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.
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.