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.

Scouting Report, Michael Wacha

Despite their best efforts, the St. Louis Cardinals have promoted top pitching prospect Michael Wacha in order to make his MLB debut on Thursday. The Cardinals wanted to keep Wacha in Triple-A in order to control his workload and prevent him from reaching Super-Two status, which would allow him to reach arbitration four times, instead of the normal three. Wacha was the 19th overall pick in last season’s Amateur Draft out of Texas A&M. Wacha will be the fourth player drafted in the 2012 draft to reach the Major Leagues, following Kevin Gausman of the Orioles, Paco Rodriguez of the Dodgers and Michael Roth of the Angels. The 6’6” right-hander is still just 21 years old. Wacha dominated across three levels last season, allowing just 2 ER in 21 innings total at Rookie Ball, High Single-A and Double-A. This season, Wacha has impressed with a 2.05 ERA across 52 2/3 innings at Triple-A. However, his peripheral statistics are a little more concerning as his K/9 is just 5.81 and his opponents BABIP (Batting Average on Balls In Play) is just .197, which suggests he has been a little lucky and explains his 4.00 FIP. His K/9 is down from 17.1 in 2012. He works with three pitches: fastball, change-up, curveball. Wacha works his fastball from 90-94 and actually reached 97 as a reliever last year. When Wacha can keep his fastball down in the zone he has good sink to it, but it flattens out when he elevates the pitch. His change-up is easily his best off-speed pitch, which is usually in the mid-80’s and has great fade, which makes it incredibly difficult to square up down in the zone. Wacha’s curveball is the reason he fell to the 19th pick in the draft, at the time it had very inconsistent break and he had trouble commanding the pitch. However, since joining the Cardinals’ organization, Wacha has greatly improved the pitch by making the break more consistent and more sharp. It is still not a plus pitch, but if it continues to improve it can be an average Major League pitch and a nice complement to the fastball and change-up. Wacha has tremendous command and control for someone his age, with just a 2.3 BB/9 and .7 HR/9 in 73 2/3 professional innings. His tremendous size helps him get great downward plane on all his pitches, which helps get the great downward movement on his pitches when they are thrown down in the zone. Wacha has a very fluid delivery, in which he uses everything effectively to generate great velocity and deception. He slightly turns his back to the hitter, which creates good deception by hiding the ball from the hitter a little longer. He is able to get great extension towards home plate and uses every inch of his 6’6” height and by getting this extension he keeps the ball down in the zone. He also creates deception by cutting his arm action short, which gives the hitter less time to see the ball, but I also wrote about the concerns with this when I wrote about Dylan Bundy, who has not pitched this year due to elbow discomfort. This is especially concerning for Wacha because even by cutting his arm action off, Wacha is still not able to get his arm back up by foot strike. The only other concerning part of his delivery is that Wacha slightly pulls his head off-center when throwing the pitch, which raises his arm and forces him to lose direct route to home plate. By raising his arm, he puts more stress on the arm rather than the entire body. He has a enough big frame to hold up as a workhorse even with these flaws. Plus he generates quite a bit of power from his lower half, which alleviates some of that extra stress he puts on his arm. It remains to be seen how long Wacha will be in the Cardinals rotation, because it mainly depends on Westbrook’s recovery from elbow discomfort, but Wacha seems ready to step in like so many other rookie pitchers for the Cardinals. Down the road, it seems very likely that he can develop into a #2 or #3 starter.

Anthony Cacchione

Scouting Report, Carlos Martinez

In the wake of the Cardinals’ decision to demote relief pitcher Mitchell Boggs to Class AAA and call up right-handed pitcher Carlos Martinez, we take a look at Martinez‘s ability and future. The Cardinals signed Martinez out of the Dominican Republic in 2010 for a $1.5 million bonus, but he did not pitch in the US until 2011. The 21-year-old Martinez stands just 6’0”. He has never pitched above Double-A, but has enjoyed success across three levels. In 2012, Martinez pitched at High Single-A and Double-A, and pitched to a 2.93 ERA across 104 1/3 innings. Martinez is very similar to the last pitcher we covered, Yordano Ventura, because they are both relatively short power-pitchers, who could end up as top starting pitchers or shut down relievers. Throughout his Minor League career, Martinez has been used as a starting pitcher with a three pitch mix, including a fastball, curveball and a circle-change. As a starter, Martinez throws his fastball between 94-98 mph and can dial it up to 100 when needed. He has a tendency to leave the fastball up in the zone where it loses movement, but when he spots it down in the zone his fastball has good late life. Martinez’s curveball has very sharp downward action, making it very tough on right-handed hitters. He has good control of both his fastball and his curveball, but needs to keep the fastball down more consistently. He throws a circle change-up, which is his weakest pitch. Even though it is not his best pitch, the change-up has good arm-side run, but he needs better command of the pitch. He has a tendency to leave the change-up high in the zone, which diminishes the movement and makes it easier to hit. Martinez’s delivery is very violent with a quick arm action. He takes his arm a little too far behind his back and is unable to get it back into position by foot strike. This arm drag is intensified because of his propensity to drift from his balance point, which does not allow his arm to get back up by foot strike. He is able to create a little deception by slightly turning his back to the hitter, which also helps him keep his front side closed. Martinez’s finish is incredibly violent as he strides very far, but after he releases the ball, his front leg straightens and he spins off towards first base. Martinez currently projects as a #2/3 starting pitcher, but he will need to improve his change-up in order to have three plus pitches. After his promotion, Martinez will be used out of the bullpen, where the Cardinals are in dire need for a quality reliever. In my view, Martinez’s size and violent delivery will likely limit him to be a shut down reliever instead of a starter, because he would likely have durability issues as a starter.

