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The return of Matt Carpenter, MVP candidate

Two years ago, Matt Carpenter was an MVP candidate, and although he posted a solid 2014, his power numbers took a drop. It is still early, but some of that power has returned.

Jeff Curry-USA TODAY Sports

After his 2014 season, it hardly seemed fair to call Matt Carpenter's year a disappointment. He made a relatively smooth adjustment back to third base. His .375 on-base percentage was fantastic, especially from the leadoff spot. His 117 wRC+ and 4.0 fWAR were solid numbers. Heading into the season, a repeat of 2014 was realistic and acceptable. After two weeks, Matt Carpenter is already adjusting expectations. He does not need to keep up this pace, which is impossible with a .400/.449/.689 line with a 223 wRC+ and two home runs and seven doubles, but even a slight uptick in power over last season could keep him in the MVP race all season in the Mike Trout-less National League.

Buster Olney, ahead of the Sunday Night Baseball telecast, made it a point to write about Carpenter's changed approach at the plate over last season, noting Carpenter was seeing fewer pitches this season. Last season, Carpenter topped the National League with 4.37 pitches per plate appearances. After Sunday, Carpenter was seeing 3.88 pitches per plate appearances. Two weeks into the season is a bit early to draw conclusions whether seeing half a pitch fewer per plate appearance is actually something new, but Carpenter is talking the talk when ti comes to aggressiveness. In Olney's Insider piece he said as much.

"Getting down in the count nowadays just isn't a good plan," said Carpenter, who presumably will hit first for the Cardinals when they play the Reds on Sunday Night Baseball. "Pitching is as good as it's been, ever. I can't speak for guys who have been playing longer than me, but I just know that every night, you've got a guy out there throwing 95 [mph]."

This kind of talk and coverage might be beneficial on its own. Carpenter might be more aggressive, but he is still a patient hitter, and the threat of aggressiveness could cause pitchers not to challenge him early in the count. Twenty-eight of 49 plate appearances have gone to an 0-1 count against Carpenter this season (57%). That is actually ahead of last season's percentage (53%). Pitchers are still coming after Carpenter with the first pitch and he is still taking a decent amount of those pitches, but Carpenter is just punishing pitchers overall. When he sees his pitch, he is going after it and making hard contact.

It is early, and breaking the doubles record is a bit far fetched, but Carpenter is off to a better start than 2014 or his great 2013 season. With seven doubles and two home runs, he has reached those totals faster than either of the past two seasons. Below is a chart showing how many games it took to reach those figures in the last two seasons as well as the number of games it took to reach both in the final column, although that number is just the greater of the two previous columns.

Games to 7 2B Games to 2 HR Both
2013 20 17 20
2014 41 64 64
2015 10 11 11

The newly minted NL Player of the week is off to a great start, although for once VEB's optimism in doing projections is ahead of the curve. Before the season started, Ben asked for everyone's predictions on the year. In the summary of the results, Ben had the following to say:

In 2013, Carpenter put together an MVP-caliber batting season. He scored 126 runs, swatted 11 homers, drove in 78 runs, hit for a .318 average, got on base at a .392 clip, and slugged .481 en route to an .873 OPS and .381 wOBA. Last season, Carpenter fell back to earth. He posted a .272/.375/.375 (.750 OPS, .339 wOBA), with 99 runs scored, 59 RBI, and 8 dingers. VEB sees Carpenter bouncing back in 2015.

Collectively, VEB projects Carpenter for a .294 BA (+22 from 2014), .381 OBP (+6), .427 SLG (+48). It appears as if VEBers have bought into the Matt Holliday-driven spring talking points that, if the team is more aggressive, they will hit for more power (Carpenter in particular). In fact, VEB forecasts Carpenter to find the sweet spot between patience and power. While nowhere near the stratospheric levels of Carpenter's 2013 season, VEB predicts he will outperform his 2014 numbers, with fewer walks and more power.

Other projection systems have taken notice of Carpenter's great start as well. ZiPS now has updated rest of the season projections available at FanGraphs for all players that take into account the starts of the players this season. The rest of the season numbers can be added to the current numbers to get an updated projection. Below are Carpenter's ZiPS projection for the preseason, the rest of the season, and the updated end of the season stats.

Preseason 0.276 0.360 0.404 3.2
ROS 0.283 0.367 0.421 3.7
Updated 0.292 0.373 0.442 4.5

Carpenter started the season as an above average regular, an entirely reasonable projection based on his solid, but not spectacular season last year. ZiPS has Carpenter already half a win better for the rest of the season compared to his preseason projection. Combined with his amazing start, he is already more than one full win ahead at the end of the season compared to the original projection. Carpenter has put up a great season before, and it is a little early in the season to get too confident about Carpenter's return to form, but his start has been promising. He looks a lot more like 2013 MVP candidate/2014 playoff hero Matt Carpenter than the good version we saw for most of 2014. For now, that's plenty.