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Hunting for Good News About Matt Carpenter

For now, Matt Carpenter is the de facto starter at third in 2021. Can he have a bounceback season?

National League Wild Card Game 1: St. Louis Cardinals v. San Diego Padres Photo by Rob Leiter/MLB Photos via Getty Images

As so many articles have done this offseason, this one starts with the Cardinals’ decision to decline Kolten Wong’s option for 2021. In a vacuum, the move made some sense.

The Cardinals and Mike Shildt love what they have with Tommy Edman. He has tremendous speed. He has a solid contact bat with some ability to drive the ball. He should develop better on-base skills as his career progresses. In somewhat limited opportunities, Edman has shown plus defensive ability throughout the infield. With power and defense at shortstop in Paul DeJong, the slap-hitting switch-hitter Edman is a nice fit on the other side of the double-play combo for the next half-decade.

The Wong decision was logically justifiable, so long as it’s viewed through a narrow set of considerations. (Like money.)

Was third base one of those? Because if the Cardinals started their season today, it’s likely the Matt Carpenter would be their starting third baseman, a role he hasn’t held since the first half of 2019. Edman’s exodus to the other side of the diamond immediately amplifies a problem that the Cardinals have danced around for nearly two seasons: Matt Carpenter is just not a productive player anymore.

A glance at Carpenter’s standard slash line (BA/OBP/SLUG%) plus his wOBA since 2018 probably do enough to tell the story:

2018 (677 PAs) - .257/.374/.523, .375 wOBA
2019 (492 PAs) - .226/.334/.392, .315 wOBA
2020 (169 PAs) - .186/.325/.314, .293 wOBA

The decline is obvious and across the board. It is alarmingly precipitous. The underlying statistics don’t help.

Carpenter’s K rate has risen from 23.3% in 2018 to 28.4% in 2020. Considering Carpenter’s early-career profile of a low K, line-drive hitter, the rise in his strikeout rates to near 30%, coupled with a significant loss of power, is disturbing.

Equally troubling is his increasing inability to make solid contact. BABIP is often viewed as a sign of good luck/bad luck. That’s not always the case. A high BABIP that is supported by a high line-drive rate can be relatively predictive – see David Freese as an example. Likewise, a low or declining BABIP with a low or declining LD% can be predictive. Carpenter’s BABIP has fallen: .291, .285, .250. During the same time frame, his line-drive percentage is: 26.7%, 25.3%, 22.0%.

All of that is probably enough to raise the white flag regarding Carpenter’s future. It’s still only part of the story.

2019 is not the start of Carpenter’s decline. 2018, when he was a near-MVP caliber producer, stands out as an aberration in the midst of what was already a steady walk down. Carpenter’s decline is probably best measured from 2016, his age-30 season.

wRC+ shows this really well. Here are Carpenter’s wRC+ by season starting in 2016 at age 30 and continuing through 2020 at age 34: 136, 124, 140, 95, 84.

2018 did happen. It can’t be erased. Still, it fits better as a “one last gasp” season mixed into a steady decline.

From 2016 on, Carpenter’s K rate has gone from below 20% to near 30%. His BABIP has gone from .300+ to .250. His exit velocity has dipped from 90.6 mph on average to 88.2 mph.

That’s enough bad news. What about the good? Is there any?

There are two sources of good news that I can highlight: persistently high BB rate and expected stats/projections.

t’s not uncommon for players with elite on-base skills to maintain their walk rate even with the rest of their offensive game is collapsing. Carpenter’s BB rate was 14.3% in 2016. It’s 13.6% in 2020. No matter what the rest of his offense does, Carpenter’s a safe bet to walk in over 12% of PAs.

Carpenter’s expected stats are also somewhat encouraging, though easy to pick apart. His expected performance has been consistently higher than his actual:

2018 actual: .257 BA, .523 SLUG, .375 wOBA
2018 expected: .270 xBA, .553 xSLUG, .397 wxOBA

2019 actual: .226 BA, .392 SLUG, .315 wOBA
2019 expected: .224 xBA, .418 xSLUG, .330 wOBA

2020 actual - .186 BA, .314 SLUG, .293 wOBA
2020 expected: .215 xBA, .408 xSLUG, .323 wOBA

Here is where you, the Nostradami among my readers, need to make a choice. Carpenter has consistently underperformed his expected stats. Is that good news – Carpenter is likely to start hitting expecteds? Or is it bad news – is something (like the dramatic shift he sees) consistently causing him to not be able to make up the gap between his actual and expected stats?