5 most underrated players in the MLB

5. Brendan Ryan, SS, Seattle Mariners

Now I realize that putting Ryan on this list will probably rub some people the wrong way because of the horrific offensive statistics he has put up the past few years but his defense is truly one of the most undervalued assets in the big leagues. FanGraphs shows that his defense was worth $12.4 million in 2011 and $7.7 million in 2012 (not saying that’s what he’d get on the open market) while posting a combined 4.5 WAR in those two years. He made a combined 5 million dollars in 2011-12 meaning that theoretically the Mariners saved about $15 Million dollars on his defense during those two years. He also lead the AL in defensive WAR in 2012 at 3.6 according to Baseball-Reference while also leading in UZR at 14.7. Also keep in mind that he put up a couple decent offensive campaigns in the past posting (.752 OPS) for St. Louis in 2007 as well as a (.740 OPS) in 2009. You might also want to consider the fact that he plays a defense first position and that because the Mariners play in such a spacious ball park runs come at a premium so every bit of defense counts.

4. Paul Goldschmidt, 1B, Arizona Diamondbacks

Coming into the big leagues Goldschmidt was viewed as a guy who, in the eyes of many talent evaluators, had decent pop but whose swing was too long to adjust to big league pitching and that he would become nothing more than a part-time player despite his minor league slash line of (.318/.409/.623). Thus far he has proved them wrong putting up a (.286/.359/.490) slash line in 2012 while hitting 20 dingers as well as stealing 18 bases. While the stolen bases may be a fluke you can certainly look for him to improve upon his power numbers as his career goes on.

3. Yadier Molina, C, St. Louis Cardinals

While he is widely recognized as the best defensive catcher in the game, his hitting, until recently has been quite overlooked. Considering how far he has come since his 2006 season (.216/.274/.321) as compared to his 2012 campaign (.315/.373/.501) it has been truly remarkable to watch him grow into one of the games best all around catchers. According to Fangraphs since 2008 (age 26-30) he has been worth a total of 21.3 WAR as compared to Johnny Bench‘s age 26-30 season in which he put up a 26.4 WAR. That is a pretty impressive comparable if you ask me. Yadier has quietly been one of the best on field as well as off the field leaders in the game and knows how to manage a game as well as handle a pitching staff which are invaluable. If he keeps up his current pace I believe he will go down as one of the best if not the best catcher to wear a Cardinals uniform.

2. Billy Butler, 1B, Kansas City Royals

Butler has quietly turned himself into one of the better First Basemen in the game over the past three seasons posting on base – plus slugging percentages of (.857), (.822), (.882) over the past three years at a time when teams like the Rays are relying on players such as James Loney as their everyday starter at a position where power comes first. Butler also provides a strong veteran presence in the Royals clubhouse for young position players such as Mike Moustakas and Eric Hosmer at time that is pivotal for the Royals franchise after their off-season acquisitions of James Shields and Wade Davis. If the Royals are to be competitive this year Butler will have to once more step up in his contributions and solidify himself as one of the best first basemen in the game.

1. Matt Holliday, LF, St. Louis Cardinals

Since 2009, Player A has posted a war of 24.7 while Matt Holliday has posted a war of 22.3. Since 2009, Player A has averaged an OPS of .946 while Matt Holliday has averaged an OPS of .905. Over the course of those four years, FanGraphs has pegged Holliday’s dollar value at an average of $24.5 million a year while he has been making $17 million, so in a sense his deal has been somewhat of a bargain for the Cardinals thus far and he has more than lived up to his contract but that is not to say that he could start to decline or spiral downhill during these next 4 years of his contract. Most of his criticism comes from the St. Louis fan base because he has not put up the same ludicrous numbers as Pujols during his time as the 3 hitter in St. Louis, but holding anyone to those Ruthian standards would be unfair and unreasonable. Holliday has put up all-star numbers during his time in St. Louis but is at a disadvantage because he had the fortune of replacing one of the best hitters of the last 50 years. Oh and if you are still wondering who Player A is your answer is Ryan Braun.

