The idea of the "unlikely playoff hero" is a pervasive one in sports in general, and baseball in particular. Come October, Clayton Kershaw can be rendered mortal and Yasiel Puig can be reduced to a pinch runner. Game-winning hits don't always come from stars and players can earn themselves 15 minutes of fame with a hot streak at the right time.
Today, I thought I'd look at the a very unique type of "unlikely playoff hero," specifically the kind whose heroics may not actually be considered all that unlikely. If that doesn't make sense to you, that's perfectly reasonable, as it is a counterintuitive idea, but the man who personifies it best in this year's playoffs in none other than Matt Carpenter.
If someone had told you that Matt Carpenter would play a major role in the NLDS, you probably wouldn't have been surprised. After all, Carpenter's 10.7 WAR ranks 10th in the majors among position players over the last two seasons between Paul Goldschmidt and Buster Posey. He is a strong offensive contributor in a Cardinals lineup that has struggled at times this season and Dave Cameron of FanGraphs even listed him as the #35 trade asset in baseball in July.
The 28-year-old is obviously a great player, but what he isn't is a slugger. Carpenter's career ISO stands at .140, and it was an even worse .104 this season. Not only does he has a mere 25 home runs in 1785 career plate appearances to date, he has never hit multiple home runs in a game or hit a ball over the fence in consecutive contests.
With that information in mind, it's hard to imagine that he would put up these numbers against the Dodgers in the NLDS:
|Plate Appearances||Runs||Home Runs||RBI||AVG||OBP||SLG|
Carpenter had some of the biggest hits in the series, including a home run and a three-run double off Clayton Kershaw in Game 1. For a relatively punchless left-handed hitter, that's pretty impressive.
In one short series, Carpenter managed six extra-base hits -- a pretty astounding total for anyone, but especially for the Cardinals third baseman. The table below shows his extra-base hit totals by month in 2014:
October is already tied for Carpenter's best month in terms of home runs, and he has twice as many extra base hits as he had in September. In fact, he only had six extra-base hits since -arbitrary endpoint alert- August 18th, and five of those were doubles.
So, is it possible for such a good player to be an "unlikely playoff hero"? Ultimately that's up to you to decide. It is a very subjective label, and whatever definition you choose to apply to it is perfectly fine. The case I would make is that while you might expect a player of Carpenter's caliber to make an impact in the playoffs, the way he's done so qualifies as a surprise.
Going into the ALDS, you might have considered Billy Butler a guy likely to help the Royals win, but I bet you wouldn't predict he'd do it by swiping bags. In the same vein, "Matt Carpenter: All-Star" may not have the ability to surprise by coming up big in the postseason, but "Matt Carpenter: Slugger" definitely does.
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All statistics courtesy of FanGraphs and Baseball-Reference
Nick Ashbourne is an Editor for Beyond the Box Score. You can follow him on Twitter at @Nick_Ashbourne.