Matt Carpenter, Steady Lightning Rod

Coming into the season, I thought Matt Carpenter was a decent sleeper in deep leagues. In the Skip Schumaker mold, he might play a decent enough second base to make an empty batting average work. I bought him in a few deep leagues, and ranked him 35th among third basemen, and made a comment that I’d rank him around 22nd among second basemen. We had one comment about him.

Flash forward to our All-Star ranks. He ended up 12th in our second base rankings update, but was ranked anywhere from seventh to 25th by our various rankers. He sparked nine comments. That’s a lot of variance for a guy that has ten months with more than 20 plate appearances in the major leagues… and has hit over .290 in seven of them. How you think of him going forward is based on batted-ball theories, your league settings, and even how you ended up with him.

Let’s go with the last one first. Though there were reasons to like him going into the season — he hit for a good a good average at almost every stop, with modest power and good patience — his value hung on his ability to hack it with the glove at second base. That was undetermined, but some went with it. His draft positions were all over the place. Those looking at his projections saw this:

Yahoo / RotoWire 0.276 7 45 55 3
Steamer 0.270 5 34 35 2
ZiPs 0.257 8 53 53 4
OLIVER 0.271 15 62 62 4

He didn’t go in my 15-team USAToday Mock Draft. Or in the 14-teamer I set up for RotoWorld. Both were done in the early offseason, though. After he showed some competence at the position, he started to go for more money in drafts. In the end, he was taken in 29% of Yahoo drafts, as the 19th second baseman on average. In ottoneu, he has an average price tag of $3 in 5×5, $6 in points, but he went for $13 max in a late draft — to Mike Axisa, who’s now winning the FanGraphs staff league (he beat me out by a dollar in the auction). In fact, 24% of the teams with Matt Carpenter are in first place in their ottoneu leagues.

It might be a little hard to appraise Matt Carpenter without bias if he pushed your team into first place. After all, middle infielders are hard to find, and ones that might lead the league in runs while hitting-double digit home runs even rarer.

But there are negative things to say about Matt Carpenter.

He doesn’t have much power. His .169 career ISO is a little better than the league average this year (.146), but not among the group you might call power hitters. (He ranks 149th in the league this year in the stat.) He’s equaling his minor league maximum in the category, too. With his below-average home run per fly ball rate, steady over two years, and steady mediocre batted ball distance (273 feet, 198th in the league) it just seems like a fact: He doesn’t have much power.

He doesn’t have much speed. He’s stolen one base this season. He stole one base, total, all last season. He stole 11 bases once, but that was 2010, when he was a wee 24 years old. He doesn’t have much speed.

He has a high batting average on balls in play. His .354 BABIP is 17th in the league. It’s right to be nervous. He has a high BABIP.

Then again, at second base, it doesn’t take much power to be useful. And there are plenty of no-speed MI. And his xBABIP is .355 (!) based only on his batted ball mix, which is excellent for producing high line drive rates. He now has a career 25% line drive rate, which is great, and also believable, to an extent. (Joey Votto’s is 25.1%). And, speaking of Joey Votto, Carpenter has that rare combination of an above-average strikeout rate, above-average power, and opposite-field tendencies that produces such great batting averages. (His opposite-field percentage is down to 27% from 29% recently, but he still belongs on that leaderboard.)

If we gave him a similar BABIP from here on out, and extrapolated his current power, we’d take the over on the rest-of-season projections currently available to us. Steamer has him hitting .283 with four more home runs and 29 more runs, ZiPs .289 with four and 33 respectively. You could push the package to .300 with five home runs and 35+ runs rest of season if you put on your rosier glasses.

I did that, and he ended up 12th in my rankings. To be fair, I looked at him, Kyle Seager and Ben Zobrist pretty hard, but when you steal bases and have more power, it’s tough to slot you below a two-category guy like Carpenter.

I’ll admit there are settings that play to Carpenter’s strengths. On base percentage leagues, in particular. Carpenter has been the second-best second baseman in ottoneu points because he has power and patience and doesn’t get caught stealing. And head-to-head leaguers know how much value he brings as a plug-and-play guy that can add plate appearances at many positions.

But for the most part, we’re talking about standard 5×5 leagues here, and a two-category second baseman. A Martin Prado in his prime, minus the stolen bases, if you will. And we should be careful, even in H2H leagues, to not over-rate the value of those extra plate appearances. Mondays and Thursdays are the light days, and in the next nine weeks, the Cards have four such days off. So Carpenter might — might — buy you an extra 50 plate appearances over a full team with no backups at all… which probably doesn’t exist. So it’s better to say he could give you an extra 25 plate appearances, and maybe ten extra times on base, between now and the end of the year. Useful, not critical.

So if you’re haggling over a deal right now and the problem is Matt Carpenter, maybe you should think about those extra ten times on base. And the fact that, over 250 plate appearances, the difference between his batting average and even someone like Ben Zobrist’s is somewhere around ten to fifteen hits. Maybe you could use the extra five stolen bases, or the chance at extra pop. Maybe a few extra runs aren’t worth scuttling a big deal over.

Matt Carpenter is steady. Matt Carpenter’s ranking inspired a few arguments this time around. Matt Carpenter is a useful player with a big batting average, and we all see what we want in him: the cheap second baseman whose big return on investment is pushing us to a title, or the useful two-category middle infielder whose owner might overate him.

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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I trade him away for Mike Minor in a 20-team, OPS/K/9, H2H back in late May or early June. His versatility was nice and all the runs scored but he just doesn’t add hardly any HR’s or SB’s (or RBI’s for that matter). Felt like I got a pretty good deal in Minor.