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How valuable is Matt Carpenter, first baseman?

The Cardinals think Matt Carpenter’s blend of plate discipline and newfound power makes him a good fit for 1B; could they be mistaken?

A little over a month ago, the Cardinals announced that Matt Carpenter would be taking over first base full time in 2017. It doesn’t take a lot of digging to see that 1B suits Carpenter’s skill set well. His 137 wRC+ over the last two seasons would rank 6th-best among first sackers, putting him just above Brandon Belt (136) and below some chap named Miguel Cabrera (158). Over that same span he’s also performed, defensively, like a first baseman playing third base. Dating back to the beginning of 2015, Carpenter ranks 18th out of 22 third basemen in FanGraphs’ UZR/150 (min 1500 innings), logging a -6.0 in that metric. As stunning as his offensive company is, his defensive acumen has him placed between Maikel Franco (-6.2) and Trevor Plouffe (-4.6), two third basemen whose defense is such that they’d each be donning first baseman’s mitts if their organizations hadn’t signed even more defensively limited hitters to massive contracts (of course, Plouffe is now non-tendered and Tommy Joseph is not a sure thing).

Carpenter’s shift to first will usurp Matt Adams who, despite having missed the majority of the last 2 seasons to injury, and who also owns a laughably divisible career platoon split (122 wRC+ vs RHP, 61 wRC+ vs LHP), still projects to be something close to a league average player if given a full slate of plate appearances. The case could be made that, going into his second arbitration eligible year, the Cardinals should trade Matt Adams, but I think the case to retain his services is not without merit. He’s projected to make $2.8 million in his second time through arbitration, though it’s entirely realistic to think he’d be providing better than replacement level production off the bench, as the DH in interleague games, or to spell Matt Carpenter at 1B. It’s true that the Cardinals have enviable depth – they set an MLB record last year with 15 pinch hit home runs, which is a fun and fluky stat – and depth is really important. Consider that the Indians and Cubs led their respective leagues last year in deploying the smallest number of players who accumulated a negative WAR over at least 30 PA. Hey! Those teams just played in the World Series!

Across the infield, Jhonny Peralta will slide over to man third base and will flank Aledmys Diaz. Diaz hit plenty well enough in 2016 to retain his role as the starting shortstop, but between Diaz and Carpenter (and Peralta), the Cardinals deployed their worst run prevention unit on the left side of the infield per UZR between 3B and SS in, well, the history of UZR (-23.7). DRS didn’t think they were quite as bad, pegging them for just -10, which was actually an improvement over 2015 (-20) when Matt Carpenter was the full time third baseman and Peralta the shortstop. But perhaps most telling is that in 2016, despite the pitching unit suppressing hard contact at the fifth best rate in baseball, the red birds allowed a BABIP over .300 for the first time since 1999. Yes, there was a league wide BABIP spike, but since 1990, this is the largest margin over the league AVG BABIP the Cardinals have allowed (they allowed a .304 BABIP compared to the .298 league average). Once we observe that, over that same time period, the Cardinals have allowed, on average, a BABIP 4 points lower than the league average, it’s apparent that the Cardinals have put a high value on running out a quality defense; it’s part of their organizational philosophy.

So far everything I’ve said supports the notion that moving Matt Carpenter and his limited defensive abilities to first base is the right move, but confirming this isn’t so simple. The preeminent axiom throughout all of this is that Matt Carpenter’s bat must be in the lineup every day. But there are some reasons that his name doesn’t have to appear on the lineup card next to 1B. Now before I go any further, I want to say that this writing is not meant to be a knock on projections. Projections have their shortcomings, but they do a damn fine job. So, right now, per FanGraphs Depth Charts, the Cardinals offense is projected for 19.9 WAR. It’s easy to look at that and think that’s a humble number – it represents a value that is 0.8 WAR less than they tallied last season (non-pitchers only). This projection includes a bounce back projection for Jhonny Peralta (1.5 WAR), who will be 35 in May. Peralta should be a better defender than Carpenter at 3B, as he has been in the vicinity of average at SS throughout his career. However, over 2363.3 innings at 3B, the equivalent of almost two seasons, he’s managed a -9.2 UZR (-4.8 UZR/150), and I didn’t mention his age just to meet a minimum words requirement. Peralta’s defensive numbers really tanked last year, and when he wasn’t spending time on the disabled list nursing two separate thumb injuries, he posted a 90 wRC+. A season that features below average offense combined with poor defense cannot be propped up by Billy Hamilton’s base running, and Peralta has never even been an average base runner, and so he had a negative WAR for the first time in a season in which he appeared in more than 8 games. Still, it’s almost a guarantee that he’ll bounce back some, as he was worth 1.7 WAR in 2015. Meanwhile, would-be incumbent first baseman Matt Adams has been a sneakily solid defender at 1B (2.0 UZR/150) during his major league tenure and just ISO’d .222 in 2016.

