October 15, 2013
With a lot of talk surrounding the NLCS and the concept of the money-rich Dodgers versus the development-rich Cardinals, I thought it would be interesting to take a look at one of the more celebrated products of the Cardinals developmental system: 13th-round draft pick Matt Carpenter.
Carpenter wasn’t celebrated much before 2013, as he was drafted as a fifth-year senior and signed for a mere $1,000. He moved quickly through the system, necessarily so, given his age upon entering pro ball was 23. As you might expect from an older player, Carpenter showed a strong awareness of the strike zone, a trait that’s carried over to his major league success. When he impressed as a super-utility player in 2012, Carpenter did so by keeping his strikeout to walk ratio under control, allowing his plus hit-tool to take over, resulting in a .294/.365/.463 slash line in 296 at-bats. The question of course, following his impressive debut campaign, was where would he earn his at-bats going forward as Carpenter had previous earned most of his playing time at first base, where Allen Craig would be playing in 2013. That question was answered when the Cardinals decided they could forego some defense in at the keystone, and play Carpenter there, full time. While Carpenter has proven adept at turning the double play, his defense has largely been as anticipated at the position. Of course that doesn’t much matter when one produces as he has at the plate.
A fantasy revelation batting atop the potent St. Louis lineup, Carpenter’s careful eye at the plate and ability to put bat to ball earned him top-20 overall status in 2013 (per Yahoo!). The pertinent question to all fantasy leaguers of course is: can this type of ranking/production be replicated going forward? The answer, as it usually is: it depends.
Much of Carpenter’s exceptional fantasy season was built on his incredible 127 runs scored, which were 15.5 percent higher than the next highest run-scorer (Mike Trout, 109). While Carpenter’s on-base skills are the real deal (10 percent career walk rate), runs scored is a contextual statistic and depends very much on the ability of those behind the runner to cash them in. While St. Louis’ lineup should be fearsome once again next year, there remains the possibility that Carlos Beltran, their no. 2 hitter will move on to another team. On top of that, St. Louis hit .330 as a team with runners in scoring position (RISP), the highest team average with RISP ever. Even if Beltran does return, it’s unlikely that they could reproduce that kind of average, which would of course affect Carpenter’s value.
Where Carpenter shouldn’t see much of an issue going forward is his batting average. While his .318 average represented a career high, it’s not surprising that he was able to improve upon his .294 average from 2012. He retained his 10 percent walk rate while dropping his strikeout rate from 18.5 percent to 13.7 percent. All that said, I wouldn’t count on a replication of his average, as he relied on an elevated BABIP to get there. Something between his 2012 and 2013 averages seems well within reach, and would still be plenty valuable. It’s tempting not to discount his 2013 BABIP, as it’s not much higher than his 2012 figure, but it’s how he got there that concerns me. It’s not uncommon for certain players to have elevated BABIPs, of course, but usually they’re fleet of foot, a characteristic that Carpenter lacks as his three stolen bases can attest to. What he does do though, is barrel the ball extremely well, and especially so in 2013. Carpenter rang up a 27% line drive percentage in 2013, a full six percentage points above the league average and four percentage points above his 2012 number. As someone who barrels the ball so well, we can reasonably expect something above league average, but 27 percent strikes me as being toward the upper end of the spectrum and something that would be difficult reproduce going forward.
None of this is to say that Carpenter isn’t one of the better second base options heading into the 2014 season, because he most certainly is. But it’s worth noting that much of his value (runs scored, RBI) are context driven, and while the Cardinals are expected to be towards the top of the league once again, those statistics are subject to more variation than skill based ones. Add in his complete and utter lack of speed, and we’re looking at a player who is likely to get drafted (and overdrafted at that) based on his situation, rather than based on the skills he offers. Once again, those skills are quite legitimate, but they’re not as fantasy friendly as we might hope.