Second base has been a black hole for the Cardinals for a very long time, so long that it’s tempting to simply refer to the position as “seven hole hitter” and be done with it. We’d go with “eight hole hitter,” but the similarly depressing shortstop position already has that descriptor on lock down. The 2013 season could have easily featured more of the same out-making nonsense at the keystone, but a big imagination from the front office and a uniquely talented player in Matt Carpenter changed the landscape of the position in such a drastic manner that we’re still having trouble getting a good handle on it.
It isn’t often that a team can enjoy such dramatic gains at a position without bringing in a free agent, making a trade, or promoting a top prospect. In the Cardinals’ case, the answer has been believing in a former punchless 13th round draft pick who has managed to refine his game more deeply each step of the way. The non-prospect version of Matt Carpenter took some time to evolve into the prospect version of Matt Carpenter, and even once he did, all most saw was a line drive hitter with a nice dollop of discipline and the ability to handle the corners. Turns out Carpenter had a lot more in store for us.
It was evident in watching Carpenter slash hard-hit balls all over the diamond and work counts deep in limited work last season that he could be one of the most valuable bench pieces in the game, but with David Freese and Allen Craig more than adequately manning the corners, there didn’t seem to be a clear-cut route for more. Then one day Mike Matheny started Carpenter at second and it opened up a bigger idea–might he actually be the best option available at second base as a starter? We certainly thought so right away, and the Cardinals later rolled with it, let him work on the defensive end of things, and penciled him in tentatively as the starting second baseman to start the 2013 season.
This could have spiraled out of control so easily. Would the Cardinals be willing to tolerate shoddy defensive work in exchange for a little more offense? Would Carpenter’s bat even hold up under heavier scrutiny? In yet another sign that the organization is as healthy as its ever been, the Cardinals seemed to know the answers to these questions already, and Carpenter has rewarded them (and us!) exponentially. He’s proven himself athletically gifted enough to handle the tricks of second base without so much as a hiccup, and he passes both the eye test and the rigorous trials of advanced fielding metrics. Sure, it’s a small sample size, but Carpenter knows what he’s doing. It’s evident on every play that involves him even if it didn’t seem likely from the outset.
At the plate, Carpenter has become a downright menace to opposing pitchers, lacing baseballs over the heads of infielders, in the gaps, and occasionally over the fence. He works counts deep, waits for a pitch to obliterate low in the zone, and doesn’t bother with what he can’t get a hold of. He’s become a true professional hitter, and the culmination of his efforts happens to be a season that sits at 3.5 WAR as of today. That’s fourth in all of Major League Baseball for position players. Overnight the Cardinals went from the uneasy disappointment of Daniel Descalso and the utter butchery of Skip Schumaker to one of the very best second basemen in the game, and he’s only 27 and making just over the league minimum this season.
Dave Cameron already took the time to write an excellent piece over at FanGraphs, our estranged and sometimes distant stepsister, detailing the specific steps Matt Carpenter’s game has taken, so I’d like to take a moment to investigate exactly where Marp’s season fits in when it comes to the recent performance of Cardinal second baseman. If you’re a Cardinal fan and this doesn’t make you appreciate what the man is doing, I swear to God that nothing will.
Let’s go back in reverse chronological order, shall we? As good as the Cardinals have been during the first decade of my adult life, the team certainly hasn’t excelled at second base. Last season’s primary starter at second was Daniel Descalso, who put up a .627 OPS and seems much more like a utility player (unless the Cardinals want to give him a shot at short over the completely flaccid Pete Kozma) despite occasionally looking lively with the bat and having a nice throwing arm. When Descalso wasn’t starting, most of the time at the position went to post-transition Skip Schumaker, a player who famously couldn’t hit a lefty ever and played second base well even less frequently. Shifting him to the position may have been an admirable idea, but it’s also one that should have been abandoned fairly quickly once Schumaker’s clumsiness and ineptitude at a new position became evident. Granted, I’m fairly certain Tony La Russa’s selective optimism goggles made sure this obvious fact never registered.
To get past the infuriating Schumaker era, we have to go back to the 2008 team, a team that featured the last Great Albert Pujols season devoid of plate discipline caveats, Cesar Izturis providing an offensive template for Pete Kozma and hitting a home run we still don’t remember and want proof of, and Adam Kennedy returning to play second. Kennedy’s .280/.321/.372 line left a lot to be desired even if his glovework mostly held up. Kennedy also got the lion’s share (Cardinal’s share?) of the appearances at the position in 2007, but his bat went completely into a vortex and produced a dreadful .252 wOBA. I’m shaking just thinking about all this while retrospectively wishing Kennedy could have somehow churned out another year like those four solid ones he managed for the Angels.
Unsurprisingly, Aaron Miles was the majority leader at second base for the 2006 World Series squad. An inexplicable TLR favorite, Miles posted a negative WAR total, but only because he couldn’t hit, play the field, be a normal height, or resist a goatee that was already several years out of vogue. Miles’ immediate predecessor was Mark Grudzielanek, also known as the last Cardinal second baseman to not be terrible since Matt Carpenter’s ascent this season. Grudzer managed a 3.0 WAR season complete with a little bit of pop (he slugged over .400 and hit for the cycle!), solid defense, and basepath capability. I was honestly really starting to miss the guy until Carpenter’s scorched-earth tear began.
The Cardinals squeezed out Tony Womack‘s unquestionably best season in 2004, as the typically useless infielder hit .307/.349/.385 and stole 26 bases before earning a fat Yankee payday and disappearing into the realm of baseball players past. I’ve poured over a full 10 years of Cardinal second basemen so far, and we still haven’t come across anyone who put up a full season as valuable and productive as what Matt Carpenter has managed in just a couple of short months this time around.
Want more proof of just how disgusting second base has been for the Cardinals? Bo Hart, yes Bo Hart, chalked up more PA at the position than anyone else for the 2003 team, Fernando Vina was mostly awful in 2002 after two very solid seasons in the couple of season prior, and Joe McEwing was a person that also existed.
If Carpenter’s insistent surge is for real and he keeps on hitting and handling the keystone at anything close to the level he is right now, we can probably (and this is incredible) assume he may seriously wind up with a 5 WAR season seemingly out of nowhere. That’s insane, and it’s scary how much better he’s been than the men that came before him.
How long has it been since the Cardinals had a second baseman that laid claim to even the 3.5 WAR season we’ve seen from Carpenter in 2013? You’d have to go back to Delino DeShields and his very balanced 3.8 WAR campaign in 1997. DeShields hit .295/.357/.448 with 11 homers, 55 steals, and a nice performance in the field. The last time a player had a season that FanGraphs describes as valuable as what Carpenter could do should he continue mashing was the 1989 tour of duty enjoyed by the current third base coach and not-really-5’10″ firebreather known only as “Little Smoky.” Okay, he’s not really known as anything but Jose Oquendo, but I was shocked to see that his excellent job afield, .375 OBP, and one home run equaled out to an outstanding 5.7 WAR season.
I guess my point is that this is, as a Cardinal fan, incredible to watch. Not only was it not explicitly evident Matt Carpenter could handle second, it wasn’t obvious that the Cardinals would even give the idea the time of day when it came time for real games to be played. In the extremely lengthy Tony La Russa era, this probably isn’t something that would have happened. He loved his middle infielders to be quick (and preferably old and bad) scrappers with little ability to whack a baseball over an outfielder’s head. This new Cardinal regime, the one that has set the franchise up for continued success for quite a while, is much more progressive in its thinking, and the rewards are already being reaped tenfold with Matt Carpenter and what should be a no-brainer All-Star season.