Is Matt Carpenter Still Building Towards Something?

Ignore one category, and you might wonder why Matt Carpenter was ranked second among all second basemen in fantasy value in 2013. He hit 11 homers, stole three bases, and drove in 78 runs. Even Ichiro Suzuki, when he was someone you could count on for batting average — like you *might* be able to do with Carpenter — hit about as many homers and stole ten times as many bases when he was going well.

But there is that batting average. And there are those runs scored. And if he regresses in those two categories, will the 27-year-old build in other areas to combat that regression?

Let’s look at runs scored in particular. He scored 126 of them, and his team isn’t likely to undergo a firesale. Runs can be a scary thing to bank on, given the ebb and flow of offense on a team level, but let’s say that he’s with a contender that should keep most of its non-Carlos Beltran pieces at the end of the season.

In the past ten years, there have been 20 player seasons in which a player has scored 120 or more runs. Of those 20, six repeated the feat: Albert Pujols (three times), Alex Rodriguez, Carlos Beltran, Curtis Granderson, Hanley Ramirez and Jimmy Rollins. Considering that Albert Pujols did it three times with this same team, it’d be tempting to just say that Carpenter can easily repeat the feat.

The problem is, slugging percentage is better correlated to runs on a team level, and you might notice something about that group of hitters. They all have way more power. In fact, Matt Carpenter had the third-worst ISO among 120+ run scorers in the past ten years. If you average out the 232 players that scored more than 100 runs in that time period, their ISO is .220. It’s a lot easier to score 100-120+ runs if you plate yourself 25-30 times.

But limit the pool to players that have scored over 100 runs in the past ten years with an Isolated Slugging number between league average (.145) and .190, and also have an above-average walk rate, and one name leaps off the page: Dustin Pedroia. He managed the feat twice. In his 26 and 27-year-old seasons, Pedroia scored 118 runs followed by 115. He’s scored more than 100 runs once in the four years since then. Bobby Abreu was a perennial 100-run scorer, but he walked 15% of the time or better most years. Carpenter does have a history of Abreu-like walk rates in the minor leagues, but it’s been over 1000 plate appearances in the bigs so far, in his peak years, and his walk rate has been flat: 10% is nice, but it’s not the 17.8% that Abreu put up when he was 30. Abreu had a 12.6% walk rate through his first 1000 plate appearances.

If he’s not likely to boost his walk rate by 50%, Carpenter will need to add some power to retain his lofty status in the runs category. As much as people like to say power ages well, the numbers don’t seem to support that idea. I even found that ISO peaks before the 27-28 year old range that’s normally associated with peak performance.

431 qualified batter-seasons have seen an ISO between .145 and .190 since 2004. Carpenter’s .163 ISO last year falls on the lighter half of that group, but we’re trying to give him the benefit of the doubt here. Of that group, 175 seasons came from players over 30, so let’s remove them from consideration. Since it’s unfair to compare him to much younger players, let’s take out those under 25 years old too. And we’re interested in players that have more than one season in the group. That leaves us with 48 players with multiple comparable seasons to Matt Carpenter‘s 2013, in terms of power at least.

The biggest gainers were Aaron Hill (.169 at 25 up to .189 at 28), Brandon Phillips (.151 at 25, .181 at 27), Carl Crawford (.147 at 27, .188 at 28), Justin Smoak (.147 at 25, .174 at 26), Neil Walker (.146 at 26, .167 at 27), and Yadier Molina (.160 at 28 and .186 at 29). As you can see, many of these players improved before their 28-year-old season, which is the season Carpenter is approaching. In fact, given his lack of speed (which can turn singles into doubles and change your ISO), his best comps are Aaron Hill and Yadier Molina. Doubt he’s Yadier Molina — especially since Carpenter’s batted ball distance went from around 280 and 145th in the league to 270 and 230th in the league from his freshman to sophomore years.

So for the run-scoring love to continue, there are a few things that Carpenter can do: walk 50% more often to go the Bobby Abreu route, or develop more power to join the power group. Otherwise, he’s likely to become a Dustin Pedroia without speed. So, without a change in his batted ball profile (Aaron Hill‘s fly ball rate) or a crazy (probably unsustainable) power spike (Yadier Molina), you’re not likely to see another season like this from Matt Carpenter. And we didn’t once mention his batting average on balls in play.

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With a phone full of pictures of pitchers' fingers, strange beers, and his two toddler sons, Eno Sarris can be found at the ballpark or a brewery most days. Read him here, writing about the A's or Giants at The Athletic, or about beer at October. Follow him on Twitter @enosarris if you can handle the sandwiches and inanity.

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