Matt Carpenter, Developing Star

At this point, everyone knows the story of the Cardinals stealing Albert Pujols in the 13th round of the 1999 draft. In terms of production for the cost, it’s probably the best draft pick in Major League history. Well, apparently, the Cardinals are good at this whole 13th round draft pick thing, because exactly 10 years after they unearthed Pujols, they struck gold again.

Their 2009 13th round pick? Matt Carpenter. He was a senior sign out of Texas Christian University, a budget pick who only cost them a $1,000 signing bonus. After signing, the Cardinals had him split time between short-season and two A-ball levels. At low-A, he drew some walks but showed no power — in part because he hit flat footed with no weight transfer — and was terrible when he got promoted to high-A, hitting .219/.286/.342 in 128 plate appearances. 23-year-old non-athletes who can’t hit A-ball pitching a few months after signing for $1,000 are the definition of non-prospects.

But, over the last few years, the Cardinals have watched Carpenter begin to develop. First came the addition of a weight shift in his swing, giving him doubles power instead of just beating the ball into the ground all the time. Then came some positional flexibility, as he turned himself from a fringe third baseman into a guy who could handle both corner spots and play the outfield. Finally, to get himself an everyday job in a crowded line-up, he turned himself into a second baseman. And now, at age-27, Carpenter is in the midst of developing from a decent hitter into maybe the premier offensive second baseman in the National League.

Because he has accumulated just 614 career plate appearances, we’re definitely dealing with small sample sizes, especially as we look at some developing trends. However, even in those small samples, there are signs of Carpenter’s offensive improvement that are hard to overlook. Rather than just pointing out his overall results — which have clearly been fantastic, given that he’s currently sixth in the majors in WAR — let’s look at Carpenter’s specific improvements thus far.

Last year, in 340 trips to the plate, Carpenter was a good-across-the-board kind of hitter, as he didn’t show one remarkable standout trait. He hit a bunch of doubles, but his lack of home run power limited his ISO to .169, just a tick above league average. His 82.8% contact rate wasn’t bad, but it rated just 97th out of the 265 hitters who got at least 300 plate appearances last year. He swung the bat 41% of the time compared to a league average of 45.6%, so the thing he was best at — relative to the rest of the league anyway — was standing around and not swinging.

Basically, his offense was driven by a pretty good line drive rate, which was the driver behind his .346 BABIP. Hitting line drives is great, but line drive rate is also pretty fickle, especially in a half season’s worth of playing time. While Carpenter does have the kind of swing that is geared more towards squaring up the ball than driving it over the wall, LD% isn’t predictive enough that you want it to be the core of your offensive game.

So, this year, Carpenter has gotten really good at one thing; only swinging at strikes he can actually hit. He’s cut his Z-Swing% from 60% to 52%, and as a result, his in-zone contact rate has gone through the roof. Last year, he posted a Z-Contact% of 89%, just above the league average of 87.5%; this year, he’s at 97.4%, third best in baseball. Only Jeff Keppinger and Angel Pagan are making more contact on swings at pitches in the strike zone.

If you want to see where the changes are coming from, here’s Carpenter’s swing rate heat map for 2012 and 2013, courtesy of Brooks Baseball. First, 2012.

Now, 2013.

Carpenter has basically stopped swinging at pitches up in the strike zone. If you look at the six boxes at the top of the zone but over the plate, he’s swung at just 24 of the 65 pitches he’s been thrown, a 37% swing rate. Last year, he swung at 75 of 146 in those six locations, a 51% swing rate. Chasing pitches up in the zone is generally a poor idea for a hitter unless they have enough power to drive mistakes over the wall, because high fastballs — the great majority of pitches thrown up there — result in very low contact and very high fly ball rates. Hitters without a lot of home run power are just asking to make outs by chasing pitches up in the zone, and for a hitter who wants contact and line drives, focusing on the middle or lower part of the zone makes much more sense.

That’s exactly what Carpenter has done. As a result, his strikeout rate has dropped from 18.5% to 11.6%, or in graph form, it looks like this:


Cutting down on swings up in the zone has helped Carpenter post an even higher LD rate and a higher BABIP than last year, and while both numbers are likely due for regression, he’s performing at a level high enough to sustain a terrific performance even after those numbers come back to earth a bit.

For instance, here are the rest-of-season forecasts for Carpenter, from both ZIPS and Steamer:

ZIPS: .278/.366/.414, .136 ISO, .327 BABIP, .343 wOBA, 115 wRC+
Steamer: .286/.367/.423, .139 ISO, .322 BABIP, .347 wOBA, 117 wRC+

His current BABIP is .372, so this is working in a 50 point regression in his hit rate on balls in play, and Carpenter still grades out as well above average hitter. The combination of walks, doubles, and a reduced strikeout rate mean that Carpenter — the $1,000 senior sign guy who couldn’t hit A-ball pitching at age-23 — now projects as a better hitter than any second baseman besides Robinson Cano, Dustin Pedroia, Ian Kinsler, or Chase Utley.

