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Shuffling the Deck: Matt Carpenter’s Rise to Fantasy Relevance

As we move towards the back third of the season, I’m starting a new feature here at TDG. Shuffling the Deck will focus on players who find themselves worth a lot more in dynasty formats right now than they were at the beginning of the year, and vice versa. Because I’m generally a pretty positive person, the guinea pig for this new series is going to be someone who has gone from relative obscurity to being a legitimate MVP candidate hitting atop one of the best lineups in baseball. As you could probably tell by the title, I’m talking about Cardinals second baseman Matt Carpenter.

After garnering some hype on draft day due to his looming second base eligibility, Carpenter actually came into the season without being terribly undervalued. In fact, in NL Tout Wars, he went for $14 to Steve Gardner (whose bid looks awfully prescient at the moment), after going for only $6 just a few weeks earlier at the NL LABR draft to Lawr Michaels. At the time, it seemed like all of Carpenter’s upside had been priced out, as he was unlikely to be too much help in the power and speed categories. Despite that assertion being correct, he’s been so good in runs and batting average, that it hasn’t mattered. Right now, Carpenter is 4th on the ESPN Player Rater among second basemen (and 41st overall) almost solely on the strength of those two categories.

Those numbers are nearly unthinkable when you look at where Carpenter actually came from. Just four years ago, he was a 13th round (399th overall) senior sign from TCU–and a fifth-year senior who would turn 24 later that year to boot. In fact, Baseball America didn’t even have him in their Top 500 for the 2009 draft. After a strong 2010 campaign, in which he hit .316/.412/.487 with 12 homers and 11 steals at Double-A, he began to land on prospect lists. Kevin Goldstein at BP rated him 8th in the Cardinals’ system and Baseball America rated him 11th. Here’s what Kevin had to say about him:

“While he’ll never impress on a tools level, Carpenter is a very tough out. He doesn’t swing at bad pitches and sprays strikes to all fields while occasionally showing gap power. He has a tremendous makeup and brings an infectious max-effort style of play to the field.”

And that is essentially what he is doing right now, being a very tough out. In fact, he’s one of the toughest outs in baseball. Coming up through the minors, Carpenter was always lauded as having great plate discipline and a fantastic approach, and it certainly bears out if you take a look at the numbers he’s putting up. Here are his rankings among all MLB hitters who qualify for the batting title:

Overall swing percentage: 2nd (38.3%)
Swing percentage outside the strike zone: 6th (22.0%)
Overall contact rate: 9th (90.9%)
Contact rate inside the strike zone: 3rd (97.2%)
Swinging strike rate: 9th (3.5%)

On top of those numbers, he’s also doing one additional thing that I like to look for in hitters who have superior bat control. On the season, Matt Carpenter has exactly one infield fly ball in 444 plate appearances which ties him for fifth in baseball with Joe Mauer. The four players he’s behind? Shin-Soo Choo, Howard Kendrick, Michael Bourn and (of course) Joey Votto. In fact, Votto only has two infield fly balls in the past four seasons. Anyway, moving on…

The key with determining the future value that Carpenter will hold is in determining how repeatable his performance is in the two categories which have been carrying him. First, the batting average. While Carpenter’s .354 BABIP may jump out as a potential outlier, there are a few reasons why there may not be as much regression coming as you might think. First of all, it’s barely higher than the .346 BABIP that he put up last year. That means he’s at over 800 plate appearances of a .346 career BABIP, and a potential reason for that is rooted in his batted ball outcomes. Carpenter is in the top-10 in baseball in line drive rate at 26.2 percent, and as Captain Obvious might say, line drives turn into base hits A LOT. On the other hand, he’s not the fastest player in the world and he has the same number of infield hits as Everth Cabrera, which is more of a fun stat than something to draw a ton of meaning from.

But most importantly (which ties back in with all of the plate discipline stats that I referenced earlier), Carpenter has made great improvements in his strikeout rate. With a career rate of 14.5 percent in the minor leagues, his 18.5 percent strikeout rate in 2012 was perfectly reasonable. But after dropping that by more than six percentage points to 12.4 in 2013, he’s really pushed his potential in the category to the next level. In the end, he’s unlikely to be a .320 hitter going forward, but there’s no reason why we shouldn’t realistically expect him to hit around .300 going forward.

The runs, however, are a little more fickle. Carpenter leads all of baseball right now with 79 runs, and while a lot of that is due to him having a .396 on-base percentage in front of a pretty loaded Cardinals lineup, there is some flukiness going on here. For an example of why, here are the slash lines of the numbers two through five hitters behind him in the Cardinals lineup with runners in scoring position:

Carlos Beltran: .378/.410/.568 in 74 at bats
Matt Holliday: .368/.458/.515 in 68 at bats
Allen Craig: .485/.509/.670 in 97 at bats
Yadier Molina: .391/.463/.522 in 92 at bats

If that doesn’t help a guy’s run totals, then I don’t know what will. And there’s a sizable difference between a player who scores 100 runs in a season versus one who scores 125.

In the end, the combination of Carpenter’s step forward, his multi-positional eligibilty and the overall strength of the Cardinals lineup leaves him as a pretty clear top-10 second baseman and top-150 overall player going forward. However, with some expected regression coming at the edges, the 2013 version of Carpenter is just about tapped out from a value perspective. If he instead hits .300 and scores 100 runs, while still a very valuable asset, he’s not a superstar due to his deficiencies in other categories. And long-term, his hold on second base eligibility may be more tenuous then you’d think. There’s a non-zero possibility that David Freese is playing his last season with the Cardinals, potentially pushing Carpenter to third base with Kolten Wong taking over at the keystone. That is, if Wong isn’t traded at the deadline.

So enjoy this ride while it lasts, and while it may not be the greatest idea to think that it will continue on this same trajectory, don’t expect Carpenter to just fall flat going forward either. Unless you’re in a points league, where Carpenter is as close to gold as you can get. In fact, he’s outscored Robinson Cano in most points formats this year. [GASP]

Follow me on Twitter at @dynastyguru.

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