Making the Case for Matt Carpenter

After Mike Matheny named Matt Carpenter “the best second basemen in the league,” many pundits questioned Matheny’s assertion. Carpenter is a former fringe prospect, who opened some eyes in Spring Training 2011, but did not make an impact at the MLB level until 2012. In 2012, Carpenter served as a super-utility player with games in at 2b and all four corner positions – 1b, 3b, LF, RF. While his defense was sub-par, Carpenter’s offense was very impressive with a .294/.365/.463 (AVG/OBP/SLG) slash line with 6 home runs in just 296 ABs. In an effort to increase production at 2b and give Carpenter more playing time, the Cardinals experimented with Carpenter at 2b in a full-time role during Spring Training 2013. During the spring, Carpenter proved he was ready for a more expansive role at 2b.
Now that the season is more than 40% complete, it is time to accept that Carpenter is among the top second basemen in the league. Carpenter leads all MLB second basemen in WAR, Runs, OBP and OPS. Despite being a horrible defender as a utility infielder in 2012, Carpenter leads all MLB 2nd basemen in Fielding Runs Above-Average based on UZR.
In order to demonstrate how far Carpenter has climbed, we will compare Matt Carpenter with Brandon Phillips, who has long been regarded as the best 2nd basemen in the National League. When comparing the two 2nd basemen, it is important to remember that both batters hit in different spots in the order. Carpenter has been the lead-off hitter for the Cardinals for the majority of the season, and Phillips has been the cleanup hitter for the Reds for the entire season. Prior to the season, Phillips made it clear that the only thing he cared about when batting cleanup was driving in runs, and he has been successful in that regard with 56 RBI and 10 HRs so far this season. However, driving in runs is one of the few areas where Phillips has outperformed Carpenter. As mentioned above, Carpenter has fulfilled his obligation as a lead-off hitter by leading all MLB 2nd basemen in runs scored and OBP, which is .071 points higher than Phillips‘s OBP. Although Carpenter’s Home Run and RBI production do not equal Phillips’s production, Carpenter has out-slugged Phillips by .019, which has helped Carpenter accumulate a 145 Weighted Runs Created Plus (wRC+) compared to Phillips’s 107 wRC+. Even when comparing the defensive success of both 2nd basemen, Carpenter grades out as a superior defender to Brandon Phillips, who is a very highly regarded defender.
There is no reason to believe that Carpenter’s offensive production will begin to slide either. His incredible plate discipline has helped him have the best BB/K ratio in the NL at .82 and his walk rates are right where they were last year, so this is nothing new to him. While many people may warn that Carpenter’s Batting Average on Balls In Play (BABIP) is unsustainable at .356, he carried a .346 BABIP through all of last season. This season’s BABIP looks just as sustainable as his Line Drive% is up 4% to 27.8%, which is good for 2nd in the MLB. Also, based on his previous production, only his defensive statistics look unsustainable, but the sudden defensive success can also be attributed to playing the same position on a consistent basis. Even if his defense does not last, it seems clear his offensive production at a largely defense-first position has made him one of the top 2nd basemen in the league.

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