Yes, his minor league track record and his first 614 big league plate appearances have convinced the projetion systems that Carpenter is, right now, a better hitter than guys like Ben Zobrist or Brandon Phillips. Over the last calendar year, the only second baseman who have outhit him are Cano and Aaron Hill.

The first few months of Carpenter’s 2013 season look remarkably like something you’d see from a prime season of Dustin Pedroia. Or, to put it another way, Carpenter has developed into exactly the kind of player that scouts projected Dustin Ackley as coming out of college. While he might not be the toolsiest player on the planet, Carpenter’s approach and ability to make improvements have made him one of the best under-the-radar players in Major League Baseball.

Next month, Carpenter should be making his first All-Star appearance. Given his abilities compared to the rest of the second baseman in the National League, it probably won’t be his last. Welcome to the upper echelon of Major League players, Matt Carpenter.

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

45 Responses to “Matt Carpenter, Developing Star”

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  1. mrlewis says:

    Scouts may have been right about Ackley and Carpenter after we account for organizational effects on player development. Now imagine if Ackley had been drafted by the Cardinals?

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    • a says:

      this article is silly. hes the 3rd best fantasy 2B so far this season.

      i wouldve appreciated it if this article came out a lot earlier.

      Though we all know he was already a star becuz the coaches raved about how good he was in spring. thus most of the public drafted him in the mid rounds.

      zzz come on dave cameron tell me something i dont know!

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      • joser says:

        This isn’t Rotographs. Nobody cares about your silly fantasy team.

        Back in the real world, this is interesting stuff.

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    • Cool Lester Smooth says:

      So true.

      The Cardinals are probably the best team in baseball in terms of developing hitting prospects.

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  2. atoms says:

    “At this point, everyone knows the story of the Cardinals stealing Albert Pujols in the 13th round of the 1999 draft. In terms of production for the cost, it’s probably the best draft pick in Major League history.”

    Mike Piazza says hi from the 62nd round.

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  3. Steve says:

    Sorry, Cub fans.

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  4. Ryan says:

    An absolutely terrific analysis! His OBP of over .400 is quite impressive.

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  5. Stefan K. says:

    I wonder how reliable his positive UZR is. Before the season started, it was doubtful if he could handle 2B, and now he is an above aberage defender on a new position.

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    • Jeffrey says:

      He looks pretty smooth over there. Good footwork, smooth transitions. Great arm for the position.

      I don’t know how long he’ll maintain that defensive value, or how reliable it is. But it seems to be somewhat accurate.

      I would say he is a nice +5 defensive second basemen.

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    • Dan Greer says:

      I wonder that as well, though given what we’ve seen of his bat, he’s probably the kind of guy who will get every ounce of production from his modest talent. He can stick there a few years, though with Wong coming up by 2014, he might end up at 3B for his pre-arb years (if the Cards decide to deal Freese and save some money this offseason). Or he might be a Tony Phillips-esque everyday utility leadoff man.

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  6. Anon says:

    But, over the last few years, the Cardinals have watched Carpenter begin to develop.

    Correct me if I am wrong, but the above sentance seems to show a faulty assumption. Specifically, your focus is completely on player talent and skill while ignoring organization effects on development.

    Also, the Cardinals current roster has several examples of players who were deemed to old to be prospects. Identifying and developing non-traditional prospects has paid dividends for the Cardinals in recent years.

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    • Wobatus says:

      I think you are reading too much into the phrase. I don’t think that by using the word “watched” Dave meant to suggest the Cardinals were a proverbial observer sitting behind a 2 way mirror as Carpenter just magically figured out baseball by himself.

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    • joser says:

      I watch my plants develop even though I water them every day and treat them to fertilizer and pest treatments as needed. They’d die without me, but I can’t make them grow — that’s entirely up to them.

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  7. Emcee Peepants says:

    I don’t understand why the rest of the league doesn’t look at what the Cardinals have done the past 10 years and copy every aspect of it. They develop young stars the right way (Pujols, Jay, Craig, Miller, M. Carpenter, Molina, Wainwright, Lynn, Garcia, Morris), turn scrapheap pitchers into stars or at least 10 game winners (C. Carpenter, Westbrook, Lohse, Suppan, Marquis) and spend on the right free agents/made trades that fit their team and style (Rolen, Edmonds, Holliday, Beltran). Those are all just off the top of my head, I’m sure I missed some. They even managed to avoid the decline of one of the best hitters of the modern era by not resigning Pujols. It’s a pretty remarkable organization. I’m a life-long Phillies fan, but boy howdy do I wish they did things more like the Cards (*cough*ryanhowardcontract*cough*).

