Jason Kipnis or Matt Carpenter: A Preference Test

A few weeks ago, the Cardinals signed Matt Carpenter to a six year, $52 million contract. Today, the Indians have signed Jason Kipnis to a six year, $52.5 million contract. Both players were four years from free agency, and in essence, they both signed the same basic contract. Which makes sense, because they’re pretty similar players. Here are their career performances, side by side:

Jason Kipnis 1,494 10% 19% 0.153 0.316
Matt Carpenter 1,089 10% 16% 0.161 0.351
—- —- —- —- —- —-
Jason Kipnis 0.270 0.348 0.423 0.338 117
Matt Carpenter 0.305 0.380 0.466 0.368 137
—- —- —- —- —- —-
Name BsR Fld Off Def WAR
Jason Kipnis 7 -10 36 -5 8.5
Matt Carpenter 4 -7 51 -7 8.2

Kipnis was an outfielder in college, but the Indians turned him into a second baseman, and he’s become solid enough defensively that there’s no real thought of moving him off the position any time soon. Carpenter was a third baseman in college, and the Cardinals turned him into a second baseman last year, though he’s moved back to third for this year to accommodate the presence of Kolten Wong. Carpenter was good enough to keep playing the position, however, and could probably move back if the need arose. While they won’t play the same position this year, they are pretty similar defensive players, and I’d be hard pressed to give a strong edge in the field to either one.

At the plate, Carpenter’s results have been better to date, but that’s mostly BABIP-driven. Carpenter does make better contact and has a high BABIP partly as a result of his almost-never-hit-pop-ups batted ball profile, but because he’s come to the plate 400 fewer times, we also have to bake more regression into his numbers. Maybe even with that adjustment, you still prefer Carpenter’s bat, but the gap isn’t going to be huge.

From a performance standpoint, Kipnis and Carpenter are very comparable, and it should be no surprise that they basically signed the same contract. But there are some real differences between the two, and those differences present an interesting opportunity to measure our own personal preferences.

For one, Kipnis’ physical tools are quite a bit more obvious; it’s why he was a second round pick out of Arizona State, while Carpenter was a 13th round pick out of Texas Christian. Kipnis rated as high as the 54th best prospect in the game according to Baseball America; Carpenter never even rated in the top 10 of the Cardinals own system. And while they have performed somewhat similarly as Major League players, they get there in different ways.

For his career, Kipnis has hit a home run once every 27 times he’s put the bat on the ball, while Carpenter is at one home run per 47 contacted balls. However, Carpenter has made up for the lack of home runs by being a doubles machine; he gets a non-HR extra base hit once every nine contacted balls, while Kipnis is at one every 13. Because of the frequency of his doubles and triples, Carpenter actually has a higher percentage of his total hits go for extra bases (37% to 33%), but he distributes them heavily towards doubles and triples while Kipnis turns a few more of those into balls that fly over the wall.

In terms of Isolated Slugging, Carpenter’s profile actually comes out a little ahead, though I think most would describe Kipnis has having more power, thanks to the fact that he hits the ball over the wall with a lot more frequency. Carpenter is a classic “doubles power” guy, and it’s a bit surprising when he gets into one and trots around the bases. Kipnis isn’t exactly a cleanup hitter, but by traditional evaluation methods, he’s the guy with more power.

And then there’s the speed. Kipnis has 68 career stolen bases; Carpenter has four. And Kipnis isn’t just running himself into outs, as he has a career 83% success rate on his attempts, making him one of the game’s most efficient base stealers. Over the last two years, Kipnis rates #7 in all of baseball in wSB, which is the value (in runs) added from his stolen base attempts. During that same time, Carpenter has been thrown out trying to steal just as often as he has been successful.

Again, by any kind of traditional method you want to use, Kipnis is both faster and a more dangerous weapon on the bases. If he gets a single, there’s a real threat of him taking second base, while Carpenter is just going to stand there and wait for someone to drive him in. But note the last few rows of the first table; the gap in total BsR — our measure of total baserunning value added — is actually not all that large, especially once you consider the playing time differences. And that’s because Carpenter trounces Kipnis on baserunning plays that are not stolen base attempts.

According to the calculations from Baseball-Reference, Carpenter has taken an extra base — more than one on a single, more than two on a double, when not blocked by a runner in front — 47% of the time, while Kipnis has done the same just 41% of the time. That extra aggressiveness hasn’t turned into a wave of extra outs, either; Carpenter has taken 40 extra bases and made 11 outs on the bases, while Kipnis has taken 35 bases and made 14 outs on the bases.

These extra bases and fewer outs made add real value, and by our UBR calculation (+5.9 to +0.7), Carpenter has made up most of the baserunning difference that he loses by not stealing bases. In fact, per 600 plate appearances, the gap in total career BsR between the two amounts to about half a run. Kipnis gets his baserunning value in the way that everyone notices, but based on all facets of running, there isn’t actually a huge advantage there for either player.

