who utterly demolished Palm Beach - he had nearly twice as many walks as strikeouts to lead to a 155 wRC+ - who got promoted to Springfield midseason and demolished there which relied a whole lot more on BABIP, but was still a 150 wRC+. At 25 in 2011, he spent nearly the whole season in Memphis, to the tune of a 125 wRC+. Now, hindsight tells us how blindingly obvious it was that this man could be a good major league hitter, but at the time, he was real old for the level at every single stop until he got to Memphis. At Memphis, he walked more than he struck out, which to be sure is a very impressive thing to do, but if that’s the only real thing that stands out about you, there is a fear that you’re just taking advantage of younger pitchers, and when you face ‘real’ competition, you can’t be as patient without some semblance of power.

I would like to pretend that I was all in on Carpenter the prospect, that I saw a future in the majors for him. It would certainly make my connection to him and sabermetrics more, well, connected. But I do not remember following the minor leagues closely enough for that to apply. I remember that he walked a lot, but didn’t do much else in his cup of coffee in 2011, but I had neither positive nor negative feelings about that.

I do remember, once he earned his way onto the Cardinals bench in 2012, closely following his stats. I became a retroactive big Carpenter the prospect fan. I wanted to desperately know if he could even slightly duplicate his insane K/BB numbers in AAA. He could not. Strangely enough, I have a vague sense that I did not expect much from Carpenter in 2013 - he had too high of a BABIP, he relied a whole lot on doubles power, he struck out too much for the type of hitter he was, and it was hard to imagine his walk rate improving.

That was the last time I doubted Carpenter. He finished 4th place in MVP voting that year - behind two current Cardinals in Yadier Molina and Paul Goldschmidt actually (the winner was Andrew McCutchen). He posted what is still and will likely remain his career low in flyball percentage. He hit a quarter of the balls thrown to him the other way while having an equal amount of hits up the middle and to right field. He posted an 88.8% contact percentage.

Then in 2014, he was mostly the same hitter, but swung a lot less to detrimental effects. He made contact at the exact same rate as 2013, and the direction of his hits shifted to mostly centerfield (43.4% of them), but he also swung at just 32.8% of pitches thrown to him. While he was still a 117 wRC+ hitter and 3 WAR player, he knew it wasn’t working. He hit 4 home runs in 9 games in the playoffs that year after 8 in 158 games. Whatever worked for him in the playoffs, he brought it to next season.

At age 28, Carpenter was one type of hitter and the next year, he was an entirely different type of hitter. He traded power for strikeouts and it worked brilliantly. His ISO went from .103 to .233. He’s been that type of hitter since. There is nothing wrong with the Carpenter who never changed. His career would have taken a boring, predictable route and the Cards probably don’t sign the extension he signed yesterday.

Right, the extension. I guess I should talk about that. In 2020, the Cardinals were picking up Carpenter’s $18.5 million option after the season. That wasn’t in doubt. It may be the wrong way of looking at things, but 2020 was essentially already a guaranteed year in my book. So the Cardinals tacked on an extra guaranteed year and delayed the option year two years in the future.

Ignoring money first, the foremost concern is that Carpenter is blocking either Eluheris Montero or Nolan Gorman. To state the obvious point, neither will be ready next year. Montero is potentially ready by 2021 and you’d have to be insanely high on Gorman to think he will MLB ready in 2021. Not knowing how either performs, I would be very skeptical that either are truly blocked in either 2020 or 2021.

2022 then is probably the first year where I may scratch my head and be concerned he’s blocking prospects. 2022 is a vesting option, requiring Carpenter to total 1,100 plate appearances combined for 2020 and 2021 and to achieve at least 550 PAs in 2021. Again, Carpenter fanboy here, but I find it hard to imagine there is a Carpenter who achieves those PAs and isn’t worth keeping anyway.

The ZiPS three year projections conveniently got posted earlier this year and Carpenter conveniently has three guaranteed years, including this one. First off, ZiPS does not project Carpenter to reach his required plate appearances for the option to vest. He falls 11 plate appearances short when combining both years and falls short of the 550 in 2020 as well. It’s a better bet than you’d think given he has had at least 550 PAs, because of his age.

For 2020 and 2021, he is projected to be worth 5.9 WAR. That is $6.6 million per win, which is well short of the free agent standard. 2022 would essentially be market value. The next part is confusing, but I think it makes sense. In the scenario where Carpenter’s option vests, ZiPS would, theoretically, have a better 2022 projection than he currently has. We do not have information on his 2022 projection, but judging by the trend, he will be a roughly league average player then. But, in that scenario, he has more plate appearances than ZiPS thinks he will have in 2020 and 2021 and is more valuable, which theoretically gives him a better projection in 2022 in that timeline. I hope you could follow that logic, because I think it makes sense.

So financially, the deal does make sense. The biggest criticism against it is that it’s unnecessary. A lot can change between now and the end of next season. But as it stands right now, Carpenter signed a deal that makes him market rate in the very last year of his deal if his option vests.

After running the numbers, I could not possibly complain about this deal. Last week, I thought for sure Carpenter’s Cardinal career would be over after 2020 and I was pretty bummed. I didn’t and don’t want him to play for another team. Now, I don’t have to worry about that. That I can run the numbers and it says “yes, this does make sense” is just a bonus for me, as a fan.

Carpenter is possibly my favorite Cardinal of all time. I get to watch Matt Carpenter work counts, hit home runs, frustrate opposing pitchers for at least one extra year and potentially two. I know some people are down on this, on the decision-making that led to this, but I just can’t join that chorus. I am in favor of the extension for who will end up joining the Cardinals Hall of Fame.