Since 2013, his first season as a regular starting player in Major League Baseball, St. Louis Cardinals second baseman-turned-third baseman-turned first baseman Matt Carpenter has been the 21st best player in baseball by FanGraphs Wins Above Replacement. By this metric, imperfect but a good snapshot of a player’s general standing in baseball, Carpenter outpaced several stone-cold superstars, including Anthony Rizzo, Nolan Arenado, and Giancarlo Stanton.
Carpenter turned 32 four days ago, and while he is hardly ancient even by the standards of professional sports, he is probably past his athletic peak. In each of the last two seasons, Carpenter declined on offense (his wRC+ went from 139 to 136 to 123 over the last three years) and on defense, by defensive runs above average (or in his case, below average). But Matt Carpenter, both in his present form and given what he has been over the last half-dozen years for the St. Louis Cardinals, remains criminally underrated both nationally and locally.
The impetus of this post was a comment made by MLB Network and Turner Sports host Casey Stern yesterday on Twitter, who joked that Cardinals fans who would claim that Matt Carpenter is a better player than free agent first baseman Eric Hosmer, formerly of the Kansas City Royals, must be “secretly running the Mets.” While Stern never specifically indicated that this was meant to be an insult, given the disappointing 70-92 season the New York Mets just finished, it does not appear to be meant as a compliment.
This is partially a matter of overrating Eric Hosmer, a topic I’ve covered already. To borrow (steal) an observation from my friend Matt Bush on Twitter, Hosmer is a marginally better hitter for his career and in 2017 than Logan Morrison, and yet it is Hosmer who will likely find himself with a nine-figure contract while Morrison will find himself firmly in the second or third tier of free agents. MLB Trade Rumors estimates that Hosmer will sign a six-year, $132 million contract while Morrison will sign a three-year, $36 million contract.
But this is all a secondary matter, because while Stern (and others) would like to laugh off the suggestion that Matt Carpenter is in the same tier as Eric Hosmer, the Cardinals first baseman has been vastly superior by any sample other than looking only at 2017. Last year was the first season that Hosmer outpaced Carpenter by fWAR since 2011, a year in which Hosmer had 563 MLB plate appearances and Carpenter had 19. Even with the last two seasons being down years for Carpenter relative to his dominant 2013-2015 run, he was still a more valuable player than Hosmer over those two years (Hosmer was below replacement level in 2016, with his slightly above-average bat not being enough to overcome poor base running and, despite his reputation in the field, very poor defense).
But this isn’t about how Carpenter is underrated relative to Hosmer—it’s about how he is underrated relative to baseball as a whole. Let’s take a look at each of the three major facets of Matt Carpenter’s game.
This is the mostly unquestioned part of Matt Carpenter’s game. There may be disagreements as to scale, whether he is an elite hitter or merely an above-average one, but few question that he is, at the minimum, the latter. But the difference between excellence and adequacy is a huge one in particular for a first baseman—a slightly above-average hitter who is a premium defender at a premium position is an MVP candidate, but at first base, he is barely playable.
Among players with at least 2000 plate appearances since 2013, Carpenter is tied for 18th by wRC+ with Houston Astros World Series MVP George Springer, and the two are ahead of such offensive stalwarts as Jose Altuve, Robinson Cano, Jose Bautista, Chris Davis, and Matt Holliday. His most notable offensive skill is his ability to draw walks—in 2017, only Joey Votto, Aaron Judge, and Mike Trout drew walks at a higher rate than Carpenter. It’s the type of skill that lends itself to being underrated by those who focus on triple-crown batting statistics, particularly batting average—while Carpenter’s .241 batting average puts him on par with 2017 Albert Pujols (the version that was literally the worst player in baseball), his .384 on-base percentage puts him on par with Daniel Murphy and ahead of MVP Giancarlo Stanton and MVP finalist Jose Ramirez.
2017 was Carpenter’s most lackluster season at the plate since 2014, and his .361 wOBA was still in the 72nd percentile of qualified hitters (a disproportionately strong group, as poor hitters usually don’t get enough plate appearances to qualify for leaderboards). And Statcast’s xwOBA (expected wOBA) suggests he actually got a bit unlucky—his .376 xwOBA is higher than that of Colorado Rockies outfielder Charlie Blackmon (.364), who ranked 4th in all of baseball in wOBA last season. Carpenter’s contact quality was high enough that, with a bit more luck, he could have easily been one of baseball’s best hitters, instead of the decidedly above-average one he was even with bad luck.
Matt Carpenter is slow. Of the seventeen Cardinals players with at least one recorded opportunity in 2017 on the Statcast Sprint Speed leaderboard, Carpenter ranked thirteenth, outpacing Luke Voit, Jedd Gyorko, Carson Kelly, and Yadier Molina. He went from a 27 feet/second peak sprint speed in 2015 and 2016 to 26.6 feet/second in 2017—this might be a fluke, but for a player to lose a step in his thirties would hardly be a shock.
Unsurprisingly, Matt Carpenter is not much of a base stealer. He has 15 career steals, peaking at five in 2014. He has two in the last two years combined. By this, the most obvious base running statistic, Carpenter is terrible. But Carpenter has been mostly efficient on the bases otherwise—he is at 4.8 base running runs above average for his career, and only six Cardinals—Kolten Wong, Tommy Pham, Jason Heyward, Daniel Descalso, Randal Grichuk, and Pete Kozma—have been more productive since 2011. By no means is Carpenter a great runner, but statistically, he is far from the disaster he is often purported to be.
2017 was Carpenter’s first full-time season at first base, and even when considering his more sporadic time at the position in previous seasons, the sample size isn’t quite large enough to draw significant conclusions about his ability at the position. But in 1564 1/3 innings at first base, Carpenter’s Ultimate Zone Rating per 150 innings is -1.7 runs. In his 949 1⁄3 innings in 2017, his UZR/150 was -0.7 runs. By either sample, he was very slightly below-average.
But being a mediocre though non-disastrous defensive first baseman isn’t Matt Carpenter’s best quality in the fielding realm—it is his versatility. Carpenter is one of just seven players in MLB history to play at least 200 games at first, second, and third base, and while he is not a great fielder at any of the spots, that he is at least able to fill in at each position is itself valuable.
2013 was Carpenter’s best season by WAR because he played second base and benefited the most from positional adjustments, but he has fit in where he was needed throughout the years. The Cardinals entered 2013 with All-Star David Freese at third base and future All-Star Allen Craig at first base and thus Carpenter went to second. Once Freese was traded and highly-regarded second base prospect Kolten Wong came up, Carpenter moved to third. And once first base opened, Carpenter went there.
In an ideal world, present-day, slightly post-peak Matt Carpenter would be the third or fourth best player on a great team. And those expecting him to become Albert Pujols or Mark McGwire at first base will inevitably be disappointed because Matt Carpenter is not quite that level of special hitter. But Matt Carpenter has value, and the St. Louis Cardinals are a better team for having him around.