As you might remember from last year, Matt Carpenter turned himself into a different kind of hitter. He’d already been wonderfully productive, but last year, he seemingly made the decision to exchange some contact for power. So while Carpenter soared to a career-high ISO, with a career-low rate of grounders, he also notched a career-high strikeout rate, with a career-low rate of contact. It wasn’t necessarily good, and it wasn’t necessarily bad; it was interesting. Carpenter managed a 139 wRC+. Two years earlier, as more of a contact guy, he managed a 146 wRC+.
Now look at this year’s leaderboards. As I write this, David Ortiz owns the highest wRC+ among qualified hitters in the game. Carpenter, however, is right there in second, ahead of Jose Altuve and Mike Trout. And upon investigation, this has gotten silly. Carpenter has hit for more power than a year ago. He’s still putting most of his batted balls in the air. Yet Carpenter has re-gained much of his lost contact. His strikeout rate is down about six percentage points, and his walks are higher than ever. So to summarize: Carpenter traded some contact for power, but then he boosted the power and the contact, and, I don’t know, but here we are. You might think his numbers look very familiar. This is because Carpenter now resembles a left-handed prime Jose Bautista.
Matt Carpenter vs. Jose Bautista
||2010 – 2016
Bautista became Bautista in 2010. So that’s why I selected that window of time. And while Bautista, of course, has done this over several seasons, while Carpenter has done this over about half of one, look at the similarities. LOOK AT THEM. Same walks. Same strikeouts. Same power. Same batted-ball tendencies. Same pull-side preference, with limited strength the other way. One column I didn’t include: Bautista’s one weakness has been infield flies. Usually goes hand-in-hand with that sort of uppercut approach. Carpenter has two infield flies on the season. That helps to explain the wRC+ difference. I’m not saying that’ll sustain, but it’s worth a mention.
Carpenter bats lefty, and Bautista bats righty, and that’s an important difference, but it’s also maybe the only difference that really matters. Matt Carpenter just looks like Jose Bautista from the other side. Carpenter was never really supposed to develop this sort of power, but the man stands 6’3, as compared to Bautista at 6’0. It’s not like it’s come out of nowhere. This ability has been contained within, and now it’s gotten out. It’s gotten out while Carpenter has still been able to keep the strikeouts in check.
Matt Carpenter was never a Baseball America top-100 prospect. He was never a BA top-10 Cardinals prospect. Nevertheless, he developed into an elite contact hitter, and now it looks like he’s developing into an elite power hitter. This is by no means a shot at BA. Rather, it’s a reminder that prospecting is difficult work. Sometimes an underrated prospect becomes a great player. Sometimes an underrated prospect becomes two great players.