Matt Carpenter, Surprise Fantasy MVP

Raise your hand if you expected Matt Carpenter to lead all of baseball with 126 runs scored (and not just lead, but trounce the next highest total by 17!) and tie for the lead in total hits recorded. Mrs. Carpenter, put your hand down. That’s what I thought, none of you. According to Zach Sanders’ end of season dollar value calculator, Carpenter earned nearly $26, ranking 19th overall. On the value leaderboard, he rated as the second most profitable hitter and ninth most profitable player behind a slew of starting pitchers. By any method you choose, it’s clear that nobody expected this.

Heading into the regular season, Carpenter wasn’t even guaranteed full-time at-bats. He was making the transition to second base after primarily playing third base last season. While his offense would certainly play better at second, questions about his defense remained. So Daniel Descalso figured to get plenty of time at second as well, unless Carpenter’s offense and defense impressed enough to garner the lion’s share. That must have been motivation enough, as he did exactly that.

His -2.0 UZR/150 at second base was perfectly adequate even if he had just replicated his .355 wOBA from 2012. But that wasn’t enough for him. While he posted an identical 10% walk rate, which was well above the 7.9% league average, he significantly cut down on his strikeouts. That was the result of a much improved contact rate as his SwStk% dropped and his Contact% jumped. This improvement¬†was one of the main reasons his wOBA increased to .381.¬†His Triple-A strikeout rate suggests that he had those skills hidden away all along.

His batted ball profile also lends itself to a high BABIP. He was a line-drive machine, ranking sixth in baseball in LD% among qualified hitters. He also avoided the pop-up, hitting an infield fly ball just once all season long. Hitting line drives and rarely popping out is the recipe for a high BABIP, supporting his .359 mark. It allowed him to hit for average, as his .318 mark ranked ninth in baseball. That was also the highest mark posted by a second baseman.

Typically you want either power or speed from your second baseman. It is rare to get both, but unfortunately, Carpenter didn’t really contribute in either. With just 11 home runs and a 6.1% HR/FB ratio, he was not a home run threat and he swiped just 3 bases in 6 attempts. His lack of power and speed make it even more amazing that he managed to produce such strong fantasy value.

While a higher stolen base output is unlikely, there is some hope for more pop in 2014. His batted ball distance of 272 feet wasn’t impressive and did fall below the league average. But he led baseball with 55 doubles and that could sometimes be a sign of an impending power surge. In the one study I have read, it did find that a high doubles total does not mean that some of those doubles will turn into home runs the following year. This was in the aggregate of course, so this won’t necessarily be the case for every individual player. With just a 6.1% HR/FB ratio, there appears to be ample room for power upside. Even a HR/FB rate spike to 9%, which still remains below the league average, would have resulted in 16 home runs, a total that would have made him more than a two category contributor.

Looking ahead to 2014, I can’t help but feel that he is almost guaranteed to be overvalued. A lot of his value was generated from his league leading 126 runs scored, which cannot be projected to be repeated. While his high OBP atop a strong lineup will absolutely make him a strong contender to again pass the century mark in runs scored, I would think about 105 would be a more reasonable estimate, if not still a bit optimistic. You can’t expect the Cardinals to hit well over .300 with runners in scoring position again! I do think he could hit .300 again, but if the power doesn’t improve, is he really any different than a peak-form Placido Polanco? He was basically an empty batting average, contributing a little bit of power and speed. Carpenter is dangerously close to that level. I would much prefer to gamble on a Rickie Weeks rebound or pay the going rate for a Jean Segura than put all my eggs in the batting average and runs scored basket with Carpenter.

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Mike Podhorzer is the 2015 Fantasy Sports Writers Association Baseball Writer of the Year. He produces player projections using his own forecasting system and is the author of the eBook Projecting X 2.0: How to Forecast Baseball Player Performance, which teaches you how to project players yourself. His projections helped him win the inaugural 2013 Tout Wars mixed draft league. Follow Mike on Twitter @MikePodhorzer and contact him via email.

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Maybe I’m missing something since this is for fantasy purposes, but I don’t get the Polanco comparison at all. Polanco never walked all that much (career rate 5.4%) whereas Carpenter has always walked a lot in his pro career. Polanco topped out at .159 ISO in 2003 which was almost exactly league average (NL) at the time and was never a power hitter. Carpenter has topped .160 both last year and this year, when offense is down compared to Polanco’s peak; the NL average was only .137 this year. Carpenter isn’t a big power hitter but I daresay he’s more powerful than Polanco ever was. Polanco never hit an especially large amount of line drives whereas Carpenter hits a lot relative to the league. Polanco as a hitter was dependent on BABIP but I think it would be unfair to write off Carpenter as being that kind of player.