Back to that 19.9 WAR projection; that number also includes the value Dexter Fowler adds as their new center fielder. He replaces Kolten Wong in center, and Wong now makes up the strong side of what could be a very quality platoon at 2B along with Jedd Gyorko. Before Fowler’s inclusion, however, the Cardinals were projected for 19.5 WAR. The fact that the addition of Fowler is seen as only a 0.4 bump in WAR is not an unrealistic suggestion at all, but perhaps speaks to the depth of the Cardinals roster. The projections view Wong, Gyorko, Peralta, and Fowler as players possessing roughly equal value. It’s possible that being exposed to so much of Dexter Fowler’s smile these last two years, and watching him play such a critical role in the Cubs march towards their first championship in over a century, is part of the reason I believe he will contribute more than the 1.9 WAR the projections have allotted to him. I also believe the Cardinals are an adept enough franchise to continue to position Fowler deep in CF, as the Cubs had, a tactic that allowed his defensive numbers to jump from the cellar to above-average in center field. That is the main restraint on Fowler’s projections – they see him reverting back to the disastrous defensive center fielder he was before 2015.

All that’s a long-winded way of saying projection systems aren’t perfect. For the purpose of this article, however, we will be adhering to the numbers that are readily available to all of us. Without further ado, here they are, presented to you as the Cardinals’ depth chart per FanGraphs:

Catcher PA AVG OBP SLG wOBA Bat BsR Fld WAR
Yadier Molina 448 .285 .334 .404 .319 -1.1 -2.6 5.4 2.5
Carson Kelly 192 .246 .296 .357 .285 -5.9 0.1 0.1 0.4
640 .273 .322 .390 .309 -6.9 -2.5 5.5 3.0
First Base PA AVG OBP SLG wOBA Bat BsR Fld WAR
Matt Carpenter 616 .268 .370 .445 .352 15.1 0.5 1.8 2.7
Matt Adams 70 .262 .315 .455 .328 0.3 -0.1 0.1 0.1
Yadier Molina 14 .285 .334 .404 .319 0.0 -0.1 0.2 0.0
700 .266 .364 .445 .349 15.4 0.3 2.1 2.8
Second Base PA AVG OBP SLG wOBA Bat BsR Fld WAR
Kolten Wong 455 .264 .329 .403 .317 -1.9 0.9 0.6 1.6
Jedd Gyorko 210 .249 .311 .443 .322 0.0 -0.2 -0.6 0.7
Greg Garcia 28 .256 .342 .347 .304 -0.4 0.0 0.0 0.1
Eliezer Alvarez 7 .257 .307 .362 .291 -0.2 0.0 0.0 0.0
700 .259 .324 .413 .318 -2.5 0.7 0.0 2.4
Shortstop PA AVG OBP SLG wOBA Bat BsR Fld WAR
Aledmys Diaz 595 .282 .342 .453 .339 8.4 -0.9 -5.1 2.8
Jhonny Peralta 70 .261 .322 .408 .316 -0.4 -0.3 0.1 0.2
Greg Garcia 28 .256 .342 .347 .304 -0.4 0.0 0.0 0.1
Edmundo Sosa 7 .242 .277 .331 .265 -0.3 0.0 0.0 0.0
700 .279 .340 .443 .335 7.3 -1.2 -5.1 3.1
Third Base PA AVG OBP SLG wOBA Bat BsR Fld WAR
Jhonny Peralta 455 .261 .322 .408 .316 -2.5 -2.0 0.6 1.2
Jedd Gyorko 210 .249 .311 .443 .322 0.0 -0.2 0.0 0.7
Greg Garcia 14 .256 .342 .347 .304 -0.2 0.0 0.0 0.0
Matt Carpenter 14 .268 .370 .445 .352 0.3 0.0 0.0 0.1
Breyvic Valera 7 .267 .319 .339 .290 -0.2 0.0 0.0 0.0
700 .257 .320 .417 .318 -2.5 -2.2 0.0 2.1
Left Field PA AVG OBP SLG wOBA Bat BsR Fld WAR
Randal Grichuk 455 .247 .296 .461 .321 -0.5 0.5 4.6 1.5
Tommy Pham 140 .252 .325 .397 .314 -1.0 0.2 -0.3 0.2
Jose Martinez 70 .274 .329 .388 .311 -0.6 0.0 -0.2 0.1
Anthony Garcia 35 .241 .305 .389 .301 -0.6 0.0 0.0 0.0
700 .250 .305 .438 .318 -2.7 0.7 4.1 1.7
Center Field PA AVG OBP SLG wOBA Bat BsR Fld WAR
Dexter Fowler 595 .255 .359 .394 .333 5.1 1.9 -9.1 1.9
Randal Grichuk 70 .247 .296 .461 .321 -0.1 0.1 0.7 0.3
Tommy Pham 28 .252 .325 .397 .314 -0.2 0.0 -0.1 0.1
Magneuris Sierra 7 .250 .279 .334 .267 -0.3 0.0 0.0 0.0
700 .254 .351 .400 .330 4.5 2.0 -8.4 2.3
Right Field PA AVG OBP SLG wOBA Bat BsR Fld WAR
Stephen Piscotty 595 0.268 0.333 0.427 0.328 3.1 -1.3 0.7 1.5
Tommy Pham 63 0.252 0.325 0.397 0.314 -0.4 0.1 -0.1 0.0
Jose Martinez 35 0.274 0.329 0.388 0.311 -0.3 0.0 -0.1 0.0
Anthony Garcia 7 0.241 0.305 0.389 0.301 -0.1 0.0 0.0 0.0
700 0.266 0.331 0.422 0.326 2.2 -1.2 0.4 1.7
Designated Hitter PA AVG OBP SLG wOBA Bat BsR Fld WAR
Matt Adams 120 .262 .315 .455 .328 0.5 -0.2 0.0 0.4
Greg Garcia 90 .256 .342 .347 .304 -1.3 0.3 0.0 0.2
Jedd Gyorko 60 .249 .311 .443 .322 0.0 -0.1 0.0 0.2
Yadier Molina 30 .285 .334 .404 .319 -0.1 -0.3 0.0 0.1
300 .260 .324 .416 .319 -0.9 -0.4 0.0 0.8
Totals PA AVG OBP SLG wOBA Bat BsR Fld WAR
5840 0.263 0.332 0.421 0.325 13.8 -3.8 -1.3 19.9

