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Cardinals 2020 Player Preview: Matt Carpenter

St Louis Cardinals v New York Mets Photo by Joel Auerbach/Getty Images

There’s just something about Matt Carpenter. Something about the way he plays, the way he bats, the way he throws, that inspires vitriolic hatred and disbelief among certain fans. He looks at too many strikes, he complains about the strike zone, he has a noodle arm, he strikes out too much. There’s also the “just drive the guy in, instead of walk” crowd, the “just hit the ball the other way” crowd, and the crowd who thinks he’s basically Jose Martinez at 3B. Matt Carpenter is not necessarily an aesthetically pleasing player to watch, unless you like deep counts and a reliance on the umpire doing his job right.

But at the same time, Matt Carpenter is all the things fans usually want in a baseball player. Carpenter was an overweight college junior who worked his ass off to get in shape, and forced his way onto a major league roster not by his athletic ability, his defense, his baserunning, or even his outstanding hit tool, but by having a mastery of the strike zone. And he’s never satisfied. He could have had a perfectly serviceable, normal career, being the guy with a mastery of the strike zone, who might luck into power some years, but instead he sacrificed strikeouts to add a ton of power. He realized he’d be more valuable as a guy who hit homers and got on base than a guy who got on base, but didn’t do much else. Carpenter is everything fans say they want in a baseball player.

Alas, middling to low average guys with high OBPs have always been disrespected by certain fans. It doesn’t help that his defense is not pretty, even though his badness is vastly overstated, and he’s had his fair share of baserunning blunders, even if the numbers don’t really bear out that he’s a bad baserunner. And yes the complaining about the strike zone doesn’t help. It’s admittedly annoying when he’s in the wrong. But I’ve watched plenty of games with people who complain even if he’s right, and they’ll even acknowledge he’s right, but still think he should have swung. (PSA: If it’s legitimately a ball, Carpenter’s odds of getting a good result out of that pitch is very low by swinging, lower than the odds it gets called a ball. Few players make good contact on balls, so you’re hoping for a foul ball and more likely getting a swinging strikeout anyway)

For the past few years, I think - I legitimately think - my dad and myself have argued more over Matt Carpenter than any other topic and that is absolutely not a joke. He thinks Carpenter is toast. That he’s done. He “hopes he’s wrong, but he thinks he’s done.” We will be talking about baseball and I swear no matter what else we were talking about, somehow Carpenter’s name gets brought up. So for my sanity, Carpenter, and probably yours as well if the media representation of you is at all accurate, please bounce back with a vengeance. I want to have a righteous smirk on my face at all times whenever you come up to the plate and I’m watching the game with him.

2019 Stats - 492 PAs, .226/.334/.392, 95 wRC+, .285 BABIP, 12.8 BB%, 26.2 K%, .166 ISO, 1.2 WAR

Here’s where I am forced to admit that sometimes Carpenter critics have a point. Carpenter’s K rate ballooned, his BB rate fell to his lowest level since 2015, and he had his lowest ISO since 2014. But I’ll also say: I think people are making his 2019 to be worse than it actually was. Dexter Fowler’s 2018 is burned into our memories and I think we sort of conflate both that season and Carpenter’s 2019. It’s damning with faint praise to say that Carpenter was vastly, vastly better than Fowler in 2018, but he was. Carpenter only got 492 PAs, which was obviously due to Tommy Edman playing better than him, but I say that only to illustrate that if Carpenter received 600 PAs instead of 492, he’d be a 1.5 fWAR player - in other words the 2019 version of Fowler.

I’m not trying to turn this into bashing Fowler, I’m really not, I’m just making the point that the low point of Carpenter is the high point of Fowler (At least Fowler not, not Fowler a few years ago) That’s why we Carpenter fans are so insistent that he’s not done, that you just can’t hand Edman the job. Also, Carpenter’s defense can be rough to watch, but is basically effective. He was a -3 defender at 3B last year, which is in line with his -3.7 career. Due to age, I’d probably peg him more as a -5 defender, but I still think that’s probably better than his reputation.

ZiPS - 532 PAs, .240/.354/.444, 111 wRC+, .290 BABIP, 14.1 BB%, 24.4 K%, .204 ISO, 2.4 WAR

Steamer - 554 PAs, .237/.352/.442, 110 wRC+, .288 BABIP, 14 BB%, 25 K%, .205 ISO, 2.1 WAR

For what it’s worth, Steamer seems to have the more accurate defensive projection here, so it’s more like a 2.1 WAR projection than a 2.4 WAR projection. But the hitting lines with both are remarkably similar. It sees an uptick in walk rate, decline in strikeout rate, and huge increase in power. Given Carpenter is 34, this is about as positive a projection post you can have after having by far your worst year in your age 33 season. This is what I hoped Goldschmidt’s projection would be (in terms of vast improvement, not the actual projection itself). Other positive news, if Carpenter really does bounce back with the bat, he’s getting more than 530 PAs - depending on injuries of course - which gives this projection a bit more upside.

Also, I never did mention the extension above, but for the people who complain about him because of the extension, even with the down 2019, it’s not really that bad. Here is his 3 year ZiPS projection.

2020 - 532 PAs, 2.4 WAR

2021 - 491 PAs, 1.7 WAR

2022 - 456 PAs, 1 WAR

He’s getting paid almost exactly what he’s projected for. His WAR projection for 2020-2021 comes out to $36.9 million ($9 million per win). Carpenter is getting $18.5 million both years, which comes out to $37 million, Now it comes with a $2 million buyout, so it’s not quite in line. But you know, the Cards overpaid him by $2 million, which is not something any fan should care about. This ignores they could have just picked up the club option this year and signed him for way less in 2021, but it’s not like the Cardinals were going to spend that money on Mookie Betts and I’d rather it go in Carpenter’s pocket than some mediocre free agent they’d surely sign with the money.

And by the 3 year projection, Carpenter’s 2022 option does not vest and becomes a club option, which would surely be rejected. Now the Cards may bring him back, but it would be for a lower salary, or a restructured deal. And if Carpenter’s option does manage to vest, I have no doubt in my mind his projection is better than 1 WAR. In order for his option to vest, he needs to have 1,100 PAs in both 2020 and 2021, and at least 550 in 2021, and he’s only getting that if he returns to form. And at the very least, he’s getting a better than 456 PAs projection if he’s coming off at least two straight 550 PAs seasons guaranteed.

Last point, but please dear god ignore his spring training numbers. I know everyone is told to ignore spring training every year and every year people forget to do that, but here’s your reminder. I just saw someone complain about his numbers and that’s why this is here. Carpenter had a horrible spring in 2017 (.192/.257/.385 in just 30 PAs), 2016 (.167/.216/.292), and 2014 (.178/.302/.222). Carpenter had 3 WAR seasons in all three of those seasons. Spring training doesn’t matter. Tell your friends. (And this goes for Fowler too by the way. His 2019 spring wasn’t good either. And just to illustrate how useless spring is, in 2012, he batted .149/.186/.269 and then proceeded to have a 120 wRC+ season.)