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Is Matt Carpenter a superstar?

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He just might be

MLB: St. Louis Cardinals at Pittsburgh Pirates Charles LeClaire-USA TODAY Sports

Last week, Sporting News came out with their version of the Top 50 Major League Baseball players. As those type of lists tend to do, and as Sporting News clearly intended to do, the list generated a good deal of conversation about rankings and players, overrated, underrated, etc. For fans of the St. Louis Cardinals, drawing the largest amount of ire was the lack of St. Louis Cardinals on the list and particularly no Matt Carpenter.

Without getting too deep into the particulars of the list, I will say the following:

  • The panel they created was a good one with smart, respected baseball people who likely did a very good job ranking players.
  • The methodology of the project was flawed. Sporting News requested the panelist to name 25 players and used those numbers to create a 50-player list. This is a very poor way to do create a list like this. The numbers should be flipped. If they wanted 25 best players, then they should be asking for 50. If they want the 50 best players, they should be asking for at least 75 players per list. If some player were named between player 26 and 30 by every panelist, that player would likely end up in the top 20, yet by this method, that player fails to make the top 50. You should cast a wide net and then narrow down that list for a truer representation of the top 50 players.

That said, the question then isn’t why wasn’t Carpenter on the list. Aside from stupidity, and Bernie Miklasz makes a good case that not listing Carpenter among the game’s top 50 players is exactly that. There is the major flaw that I just listed above, but there is also the fact that people don’t seem to think of Carpenter as a great player. When the MLB Network did their ratings over the winter, Carpenter came in 88th. Jesse Spector wrote the Carpenter exclusion made a bit more sense when considering the fact the voting was done in May when Carpenter wasn’t hitting quite as well, but I’m not sure that should really matter.

Chase Woodruff over at Double Birds took a look at the overarching issue, that the Cardinals don’t have a superstar. Albert Pujols is gone, Yadier Molina, Matt Holliday, and Adam Wainwright are in decline, the Cardinals failed to sign Jason Heyward or David Price, and the roster is full of depth, but lacks stars. Over the winter Ben Godar took a similar tack, and lamented the lack of a star player, the first Cardinals team in quite some time without one, using a six-WAR season as the standard.

Woodruff’s article is a good read and wondering where the next Cardinals superstar will come from is a valid pursuit, but I wonder if his premise is completely valid.

Or you could accept it as an imperfect and reductive but largely accurate portrait of where the franchise finds itself in 2016: fielding a decent team in the hunt for a wild-card spot whose best player is an excellent, tenacious, kind of bland 30-year-old infielder who in the collective judgment of 27 baseball journalists isn’t among the sport’s top 50 talents. No argument that Carpenter deserved to be #43 or whatever on this list is going to change the fact that the 2016 Cardinals don’t, by any stretch of the most shameless homer’s imagination, have a top-25 player in the dugout.

Everyone knows that Matt Carpenter is not a top-25, superstar player. What the rest of this post presupposes is, what if he is?

Most of the accusations about me being a shameless homer come from Cubs fans on twitter or the occasional comment on a FanGraphs post, but it seems to me there is an argument to make that Carpenter is one of the best 25 players in baseball.*

*We can argue if the 25 best players is a good cutoff for "superstar". Maybe it is top ten, maybe just top five. If we use the six-WAR bar, there have been 160 individual seasons where players reached that mark over the past decade, including Matt Carpenter in 2013. Remove multiple-time players and level out one-time big seasons, we probably end up with around 20-25 top players at any given time. In any event, it isn’t entirely relevant to the rest of the post.

Sidenote: I actually wrote most of this on Saturday and looked at the numbers on Friday. I have now updated the numbers though they did not change dramatically. This is not some, "hey, Matt Carpenter just hit two homers so it makes it an especially good time to write about him" post. That was just luck.

If you want the most objective source of the best players in baseball right now, it is probably best to consult the projections. I looked over at FanGraphs Depth Chart rest of the season projections to see where Carpenter ranked. His 2.4 ROS WAR put him in a tie for 23rd (with Giancarlo Stanton, Miguel Cabrera, Madison Bumgarner, and Jacob deGrom) among all players. Given that these projections change and there are a bunch of players between two and three, we could set a pretty wide net, but given there were around 50 players with at least two wins projected for the rest of the season and 38 of those players fall within two and three, it seems imminently reasonable that Carpenter is easily among the top 50 and likely has an argument for top-25 or higher.

Only one player with a higher projected WAR than Carpenter failed to make the Sporting News’ list: Jon Lester. Meanwhile 21 players below Carpenter made Sporting News’ Top 50 or the next five who just missed. Carpenter doesn’t have the budding upside of Carlos Correa or Kris Bryant, and he doesn’t have the Hall of Fame track record of Miguel Cabrera or Adrian Beltre. He seems to be stuck in the middle.

Admittedly, using rest of season projected WAR is just one way of looking at things. If we use ZiPS updated projections which combine the season so far with rest of season projections, Carpenter’s 5.8 ranks 17th overall. That’s just short of a six-win season, but it is awfully close and still ranks highly. Like traditional statistics? Over the past calendar year, Carpenter ranks in the top 25 of home runs (33, 17th), Runs (110, 5th), RBI (97, 23rd). We can look at some other metrics, too. Here’s both fWAR and bWAR over the past several years and his MLB ranks.

Years fWAR Ranks bWAR Ranks AVERAGE
2013-present 8 23 16
2014-present 22 42 32
2015-present 13 29 21
2016 16 11 14

Two years ago, Matt Carpenter might not be classified among the Top-25 players in baseball and with his "disappointing" 2014 season, he might not be in the top-50 if you want to look at 2013 as a bit of a fluke. In another two years, Matt Carpenter will be 32 and an age-related decline might take him out of the top-50, maybe even top-100 players in baseball. Maybe that is what makes Carpenter's case difficult to make. He's already 30, but he's got a relatively short track record and he is expected to get worse, not better.

Whatever stardom Carpenter has is not likely to be sustained. Right now, though? The rest of this season? He's got a pretty good argument that he is one of the top-25 players in all of baseball with a near-past track record among the best in baseball. That probably doesn't make him a superstar in a traditional sense, but there is no need to let Sporting News or MLB Network or anyone anchor Carpenter's ranking. Just because they say outside the top-50 or 88th, that doesn't mean we make the argument he is better and then push him up a reasonable amount into the mid-40s. Start over, look at the objective evidence, ignore what a player did five years ago or where you think he will be in three years, and you'll find that Matt Carpenter is probably one of the best 25 players in baseball.