Rock, paper, scissor. A game we've all played in our youth, that introduced us to the concepts of strengths versus weaknesses, and power with vulnerability. You either win or lose- there is no middle ground.
Baseball is, of course, significantly more nuanced. But there are skills that certain types of players possess, and one can often deduce what their relative shortcomings may be. Huge power hitters generally are going to swing and miss frequently, save for the very best hitters in the league, and people who thought Ichiro Suzuki could hit 30 homers a year "if he wanted to" are delusional.
Dave Cameron at FanGraphs discusses how Cardinals leadoff hitter and former 13th round pick Matt Carpenter has emerged as one of the most valuable players in the game, despite his low profile background. He had a strong rookie year as a part-time player in 2012, doing a lot of things pretty well. He had no calling card like rock's power or scissor's precision, but it was a productive season overall. Still, there were areas for improvement:
Last year, in 340 trips to the plate, Carpenter was a good-across-the-board kind of hitter, as he didn't show one remarkable standout trait. He hit a bunch of doubles, but his lack of home run power limited his ISO to .169, just a tick above league average. His 82.8% contact rate wasn't bad, but ranked just 97th out of 265 hitters who got at least 300 plate appearances last year. He swung the bat 41% of the time compared to a league average of 45.6%, so the thing he was best at - relative to the rest of the league anyway - was standing around and not swinging.
Cameron notes his selectivity as a relative strength, but seemingly as a back-handed compliment. I could stand around and not swing. Interestingly, he does not focus on one of the fruits of those efforts: his above-average 10.0% walk rate.
Regardless, Carpenter's formula is clear, and Cameron goes on to elaborate on how his line drive, doubles approach is not a great model to shape your offensive game around, without some refinement:
Hitting line drives is great, but line drive rate is also pretty fickle, especially in a half season's worth of playing time. While Carpenter does have the kind of swing that is geared more towards squaring up the ball than driving it over the wall, LD% isn't predictive enough that you want it to be the core of your offensive game.
In my first read, my honest reaction to this was "uhh...Joey Votto?" But Cameron goes on to explain that Carpenter has specifically targeted strikes he can effectively drive, namely ones in the lower part of the zone. Having done that, his line drive rate has increased even further to Votto-like levels (Matt is seventh in the league at 27.6%, with Joey third at 28.9%), and that has also helped reduce his strikeout rate, while still maintaining his walk rate. With that combo, Cameron piles on the praise:
Yes, his minor league track record and first 614 big league plate appearances have convinced the projection systems that Carpenter is, right now, a better hitter than guys like Ben Zobrist and Brandon Phillips. Over the last calendar year, the only second basemen who have outhit him are [Robinson] Cano and Aaron Hill.
The first few months of Carpenter's 2013 season look remarkably like something you'd see from a prime season of Dustin Pedroia.
Cameron delivers an excellent summary on where Carpenter came from, how he's excelled, and what positional peers he is now accompanied by. His article led me to focus on Carpenter's specific skillset, and what company that puts him in both as an overall player beyond just second basemen, and as an overall hitter regardless of position.
Going back to the rock/paper/scissor analogy, I have formed an imaginary club, requiring four components:
85% Contact rate
10% Walk rate
Play an up-the-middle defensive position (well)
If you make contact at an elite rate, that likely means you're not a power hitter. But if you're not a power hitter, it is difficult to maintain a high walk rate, unless you have a Daric Barton-type eye. Still, even with pristine plate discipline, singles hitters like Barton haven't been able to sustain their walk rates over multiple seasons, and that's why we then throw ISO into the mix: to weed out players like Barton, or Brett Gardner, at least as we used to know him, or Chone Figgins in 2009. This way we'll require a modicum of power, in the form of doubles at least.
One more note on how these skills can be mutually exclusive: when a batter's contact rate is so high, there is a lower chance of drawing a walk because more at-bats are ending with balls in play. If Carpenter is swinging 2-0, there's a good chance he's not drawing a walk. When Adam Dunn does, there's a good chance that simply means it's now 2-1, and a walk may eventually come, even if not completely on purpose.
Lastly, it's generally harder to be a good hitter and defensive player. Duh.
Going back ten years, this is the list (including very close calls):
Coco Crisp is on there in an obviously small sample, having missed time in a partial season, and we know a good amount of his "power" stems largely from his speed.
Cameron is spot-on with his Pedroia comparison, as he made the cut in two separate seasons.
To give perspective on the hitting requirements only, some perennials who would have been on the list if they played a premium defensive position include Albert Pujols, Todd Helton, Brian Giles, and Scott Hatteberg (as a first baseman).
The overall list is simply a roster of some of the best players in baseball.
Matt Carpenter has proven to be an extremely tough guy to retire, with his current .415 OBP. Cameron notes that Carpenter's ISO last year was barely above average at .169, but is commending him now when his power has been even lower this year, at .159 (and it was .149 at the time of Cameron's article, as Carpenter homered last night).
But that speaks to the point of this whole exercise, and the main goal of hitting in general: to get on base. This profile is one of the most sustainable ways to do so over the long run.
Along these lines, Jonah Keri recently selected Joe Mauer in the first round of ESPN's Franchise Draft, despite his relative age to other chosen youngsters.
He's 30 years old, has one season with more than 13 home runs, and you have to wonder how many of the next 10 years he'll spend behind the plate. But the most important thing a baseball player can do is not make outs.
He also has a chance to be productive well into his late-30's...sign me up.
The Cardinals are getting eerily similar production to Joe Mauer's career marks in the 13th round, instead of first overall. And that's far from a knock on Mauer.
Even though he's a late bloomer at 27, Carpenter will have many more productive years atop the Cardinals' lineup. Time will tell if he can remain at least close to those lofty rates at the plate, but combined with his quick study and ability at second base, he is currently in some exclusive company.
All statistics courtesy of FanGraphs.
Andrew is a contributor to Beyond the Box Score. Follow him @AndrewShen_SF.