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Matt Carpenter Handling First Base Just Fine

As Mike Matheny has been forced to shift infield alignments around all season, Matt Carpenter may have found a new home at first base.

Matt Carpenter is not one to complain. As soon as something shakes up the Cardinals’ infield, Carpenter always finds himself at a new defensive position. This year has been no exception. Carpenter just finished his 19th game at first base, on top of 51 games at third and 31 at second. Switching positions is not easy, and Carpenter has struggled throughout much of it. However, he seems to be taking quite well to his move to first base.

Carpenter’s overall defensive numbers at first base this year aren’t great. In fact, they are rather average. In total, he has played 69 games at the position, and his career DRS is -1 while his career Total Zone runs above average is an even 0. Over the course of a full season, his career numbers project to roughly -1 to -3 runs above average. While those numbers don’t jump off the page, they are encouraging for a few reasons.

Throughout his career, Carpenter has shown the ability to handle multiple positions adequately. He did well at third base early in his career, and he was fine at second base in 2013. However, it appears that all of the position changes did impact Carpenter. Even though he was always willing to do it, his defensive metrics took a hit. In 2014, he switched back to third base and recorded -2 DRS, or five runs worse than his previous plus three in roughly 500 innings.

The following season was a nightmare for Carpenter in the field. He recorded -10 DRS that year, and looked like he was much better suited for second base. When Aledmys Diaz started hitting at an All-Star level, I began to wonder if the Cardinals were planning on moving Carpenter back to the second sack. Unfortunately, that turned out to be even worse. Carpenter has rebounded a little at third this season, although his Total Zone runs number got worse, but he forgot how to play second base.

In just 266 innings at second base, Carpenter has cost the Cardinals seven runs there. If we prorate that number to a full season, we get nearly -35 DRS. Given that 35 runs is approximately 3.5 wins, second base no longer looks like a long term solution for Carpenter. Carpenter’s range did not decrease much from 2013 to 2016, but he is really struggling with double plays. He was really good at that when he played second in 2013, but he rates below average in that department now.

The blessing in disguise here is that Carpenter’s poor defensive play allowed Mike Matheny to keep changing his position. Matheny needed to keep his bat in the lineup, but he was no help at any position in particular. With few options, Matheny decided to play Carpenter at first base, and the results have been surprisingly decent. Again, he isn’t going to be on Web Gems every night, but he ins’t a liability, either.

If Carpenter were to play a full season at his current pace, he would end up saving 12 runs more than the average first baseman. There aren’t many players who can save double digit runs at any position in the majors. Of course, that number is mostly due to a small sample size, so I wouldn’t get too excited about it. However, he did bring his career numbers up to average at first base. Considering that Carpenter can’t hold his own at second or third, the Cardinals will take that.

I doubt that Carpenter continues his upward trend in the field at first much further. He probably will settle in right around average, but that is nothing to scoff at when he owns a .400 on-base percentage. Also, average is better than what  Brandon Moss is on defense. I have covered Moss’s defensive abilities on several occasions, but he just isn’t an infielder. If he hits enough home runs, then the Cardinals can stomach his poor fielding, but he is really a right fielder.

Until Matt Adams gets back, Carpenter represents the Cardinals’ best first base option. Even when Adams gets back, Carpenter can take his spot in the field if he doesn’t hit enough. The Cardinals always make sure that they have a lot of lineup flexibility, and Carpenter is now adding to it. Matheny still feels comfortable putting Carpenter in at other spots, and he can now play first base adequately, too.

When Aledmys Diaz gets back, the Cardinals will have to start sitting another infielder more often. With Carpenter handling first base well enough, Matheny can keep one of Jedd Gyorko, Jhonny Peralta, or Greg Garcia in the lineup. Maybe he won’t. Maybe the right choice is to take out one of those three, but if Adams and Moss should sit, then Carpenter can take their spot. The Cardinals push Carpenter around the infield a lot, but the thirty year-old may have just recently found his most comfortable spot on defense.

Photo credit: Mark J. Rebilas – USA TODAY Sports