The Cardinals’ consistent star is ready for a position change this year
There are a lot of cases for the Cardinals’ face of the franchise. There’s Carlos Martinez, the young ace with a lot of potential, Yadier Molina, the stalwart behind the backstop, but I’d argue that the face of the franchise is Matt Carpenter, an infielder who came out of nowhere that consistently produces on offense year after year.
Not only can Carpenter swing the bat, but he can play infield positions all over the diamond. He’s spent time at third and second for the Cardinals and this year he’ll be spending the bulk of his time at first. I think his positions change will be a boon to the Cardinals, even though part of his value is the ability to play multiple positions.
The offense will still be there
Let’s take a moment to marvel at the consistency of Matt Carpenter’s offensive numbers over the past couple of years. Plain and simple, Matt Carpenter can rake and will rake. His entire Cardinals career he’s never had a year with an OPS+ below 100, or a slash line below the thresholds of .270/.365/.375. Even then excluding his 2014 season brings the slugging threshold up to .463. That type of consistency from an infielder, especially a second or third baseman is pretty hard to come by.
It’s easy to expect up and down seasons because baseball can seem so random. Not with Matt Carpenter. Year in and and year out he’s able to produce at an elite level while playing multiple defensive positions, and that is not something that is easy to do.
The defense is bad but….
As you may have noticed, Carpenter gets a lot of praise for his versatility. While playing all those infield positions is difficult, that doesn’t necessarily mean he does it well. Over the years at third and second base, Carpenter has -8 and -10 defensive runs saved respectively. His numbers are even worse in the outfield, but we won’t get into those because he spends so little of his time there.
The point being, Carpenter is not an excellent defender. However, in his 94 games at first, he’s managed to produce only -1 defensive runs saved. Even if you look at his DRS per 1,200 innings, at third, second and first he has -2, -7 and -1. Although defensive statistics are not always accurate, they help exemplify a larger point. Carpenter’s best defensive position is at first base.
This is probably obvious to most of you as the eye test says first base is an easier position to play because it involves less movement and requires less throwing, but it’s nice to have some numbers to back this idea up.
…it will definitely improve
I think a lot of people underestimate how difficult it is to play multiple defensive positions at a high level. I don’t have any completely solid evidence, but I have a bit of anecdotal evidence in the form of Jed Lowrie. Jed Lowrie is another utility infielder that is historically not a great defender.
In seasons where he plays multiple positions, Lowrie averaged around -10 drs/year at shortstop but in the one season (2014) where he basically only played shortstop he had his best defensive season since his rookie year at -5 drs/year.
This leads me to believe that defensive consistency leads to improved defense. It definitely makes sense from a subjective standpoint. It’s easier for players to play defense if they go in with the same mindset every night. Constantly switching positions can make it difficult for players to establish a defensive rhythm.
This effect will be magnified with Matt Carpenter because first base is a relatively easy defensive position. Hopefully by taking his reps at first and having some defensive consistency, Carpenter can improve his defense while bringing the same offensive production we know and love.