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Matt Carpenter

In Baseball on August 28, 2013 at 6:03 pm

By definition, Plan B is a worse option than Plan A. Plan B takes longer or is more expensive or won’t work as well as Plan A. During spring training 2013, Matt Carpenter was definitely a Plan B kind of player. So it wasn’t a good sign when the St. Louis Cardinals plugged him in at third base to replace the oft-injured David Freese for Opening Day. Carpenter might have been Plan B at third base, but he’s quickly turned himself into the Cardinals’ Plan A at second.

For the last few seasons, if a Cardinal named Carpenter appeared on any National League leaderboards, it was Chris, and they were the pitching categories. But if you look at the 2013 top 10 lists, you’ll see Carp the Younger appears quite a few times. His 5.3 WAR ranks sixth among N.L. position players — ahead of MVP candidate/teammate Yadier Molina — and ninth among all NL players. In fact, his 5.1 offensive WAR is ranked third in the NL, behind only Andrew McCutchen and David Wright. Carpenter’s .313 batting average is sixth best in the league. He ranks 10th in both on-base percentage and OPS. And he currently leads the league in hits, doubles and runs scored.

Every season, it seems as if one player hits his way from obscurity to the national conversation. Not to knock the Mike Trouts and Yasiel Puigs of the world, but their incredible skills were known before they made their big league splashes. No, there’s always one guy that chugged along in the majors, always doing what he was supposed to do, making the plays he was supposed to, all of the hits and catches and cut off throws and hustle plays that are supposed to punch your ticket to the majors as a bench player. But then they get to the major leagues, and something just clicks, and now, instead of being a defensive replacement, you’re talking about an all-star — guys like Nate McClouth and Raul Ibanez. Well, in 2013, that guy is Matt Carpenter.

Until 2013, Carpenter’s baseball career was that of the prototypical AAAA player. He played baseball as a high schooler in Missouri City, Tex., but not well enough to warrant a draft selection. So he enrolled at Texas Christian University and started as a freshman. He hit .289 in his first year at TCU and .349 as a sophomore, but he didn’t demonstrate any power, hitting only two homeruns across both seasons. He bulked up, but not in the good “filling out” way — more of the “unlimited meal plan” way. He ballooned from 200 lbs. as a freshman to nearly 240 lbs. by his junior year. He started out that season hitting .185, before being sidelined for the rest of the year with Tommy John surgery. The injury gave Carpenter time to refocus. He started dieting and strength training, trimming down to a lean 205 lbs. and gaining muscle. His efforts paid off, as he hit 22 home runs as a redshirt junior and senior at TCU. The Cardinals drafted him in 2009 and sent him to low-A Batavia.

Over the next three seasons, Carpenter’s stats were consistently — almost predictably — decent. From A ball to AAA, he always hit around .300. He never really flashed much power, but could muscle a few home runs each season. He had a decent eye and would take a walk, but he could also be fooled and would strike out at nearly the same rate. In and out, he was pretty good, and in 2012, “pretty good” got him a spot on the St. Louis bench — right where his stats said he should be.

But now it’s the first inning, and Matt Carpenter’s not on the bench — he’s out on the infield, manning second base. And he appears to have done it by developing the batter’s eye that he flashed occasionally in college. Yes, Carpenter’s walk rate has dropped slightly, from 10 percent in 2012 to 9.5 percent this season. But he’s cut his strikeout rate significantly, from 18.5 percent in 2012 to 12.9 percent in 2013. His contact rate for pitches in the strike zone is an outstanding 94.9 percent — MLB average is 87.9 percent. Only 22.5 percent of the pitches Carpenter swings at are outside of the strike zone, compared to league average of 30 percent. In fact, Fangraphs credits Carpenter with the fifth-best plate discipline in baseball, behind the likes of Marco Scutaro of Moneyball fame and MVP candidate Joey Votto.

The Cardinals are currently in first place in the NL Central, and Carpenter has played a major role in the team’s success. He appeared in his first All-Star Game and will probably garner a few MVP votes. And it’s all because an injury to David Freese scuttled the St. Louis’s Plan A. Plan Bs are never first-choices, but occasionally you realize that Plan B should have been Plan A all along.

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