The life cycle of the scrappy underdog baseball player is a shockingly depressing one.
Seemingly, it should be easy. You come into Major League Baseball with minimal expectations, you surpass those expectations, and everybody just loves you forever. But eventually, if you’re too good, you transcend scrappiness and become just like any other good baseball player. And at that level, the loyalty which fans have to you depends on your level of production. If you play like a superstar, you’re beloved. If you struggle, you’re a pariah.
St. Louis Cardinals third baseman Matt Carpenter is a near-perfect embodiment of the Scrappy Baseball Player archetype, with the possible drawback being that he is a little bit too tall to fit through the criteria/some doors. He was a 13th round draft pick as a college senior and was essentially a non-prospect upon his arrival to the Major Leagues. He was a man without a position, wandering around the bases and filling in wherever the team needed him in 2012 (and in 2013, when he settled in at second base, a position with which he was somewhat overmatched but held his own and was tremendously valuable on the whole). He didn’t even wear batting gloves. The notion of the “scrappy” player is inherently idiotic at a professional sports level–every single person who takes the field is extremely talented and works very hard and it’s mostly just a way of evaluating what player displays the right optics. But the point is that he had the optics.
And then he got older. And in April, he got paid, in the form of a contract extension. And now, following a stint on the Injured List, Matt Carpenter is back in the Majors and, depending on potential resulting injuries from getting hit in the foot with another pitch yesterday, is fully back into the swing of being maligned among large swaths of Cardinals fans.
Matt Carpenter has long been a poor man’s (well, a poorer man’s) version of Joey Votto–he draws a lot of walks, and thus is perpetually underrated at the plate by those who fixate on Triple Crown statistics and nothing else. As a result, Matt Carpenter could be one of the most valuable hitters in baseball, but if you focus more on his batting average (ranked 77th out of 140) than on his on-base percentage (ranked 17th out of 140), it won’t be perceived that way. But Carpenter has been considerably worse than in 2018 during the 2019 season–his walks are down, his power is way down, and while batting average on balls in play suggests some bad luck, this is only a minor factor in Carpenter’s decline.
It is completely reasonable to be concerned about Matt Carpenter in the long-term. While the sudden drop in his wRC+ seems too steep to be real (139, 136, 123, 138, all the way down to 87 right now), I don’t think it’s unreasonable to expect that the days of Carpenter 130ing for a full season are probably over. Last year, it was reasonable to compare Matt Carpenter’s offense to that of some of the best third basemen in the game–he kept company with the likes of Matt Chapman, Nolan Arenado, and Anthony Rendon. This year, he is far worse. But also, he isn’t competing for playing time down the stretch with these three, any of whom are easily better players than Matt Carpenter.
Carpenter’s competition for playing time at third base, with Jedd Gyorko donated to the Los Angeles Dodgers, comes down to Yairo Munoz and Tommy Edman. Munoz has become a utility knife for Mike Shildt in 2019, and Edman has quickly become a fan favorite this season. This competition (which hasn’t been much of a competition so far–Carpenter has received the preponderance of the playing time since returning to the big leagues) seems to fit a common archetype–the struggling veteran against the hot rookie (or sophomore, in the case of Munoz). But let’s look at the offensive numbers of the trio just in 2019, ignoring past results and projections, which both favor Matt Carpenter.
Carpenter: .325 OBP, 12.8 BB%, 25.6 K%, .150 ISO, 87 wRC+
Edman: .272 OBP, 3.4 BB%, 20.4 K%, .156 ISO, 73 wRC+
Munoz: .289 OBP, 3.4 BB%, 18.8 K%, .105 ISO, 72 wRC+
Again, this is Matt Carpenter with an unusually awful season, and he is easily the best offensive player of the group. Admittedly, his defense still isn’t great, but Edman and Munoz have also been minus defenders at third base. Neither has played enough to confidently assert they are actually poor fielders at third base–Edman in particular has looked pretty good, in my subjective opinion–but to opt for a Tommy Edman, whose offense would rank 207th out of 211 qualified third base seasons over the last decade, on the basis of some supposed supernatural defensive advantage over Matt Carpenter (whose defensive metrics, while not good, have never been nearly as bad as detractors insist), doesn’t make a whole lot of sense. Starting Tommy Edman over Matt Carpenter appears to be an idea that exists only in the minds of a vocal minority of Cardinals fans, thankfully.
But at catcher, there is a more interesting question, because there is a 2019 statistical argument in favor of Matt Wieters getting the bulk of playing time over Yadier Molina. Not only that, but Wieters isn’t a flash-in-the-pan youngster–he is a four-time All-Star and two-time Gold Glove winner who, if you’d told me in 2011 that Wieters would be a superior catcher in 2019 to Yadier Molina, I’d have no problem buying it.
And the offensive numbers for Yadier Molina, who is currently on a rehab assignment following a stint on the Injured List, pale in comparison to those of Matt Wieters in 2019.
Molina: .286 OBP, 3.3 BB%, 12.3 K%, .107 ISO, 70 wRC+
Wieters: .281 OBP, 5.9 BB%, 26.1 K%, .241 ISO, 92 wRC+
With his pronounced power upgrade over Molina (Wieters has reached double digit home runs, despite only 153 plate appearances), the backup catcher has been superior at the plate despite just a .247 BABIP.
But my concern with Matt Wieters isn’t his offense–I believe he’s actually a better hitter than his 92 wRC+ suggests he is, and that he’s probably a better hitter than Yadier Molina. My concern is his defense. Despite his multiple Gold Gloves, Wieters has statistically been a fairly poor defender. While he has a good arm and can control the running game, his blocking and especially his pitch framing has left much to be desired. While Wieters has a decent Baseball Reference Wins Above Replacement lead over Molina, of 0.9 to 0.1 despite about half of the total playing time, Baseball Reference does not incorporate framing, while FanGraphs and Baseball Prospectus player value metrics do. By fWAR, Wieters is at -0.1 and Molina is at -0.2–if you adjust for playing time, the two are essentially identical. By Baseball Prospectus’s WARP, the original catcher defense-intensive value model, Yadier Molina has been worth 0.4 WARP. This isn’t very good, but it tops Matt Wieters, who has been exactly replacement level.
2019 is Yadier Molina’s first season with below-average defense, per Baseball Prospectus, while this is the third consecutive season in which Matt Wieters has been below-average. Wieters has been below-average in five of his last seven seasons. Both numbers could be authentic–we are talking about catchers in their thirties, after all–but if I had to pick one of the two to bounce back defensively, I’d opt for the guy who has been one of the, conservatively, five best defensive catchers ever. And while I still think Wieters has the better bat, I think it’s far more likely for Molina to substantially improve at the plate.
This isn’t to say that Wieters shouldn’t play more than he did pre-Molina injury. After all, giving Molina more days off would allow him to avoid getting hurt. By the same token, starting Matt Carpenter over Tommy Edman doesn’t mean the latter can’t be valuable as a switch-hitting Daniel Descalso-type utility infielder. But there is a reason that Matt Carpenter and Yadier Molina have developed the reputations they have–at their peaks, they were among the best players in baseball. And while both players are likely post-peak, that doesn’t mean they’ve completely run out of gas just yet.