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    • Anon says:

      You forgot about Larry Walker, but just ignore that Mulder trade.

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    • olethros says:

      They also pioneered the strategy of extending young stars well before arbitration.

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    • Dan Greer says:

      If only it were so easy! I have a feeling the Cardinals don’t like to put young players in the box of what they *can’t* do – but look at what they can do and consistently challenge these guys to improve in some way. Obviously every minor league system should be focused on player development, but the Cards are consistently better at getting real production from marginal (and underrated) talents. They end up with these multi-position “old prospects” (which is another way of saying cheap and in their prime), and work them into the lineup often enough to not rot away on the Major League bench. And it’s working. Even “blocked” guys like Matt Adams are getting chances thanks to the versatility of Allen Craig. And he’s helping the team instead of stagnating at AAA. Maybe he’ll be traded eventually, but he’s getting the chance to prove he’s a big leaguer. Carpenter got that chance last year thanks to his versatility, and now he’s a probable All-Star secondbaseman.

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    • Max says:

      Joel Pineiro is another good one.

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    • gorillakilla34 says:

      I’ve admired this approach as well and get to frequently see these players perform as a Pirates fan. I think Pittsburgh may finally be catching on a little with how they’ve managed marginal players into successful roles with the likes of Neil Walker, Garrett Jones/Gaby Sanchez, and Travis Snider/Jose Tabata platoons. Also using Jordy Mercer as a MLB utility man at 2B, SS, 3B. But they still haven’t completely shaken their love for mediocre vets with John McDonald and Brandon Inge. Maybe someday…

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  8. LarryJonesJr says:

    Thumbs up to anyone who drafted him/bid a dollar for him in Fantasy.

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    • David says:

      Yup. Was my last round flier pick. Then pressed into service at 3rd because my two drafted 3Bs (Headley, Lawrie) started the year on the DL. Couple weeks later when they got healthy I flipped Carpenter for Mike Minor.

      Too bad the rest of my team sucks …

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    • TheUncool says:

      Yeah, I was kicking myself for not going after him sooner, but managed to land him in my 2 dynasty-type, 16-18-team leagues afterall — one is a points league using XR for offense while the other is salary dynasty 6×6 Roto w/ OPS (and Holds) added to the standard.

      Here’s to hoping he turns into that star 2B/super-utility-guy… :-)

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    • scraps says:

      I would give a -1 to this post, but I’m not sure it wasn’t sarcastic. (Unlike the two posts following,)

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    • salvo says:

      Ha! I WISH he went for a dollar in my league. I was targeting him, as was another guy in my league, and even though he came up in the latter portion of the draft (I was hoarding my darft dollars), I ended up going all the way up to $15 for him!

      I was most attracted to his OBP and positional flexibility, seeing him as, at worst, a guy I could plug in all over the place as other guys had off days, and in the best-case scenario a guy whose on-base skills at the top of a good lineup would provide some graet numbers at a relatively shallow position.

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  9. …convinced the projetion systems that…

    You forgot the “c”; you can’t spell Carpenter, Cardinals and Champions without a C. You should know that Cameron.

    C what I did there?

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  10. bmarkham says:

    Don’t forget he leads NL second basemen in WAR, wOBA, OBP, AVG, and SLG%. And yet he’s fourth in the All Star voting. Dude should be starting easily.

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  11. Vin says:

    I just have to say that those swing rate heat maps are really cool.

    Cool, meaning interesting, of course.

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  12. Cus says:

    I just want to know how many superstar players I played with growing up didn’t get drafted, but a middle infielder whose swing didn’t include weight transfer somehow managed to get a sniff? Carpenter looks like one of the poster boys for Malcolm Gladwell’s opportunity plus 10,000 hours of hard work equals success.

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    • aaaa says:

      If they didn’t even get drafted, they weren’t “superstars.” Plenty of mediocre college players get drafted much later than Carpenter did.

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      • Cool Lester Smooth says:

        Yeah, Matt Carpenter without a weight transfer was on such a higher echelon than the “superstars” this dude played with growing up that it isn’t even funny.

        The best athlete I’ve ever met in my life just got drafted out of JuCo.

        It was in the 15th round.

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  13. Jim says:

    Regarding the All-Star voting I just saw that Brandon Belt is actually ahead of Paul Goldschmidt at 1B. If that doesn’t scream that we need to take the voting away from the fans I don’t know what does.

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  14. channelclemente says:

    Great article. Any chance you dig deeper into the Cardinals development system and formula?

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