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 the Managing Editor of FanGraphs.