Matt Carpenter is Always Ahead in the Count

Matt Carpenter

Neil Weinberg is the Founder of New English D and a writer at Beyond The Box Score. Follow him on Twitter @NeilWeinberg44.

By this point in the season, you’ve probably heard Matt Carpenter’s story. Four years ago, the Cardinals grabbed him in the 13th round of the Rule 4 Draft, well beyond where you’d normally expect to find an impact player. You’re reading this, so presumably you’re well enough versed in baseball to know that Carpenter has been just that – an impact player.

Entering Monday’s action, Carpenter ranked in fifth among position players in FanGraphs’ version of Wins Above Replacement (WAR) with 7.1, ahead of stars like Longoria, Votto, Davis, and well, everyone not named Trout, Donaldson, McCutchen, or Cabrera.

Carpenter’s success didn’t come from nowhere, but it’s safe to say that a 7 win season wasn’t exactly among the range of likely outcomes for his 2013 campaign. Last year, he hit .294/.365/.463 in 340 PA, which was good for a 125 wRC+. Given his versatility, that’s a very valuable player, just not the kind of guy you’d have to talk about when thinking about the most valuable player.

This year, even if he belongs below division rival Andrew McCutchen and superstar left-hander Clayton Kershaw on your MVP ballot, he’s forced his way into the conversation and he’s done it with what would have to qualify as baseball’s best two strike approach.

Among qualifying hitters, he leads the league in batting average, on base percentage, and weighted on-base average after getting into an 0-2 count.

Qualifying Hitters After 0-2 (sorted by AVG)
PA AVG OBP SLUG OPS K% BB% BABIP wOBA WHAV
Matt Carpenter (STL) 127 .339 .362 .545 .908 27.6% 3.1% .452 .387 .172
Dustin Pedroia (BOS) 156 .293 .321 .422 .742 19.2% 3.8% .350 .322 .114
J. J. Hardy (BAL) 123 .288 .317 .424 .741 22.8% 4.1% .349 .323 .120
Michael Cuddyer (COL) 110 .278 .273 .435 .708 39.1% 0.0% .422 .299 .155
Denard Span (WSH) 113 .267 .319 .324 .642 25.7% 6.2% .368 .292 .086
Joe Mauer (MIN) 103 .260 .282 .390 .672 37.9% 2.9% .407 .292 .140
Brandon Phillips (CIN) 141 .254 .270 .377 .646 34.0% 0.7% .375 .280 .131
Alexei Ramirez (CWS) 125 .252 .264 .317 .581 21.6% 1.6% .316 .257 .033
Adam Lind (TOR) 103 .250 .272 .540 .812 39.8% 2.9% .346 .337 .210
Carlos Beltran (STL) 88 .247 .273 .341 .614 36.4% 3.4% .373 .271 .094

Qualifying Hitters After 0-2 (sorted by OBP)
PA AVG OBP SLUG OPS K% BB% BABIP wOBA WHAV
Matt Carpenter (STL) 127 .339 .362 .545 .908 27.6% 3.1% .452 .387 .172
Jon Jay (STL) 103 .236 .340 .315 .654 35.0% 7.8% .385 .307 .090
Dustin Pedroia (BOS) 156 .293 .321 .422 .742 19.2% 3.8% .350 .322 .114
Denard Span (WSH) 113 .267 .319 .324 .642 25.7% 6.2% .368 .292 .086
J. J. Hardy (BAL) 123 .288 .317 .424 .741 22.8% 4.1% .349 .323 .120
Shin-Soo Choo (CIN) 128 .235 .313 .400 .713 44.5% 9.4% .426 .314 .174
Norichika Aoki (MIL) 95 .236 .284 .247 .531 22.1% 3.2% .309 .249 .045
Joe Mauer (MIN) 103 .260 .282 .390 .672 37.9% 2.9% .407 .292 .140
Mike Trout (LAA) 104 .221 .279 .337 .616 48.1% 4.8% .432 .275 .156
Nate McLouth (BAL) 101 .240 .277 .365 .642 38.6% 5.0% .393 .281 .104

