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Tuesday, May 28, 2013
Matt Carpenter, Cardinals' unsung hero

By Matt Philip

Carpenter
Matt Carpenter played third in the minors but so far has played a solid second base.
Since 2004, the St. Louis Cardinals have had a Carpenter to lead them. It's been Chris Carpenter for years, but now Matt Carpenter has emerged as the team's leading man -- both figuratively and, as leadoff hitter, literally.

Entering Tuesday's action, Matt Carpenter (no immediate relation to Chris, who has compiled 27.3 career Wins Above Replacement with the Cardinals) leads all National League second basemen in Wins Above Replacement at 1.9. His .388 on-base percentage is second on the team only to Yadier Molina's .389 mark, and that's on a team generating the league's second-most runs per game (4.8).

Carpenter isn't exactly an overnight sensation. In the minors, he built a .408 OBP and .450 slugging percentage over four seasons. With the big club in 2012, he contributed 1.4 Wins Above Replacement and received a vote in the NL Rookie of the Year balloting on the strength of a .365 OBP and .463 SLG over 114 games. But last year he was the team's super-sub, playing five different positions but never seeing extended time as a regular. With the Cardinals featuring veterans or emerging stars at third base (David Freese), first base (Allen Craig) and the outfield corners (Matt Holliday and Carlos Beltran), Carpenter was looking at a similar off-the-bench scenario.

New position

Carpenter hammered the ball so much last year, however, that the Cardinals felt comfortable retooling him as a second baseman, thinking that the offensive gain would offset any fielding loss. The idea was hardly novel for the club, who modestly succeeded with outfield convert Skip Schumaker in 2009 (after positing a 2.3 WAR in the outfield, Schumaker had a 1.6 at second base, despite sub-standard fielding).

The Schumaker experiment validated that it was possible to occasionally succeed going rightward along the defensive spectrum, so when the team found Carpenter blocked at third base and elsewhere, they figured that they could roll the dice again. So far, they're winning.

Having played 98 percent of his minor-league career at third base, Carpenter was a more sure thing moving across the infield than Schumaker, who was drafted as a second baseman but hadn't "taken ground balls in six, seven years" before his conversion. Only a handful of players in major league history have played at least 100 games in the outfield before playing more than one game at second base and finishing with at least 100 games at second. Most notably one of those was Cardinals Hall of Famer Red Schoendienst, whose example obviously still gives hope to such wild experiments working even today. It's still early for Carpenter, but the Cardinals don't have any reason to think that their new second baseman is having difficulty adjusting: He's currently eighth among second basemen in Ultimate Zone Rating (+2.6) and tied for third in Defensive Runs Saved (+4).

Unlikely leadoff man

In addition to learning a new position in the field, Carpenter finds himself in a strange spot in the lineup: leadoff.

Second-year manager Mike Matheny isn't yet known for innovative or unconventional decisions -- he ordered position players to sacrifice bunt 46 times last year, including players like Beltran and Molina. Yet he deserves credit for promoting Carpenter to the No. 1 spot. As a 6-foot-3 former third baseman, Carpenter isn't the prototypical leadoff man, but back on April 18, Matheny broke conventional wisdom and replaced Jon Jay with Carpenter. Over the ensuing two weeks, the two players traded time atop the lineup, but Carpenter has started the team's past 22 games in the leadoff spot.

Of course, it’s 2013, and everyone by now should know -- though they obviously don't -- what Bill James told the baseball world in 1988: The largest variable determining how many runs a team will score is how many times they get their leadoff man on base. Carpenter is rather tall for a leadoff man -- think Corey Hart -- and hits for power (only three home runs so far, but he leads the NL in doubles). As a former third baseman-outfielder, Carpenter is more in the mold of notorious mold-breaker Brian Downing, who as a designated hitter was an unlikely leadoff man for the Angels and Rangers in the '80s and early '90s.

Carpenter's lack of speed runs counter to what Cardinals fans have come to expect from table setters in St. Louis, which has seen legendary basestealers like Lou Brock and Vince Coleman, not to mention Lonnie Smith and Ozzie Smith, race around the bases. To put Carpenter’s disinterest in swiping into perspective, of the 28 players in MLB who have at least 100 plate appearances at leadoff, Carpenter is the only one who hasn't tried to steal a base.

But it's not for lack of chances, which is what makes Carpenter such a smart choice as leadoff man. Among those 28 players, he has the second-highest OBP while leading off, behind only Shin-Soo Choo:

1. Choo, Reds, .442
2. Carpenter, Cardinals, .410
3. Jose Altuve, Astros, .410
4. Dexter Fowler, Rockies, .409
5. Coco Crisp, A's, .383

In this way, Carpenter is the polar opposite of Coleman, who stole 752 bases but had a measly .324 on-base percentage. Carpenter embodies the adage, "you can't steal first base." The Cardinals are clearly fine with that. With thumpers like Holliday, Beltran and Craig following in the lineup, they simply need Carpenter to reach base -- and not take chances making an out afterward.

Matt Philip writes about the Cardinals at Fungoes.net.