Normally I’m a pretty optimistic guy, but I’m going with choice number two here.

So, there’s a ton of measurable decline in Carpenter’s stats since 2016. Projections and expected stats think he could tick back up a bit. What should the club expect from him in 2021?

Steamer thinks Carpenter can provide a .220/.342/.405 line, good for 1.3 fWAR. That’s in line with the expected stats from back in 2019.

While the Cardinals would be pretty happy with that line, I don’t find it very realistic. Carpenter’s 2018 aberration wasn’t that many PAs ago. It’s still tilting his projections upward in a way that doesn’t fit with a half-decade of consistent decline. Steamer is also minimizing 2020 because of the small sample size.

That combo – over-weighing 2018 and under-weighing 2020 – has convinced the computers that Carpenter can suddenly improve his BB rate, cut his K’s, dramatically improve his ISO, and basically return to what he was in 2017, home runs included.

If we simply normalize his 2018 season and pretty much leave everything the same, how much would drop from Carpenter’s projections? The result would likely be closer to Carpenter’s 2020 expected stats than his 2019 expected and 2017 actual.

Here’s the projection I would suggest, based on that data: .215/.323/.385 with a .310 wOBA, below-average defense and significant time missed for injury.

That’s a tick up from 2020 and it would leave Carpenter as a few percentage points above replacement level. If the front office wants adequate production from third base, they have to find a starting-caliber player to fill the position.

There is no indication that the Cardinals plan to do so.

The Cardinals’ decision to decline Wong’s option and move Edman to second implies significant trust in Carpenter. OR it implies that ownership has locked-down spending and the front office doesn’t have any legitimate alternative.

There has been almost no discussion from team sources about targeting a starting-caliber third baseman. Instead, Derrick Goold and others have pointed fans toward versatile utility-type players who could fill the role that Edman previously occupied.

That someone could be former Pirate Max Moroff, whom the Cardinals just signed to a minor league deal. Moroff is a switch-hitter who is capable defensively at short, second, and third. He can draw walks and has a tiny bit of pop. Sound familiar?

Moroff is not Tommy Edman. He has a career line of .183/.277/.319 in 244 MLB PAs, though he does have a few interesting performances in the high minors about 4-5 years ago. He seems poised to provide some competition for Edmundo Sosa and potentially fill the gap in the system left when Max Schrock was picked up off waivers.

Still, the Cardinals are fond of the “throw [stuff] at the wall and see what sticks” approach to positional depth. Right now, the Cardinals don’t have any guarantee of above replacement level production at third base, but they do have no less than five players who can play there: Edman, Carpenter, Montero, Sosa, and now Moroff.

Then there’s Nolan Gorman. Gorman had a productive half-season at offensive-killing Palm Beach in 2019. He then spent 4 months this past summer on the spring training roster and at the Alternate Training Site. There he faced competition that ranged from high-end AA arms (Angel Rondon or Zach Thompson) to MLB-ready relievers (Seth Elledge or Kodi Whitely). While the environment lacked the realism of competitive games, the quality of the pitchers would be equal to what he would have seen at AAA.

That has to count for something. What is still to be determined. My best guess is that Spring Training and the ATS was enough experience to keep the upper-end prospects (Gorman, Herrera, Thompson, and Liberatore) pretty much on their original schedule. If 2019 was A/A+ for Gorman, the club likely would have pushed him to AA for most of 2020. 2021, then, would be his AAA season. Any time a top prospect like Gorman hits AAA, they are in-line for time on the major league roster.

At the end of the season, Mozeliak gave some vague indication that Gorman has more work to do. How much is more? If he has another spring and half a season at AAA, could he be ready to compete with Carpenter by the All-Star break? Would the club push him to the majors out of need, even if he is not a finished product?

Considering all the ways this scenario is likely to go, that’s the one that gives the most hope. I don’t believe the Cardinals will sign a legitimate starter at third. I also don’t believe they’ll get much better than replacement level production out of their existing players at third. Gorman might not better that. His first run could look a lot like Carlson’s.

Still, come mid-summer, if the club has to choose between watching Carpenter struggle at or below the Mendoza line or their top prospect learning on the fly at the major league level, the latter is the right choice.