Qualifying Hitters After 0-2 (sorted by wOBA)
PA AVG OBP SLUG OPS K% BB% BABIP wOBA WHAV
Matt Carpenter (STL) 127 .339 .362 .545 .908 27.6% 3.1% .452 .387 .172
Adam Lind (TOR) 103 .250 .272 .540 .812 39.8% 2.9% .346 .337 .210
J. J. Hardy (BAL) 123 .288 .317 .424 .741 22.8% 4.1% .349 .323 .120
Dustin Pedroia (BOS) 156 .293 .321 .422 .742 19.2% 3.8% .350 .322 .114
Shin-Soo Choo (CIN) 128 .235 .313 .400 .713 44.5% 9.4% .426 .314 .174
Jon Jay (STL) 103 .236 .340 .315 .654 35.0% 7.8% .385 .307 .090
Michael Cuddyer (COL) 110 .278 .273 .435 .708 39.1% 0.0% .422 .299 .155
Mitch Moreland (TEX) 95 .237 .253 .441 .693 36.8% 1.1% .333 .293 .258
Denard Span (WSH) 113 .267 .319 .324 .642 25.7% 6.2% .368 .292 .086
Joe Mauer (MIN) 103 .260 .282 .390 .672 37.9% 2.9% .407 .292 .140

The league average position player hits .172/.202/.257 with a .203 wOBA after an 0-2 count. [tweetable]Matt Carpenter has hit .339/.362/.545 with a .387 wOBA in 127 PA this year after falling behind 0-2[/tweetable]. To give you an idea, only 12 players have a better wOBA than that for the entire season. Carpenter after an 0-2 count is actually better than Carpenter when he doesn’t fall behind 0-2. Some of that is randomness, but it also speaks to patience. When Carpenter takes his time selecting a pitch, he often does damage.

If we look at his contact rate for the entire season and then his contact rate after 0-2, you can see how well he covers the low and outside pitch after he finds himself behind 0-2.

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Matt Carpenter’s Contact Rate (2013)

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Matt Carpenter’s Contact Rate After 0-2 Count (2013)

You can see the same thing if we look at his batting average after 0-2 counts. He does excellent work when you come inside and when you work low and away.

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Matt Carpenter’s Batting Average After 0-2 Count (2013)

Carpenter has had a fantastic all-around season in 2013. FanGraphs’ BsR puts him 4.5 runs above average on the bases and both DRS and UZR consider him to be about average with the glove despite very limited experience at 2B entering the season. Add that to a 150 wRC+ and you’ve found one of the best players in the game for the last six months.

He’s improved on the bases and worked to be good enough at second to stay there, all while cutting his strikeout rate from 18.5% to 13.9% since 2012. A big part of that drop is his ability to cover both sides of the plate at once. He was a good contact hitter last year, but this season he’s become an elite one.

It’s amazing how similar his swing looks on a fastball up and in compared to a changeup low and away. He seems to really understand his skill set and gets the most out of it by leveraging his contact skills with moderate power. Some players would try to hit more homeruns, but Carpenter recognizes the value in hitting his way to second and letting his talented teammates drive him in.

He leads baseball in doubles and in runs scored. Presumably, that isn’t a coincidence. His ability to get on base, work counts, and drive the ball up the gap makes him one of, if not, the best leadoff hitters in the game. There’s no guarantee that Carpenter will turn in a repeat performance next year and there’s every reason to believe this will be his best season, but his skillset isn’t one that you’d expect to atrophy terribly quickly.

Carpenter understands the strikezone and he doesn’t make his living from raw athletic skills, so there’s reason to believe he can perform well into his early thirties. In more than 1,000 big league plate appearances, he’s been 40% better than league average at the plate. Maybe he won’t be able to stay at second base and will need to move to a corner. He probably won’t be an above average runner for much longer. He might not even maintain baseball’s best two strike approach, but a lot of people doubted Matt Carpenter’s ability to perform at this level in the first place and so far they’ve been wrong.