Kipnis is a toolsy athlete; Carpenter is one of the least physically gifted high-level players in MLB today. Kipnis is strong and fast; Carpenter is good at hitting line drives and makes up for his lack of speed with savvy aggressiveness. From a scouting perspective, it is very easy to prefer Kipnis, and history says that athletic players like Kipnis age particularly well. From a performance standpoint, though, Carpenter has actually been the better of the two.

Both are terrific players. The Indians and Cardinals both did well to sign away their prime years for roughly $50 million in total commitments, and these two will likely remain cornerstone building blocks for their organizations for the next few years. Kipnis is a year and a half younger and is staying at second base, while Carpenter has already transitioned back to third, where his line drives and contact profile is a little less traditional. But, again, Carpenter has a career wRC+ 20 points higher, and even if you deflate the BABIP difference by a large degree, he grades out as a slightly better hitter.

Going forward, I think I’d take Kipnis; the age and athleticism do matter, and all things equal, I think you’d rather have a physically gifted guy than someone who has probably already maxed out his tools. But, right now, Carpenter may very well be the better player, especially if we’re viewing them outside of the context of their current organizations and give Carpenter credit for being able to play second base at a reasonable level. So, I don’t choose Kipnis with any kind of strong conviction. Both are terrific, and the Indians and Cardinals should be glad that they each have one of the game’s better young players under team control for the next six years.

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Dave is a co-founder of USSMariner.com and contributes to the Wall Street Journal.

35 Responses to “Jason Kipnis or Matt Carpenter: A Preference Test”

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  1. tehzachatak says:

    Right now, or in the 1-2 year horizon, I’d take Carpenter (I am also a Cardinals fan), but over the next 6 years, I’d rather have Kipnis.

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    • Matthew Murphy says:

      This is my answer. Carpenter has been worth 4.5 WAR/600PA, while Kipnis has been at 3.4. This could be driven in part by lineup spot, as if you adjust to WAR/150 Games, Carpenter sits at 4.4 while Kipnis is much closer at 3.75. This year, Steamer projects Carpenter 0.7 WAR ahead, while ZiPS has Kipnis 0.4 ahead.

      I think that over the next couple years, Carpenter will probably be the better overall player. But given the age and tools, it’s quite possible that Kipnis looks better towards the end of the contract. Which player you want probably has more to do with whether your team is looking to contend in the next few years, or if you’re looking a couple more years down the road.

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  2. Jon L. says:

    I think you should sort responses into two bins: Readers that play fantasy baseball, and readers that don’t. The fact that more of Kipnis’ value comes from hitting the ball over the wall and stealing bases, as opposed to hitting doubles and taking extra bases, plus the fact that he bats third, all make him more valuable as a fake ballplayer.

    I do play, and prefer Kipnis, but I also think it matters that his wRC+ doesn’t quite measure up to his reputation.

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    • bdhudson says:

      FWIW, if you take the aggregate totals, they come out about the same from a fantasy production standpoint. 2013 HR+R+RBI+SB: Kipnis – 217; Carpenter: 218.

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      • Bubba says:

        You can’t really do that though. 1 HR is not equal to 1 R or RBI

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      • Parker says:

        Can’t count HR+R+RBI+SB together to rate a player. A HR/SB is much tougher to achieve than a R/RBI. Someone who is 40/40 HR/SB with 80/80 R/RBI is much more valuable than someone who is 20/20 HR/SB and 100/100 R/RBI.

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  3. DD says:

    Your last paragraph highlights the most important difference – ceiling. Kipnis may indeed still get better, especially in the areas of “saviness” that Carpenter has excelled in (limiting pop ups, efficient in taking extra bases, improved positioning on defense, etc).

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    • Lenard says:

      Agreed, Kipnis can improve on all those areas that Carpenter excels at, but it’s going to be very hard for Carpenter to improve in the ways that Kipnis excels.

      I think the age difference, although only about 1.5 years, is definitely a factor too.

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    • Anon says:

      I don’t understand the complaint about the ceiling of Carpenter. He had a 7 WAR season last year. He was legitimately a top 5 MVP candidate. He can regress by more than 2 WAR and still be better than Kipnis was last year.

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      • DD says:

        He had a heavily BABIP boosted season and played a higher end defensive position with lower offensive standard, which boosted his WAR. Assuming some regression in BABIP, plus the move to 3B, even with the same offensive #s he won’t come near 7 WAR. That was likely the best he could do, while Kipnis could still get there with some reasonable improvements.

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        • Anon says:

          Kipnis raised his BABIP by .054 from 2012 to 2013. He is likely to see regression as well.