Ryan Kiernan

Top 5 NL spring training battles

5. Washington Nationals, Catcher

The Nationals have two plus defensive catchers in Wilson Ramos and Kurt Suzuki. Kurt Suzuki is the incumbent starter since being acquired from the A’s at the deadline last year after Wilson Ramos tore his ACL last May. Just because Suzuki is making $6.45 million this year does not mean he will get the bulk of playing time behind the plate as the Nationals view Ramos as their catcher of the future and he was playing well before his injury, posting a (.265/.354/.398, 3 HR, 10 RBI, 11 R) batting line before his injury. Ramos is clearly the more talented player and also has a higher ceiling. It would not be surprising to see Suzuki traded sometime this year as $6.45 million is a lot to pay a back up catcher as the Nationals have other viable options at backup.

4. Atlanta Braves, Third Base

After trading Martin Prado as one of the pieces in the Justin Upton deal, the Braves have a vacancy at third base that they will try to fill by using newly acquired Chris Johnson and former power prospect Juan Francisco. Rather than have one player win the position outright it seems that the Braves will use the two as a platoon. This could turn out to be a very cost-effective strategy because when you combine their 2012 stats they would have posted a (.258/.302/.442, 24 HR, 108 RBI, 65 R) slash line while making a combined $975,000 good for a 2.5 WAR (FanGraphs). This year they will make a combined $3,355,000. It is looking like it will be a 60-40 time share with Johnson getting the majority of the playing time and Juan Francisco getting a good chunk of at bats against righties.

3. Philadelphia Phillies, Right Field

The Phillies brought in former MVP candidate and top prospect Delmon Young to see if he could return to his former self this year while also providing power off the bench and pushing Domonic Brown. The Phillies need for Brown to live up to his former top prospect status as they must inject youth and speed into their lineup after losing Shane Victorino at the trade deadline this past season. Not to mention a duo of Domonic Brown and Ben Revere would be a pair of formidable table setters for a lineup, that when healthy, has the potential to score a lot of runs.

2. Arizona Diamondbacks, Center Field

Even after trading Center Fielder Chris Young and former MVP candidate Justin Upton this off-season, the Diamondbacks still have a surplus of depth with the signing of Cody Ross. Despite already being a three year MLB veteran Gerardo Parra appears to be the one who will start the year as the fourth outfielder as his defense and arm would play up at every outfield position. The club likes what they have in young prospect Adam Eaton who posted .259/.382/.412 slash line and scored 19 runs in a 22-game audition last September. He has worked hard to get his defense to the point where he would be an above average center fielder and has the kind of plate discipline and speed teams want in a lead off hitter as evident by his .445 OBP and 106 stolen bases over the course of 3 minor league seasons. Just because Parra is slated to be the fourth outfielder as of now doesn’t mean he won’t get playing time; he racked up 430 plate appearances last year while appearing in 133 games and posting a (.273/.335/.392) slash line.

1. St. Louis Cardinals, 5th starter

The Cardinals are the envy of many organizations throughout baseball as they have 3 young fire ballers ready to come in and compete for the 5th rotation spot. The returning starter, Joe Kelly, posted a 3.51 ERA and a 6.31 K/9 through 107 innings pitched last year and is also one of the most athletic players on the Cardinals roster who is often used as a pinch runner for what it is worth. The second candidate is top pitching prospect Shelby Miller, who after a rough first half in AAA in 2012, turned it around and ended up being called up during September and pitching out of the bullpen to the tune of a 1.32 ERA and a 10.54 K/9 through 13.2 innings while also making the playoff roster. As of right now Shelby seems to be the favorite to win the spot as he came into camp with a little extra weight to help him stay durable through the hot St. Louis summer. The third candidate is Trevor Rosenthal who spent the majority of 2012 at AA as a starter pitching to a 2.79 ERA and a 7.98 K/9. He was then called up in late August and impressed many while pitching out of the bullpen as he regularly topped 100 mph in his late inning appearances. He also pitched well enough at the end of the year to make the play off roster and gave up no runs and only allowed two hits through 8.2 innings off post season action.

Big Tony will be publishing the top 5 AL position battles later tonight.

Ryan Kiernan