          Carpenter’s BABIP has more room to fall, but his skill set suggests that he should stay above average.

          I’m not saying Carpenter is likely to have another 7 WAR season, but it is definitely his ceiling. I don’t know if Kipnis can post a 7 WAR season.

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        • BenRevereDoesSteroids says:

          I don’t really think that Carpenter playing 3rd now really has any standing on “who would you rather take, Carpenter or Kipnis?” Taking Carpenter and keeping him at 2nd is a viable opinion.

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      • Ed says:

        Sure, if you believe that Fangraphs method for calculating WAR is 100% accurate.

        Baseball Reference has them as indistinguishable last year (Carpenter 6.0, Kipnis 5.9).

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  4. CabreraDeath says:

    And, yet the Pirates have McCutchen signed to about the same contract. Nice one, Mr. Huntington.

    All three are good deals. But, it shows the inflation in these deals as Dave has been pointing out.

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  5. jayare says:

    The Indians in general don’t take the extra base very often. Almost have to wonder if it’s a philosophical thing. Although they’re not an especially fast team in aggregate.

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  6. Aaron says:

    We are all Kipnises.

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  7. BigBird says:

    “Kipnis is a toolsy athlete; Carpenter is the (sic) one of the least physically gifted high-level players in MLB today.”

    How is that possibly true about Carpenter?

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    • Greg says:

      Seriously, how is that possible. He graded out as a better defender and baserunner than kipnis last year and has switched positions twice in 3 years while also playing the outfield. How is it remotely possible he is one of the least physically gifted players in MLB. TELL ME HOW DAVE!?!?!?!?

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      • BigBird says:

        Yea, Dave.

        Greg and I would like to see some information in support of your bald assertion about Carpenter’s physical gifts relative to this heretofore undefined class of “high-level players in MLB today.”

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  8. LONNIE says:

    I would take Kinsler. I think his deal is great for the Tribe, can’t say the same about Carpenter. Carp is a guy I would have gone year-to year on, not sure if in 4 years he will worth the money..with Kipnis I have no doubts about that.

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  9. FeslenR says:

    I like both a lot, but I lean towards Kipnis due to his stolen base ability.

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  10. gabriel says:

    I haven’t time to run the numbers, but I wonder how much of Kipnis’ apparent power advantage is due his and Carpenter’s home parks. Progressive Field is a pitchers’ park but actually helps left-handed power significantly; Busch Stadium on the other hand noticeably hurts LH power.

    Taking that into account, and the fact I anticipate Carpenter to be a better defender at third, I’ll go against the grain here and take Carpenter.

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  11. Mike Green says:

    “Kipnis is a toolsy athlete” sounds like it belongs in the Yiddish version of Notgraphs.

    And as for preferences, I’d take the pure hitter by a nose. That would be Carpenter.

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  12. janustattoo says:

    I can’t speak to Carpenter’s clubhouse presence, but Kipnis is already an enormous influence in the Cleveland dugout. During yesterday’s rain delay, local broadcast aired Kipnis’s post-signing interview. First he fielded questions alongside Tito, then he fielded questions alongside Yan Gomes and Michael Brantley. In both contexts he was inspiring. Cleveland wants to root for humble yet affable characters, and Kipnis is finding his stride as a media presence as well as a player.

    I think that both of these players will earn their value in these contracts (fingers crossed). I also think that the Cleveland baseball team took an enormous step in assuring its fanbase of some commitment to winning baseball, which has not always been the case. The Kipnis signing bodes well for Cleveland maintaining a core of talented baseball players while keeping an eye on market reality; this is a key principle of perennial front-runners like the Cardinals.

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  13. Player Development Nerd says:

    I’ve seen a few articles in which you discuss baserunning on singles and doubles in terms of the rate of taking extra bases versus outs. This seems like it deserves some context. It’s obviously easier to take third on a single to right than to left. Perhaps you would get a table of singles and doubles to each fielder, how many bases each runner took, how many outs were produced, and compute a combined Z score by comparing all of these rates to league averages. Likewise, you could perform similar calculations for advancing on flyouts, passed balls and wild pitches, and the occasional ground ball. Outs would also be interesting, especially on line drives and attempts to advance on sacrifice flies. Perhaps you could find out which baserunners were more likely to force a throw to first instead of cutting down the lead runner.

    I think you can do all of this with the available batted ball data. HitFx information would be even better.

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  14. Stan "The Boy" Taylor says:

    On the non-steal baserunning value, has anyone tried to look at the impact of the 3rd base coach? Assuming some are more skilled than others, the difference between similarly speedy players may come down to how often they are sent and successful, held unnecessarily and sent for a likely out. Base coach instruction probably isn’t data that is even captured, but surely is a variable for BsR and UBR.

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