In determining if moving Matt Carpenter to 1B makes the Cardinals better, we’ll have to make some presumptions about how the Cardinals would deploy their players if Carpenter were still to receive the majority of his reps at third base. First, let’s mull over the implications stemming from the rumor that the Cardinals were linked to Justin Turner before he re-signed with the Dodgers. That doesn’t smell like their kind of move, but if they were indeed pursuing him, it would indicate that they are willing to use Jhonny Peralta as a utility man, or at the very least, a back-up. This would allow Adams to continue to play 1B, and we’ll assume that he receives the lion’s share of plate appearances against right handed pitching while Carpenter would flip over to 1B when there’s a lefty on the mound. There’s an obvious platoon opportunity at 2B that we already mentioned, and Peralta and Greg Garcia would fill in spots around the infield on off days or in match-up situations.

Once we apply these ideas we can construct an alternative depth chart:

Catcher PA AVG OBP SLG wOBA Bat BsR Fld WAR
Yadier Molina 448 .285 .334 .404 .319 -1.1 -2.6 5.4 2.5
Carson Kelly 192 .246 .296 .357 .285 -5.9 0.1 0.1 0.4
640 .273 .322 .390 .309 -6.9 -2.5 5.5 3.0
First Base PA AVG OBP SLG wOBA Bat BsR Fld WAR
Matt Adams 500 .262 .315 .455 .328 4.1 -0.8 0.8 1.2
Matt Carpenter 186 .268 .370 .445 .352 5.2 0.1 0.5 0.8
Yadier Molina 14 .285 .334 .404 .319 0.0 -0.1 0.2 0.0
700 .264 .330 .452 .334 9.3 -0.8 1.5 2.0
Second Base PA AVG OBP SLG wOBA Bat BsR Fld WAR
Kolten Wong 455 .264 .329 .403 .317 -1.9 0.9 0.6 1.6
Jedd Gyorko 210 .249 .311 .443 .322 0.0 -0.2 -0.6 0.7
Greg Garcia 28 .256 .342 .347 .304 -0.4 0.0 0.0 0.1
Eliezer Alvarez 7 .257 .307 .362 .291 -0.2 0.0 0.0 0.0
700 .259 .324 .413 .318 -2.5 0.7 0.0 2.4
Shortstop PA AVG OBP SLG wOBA Bat BsR Fld WAR
Aledmys Diaz 595 .282 .342 .453 .339 8.4 -0.9 -5.1 2.8
Jhonny Peralta 70 .261 .322 .408 .316 -0.4 -0.3 0.1 0.2
Greg Garcia 28 .256 .342 .347 .304 -0.4 0.0 0.0 0.1
Edmundo Sosa 7 .242 .277 .331 .265 -0.3 0.0 0.0 0.0
700 .279 .340 .443 .335 7.3 -1.2 -5.1 3.1
Third Base PA AVG OBP SLG wOBA Bat BsR Fld WAR
Matt Carpenter 444 .268 .370 .444 .352 12.6 0.4 0.1 2.7
Jhonny Peralta 175 .261 .322 .408 .316 -0.5 -0.8 0.4 0.5
Jedd Gyorko 67 .249 .311 .443 .322 0.0 -0.2 -0.4 0.2
Greg Garcia 14 .256 .342 .347 .304 -0.2 0.0 0.0 0.0
Breyvic Valera 0 .000 .000 .000 .000 0.0 0.0 0.0 0.0
700 .264 .353 .434 .344 11.9 -0.5 0.1 3.4
Left Field PA AVG OBP SLG wOBA Bat BsR Fld WAR
Randal Grichuk 455 .247 .296 .461 .321 -0.5 0.5 4.6 1.5
Tommy Pham 140 .252 .325 .397 .314 -1.0 0.2 -0.3 0.2
Jose Martinez 70 .274 .329 .388 .311 -0.6 0.0 -0.2 0.1
Anthony Garcia 35 .241 .305 .389 .301 -0.6 0.0 0.0 0.0
700 .250 .305 .438 .318 -2.7 0.7 4.1 1.7
Center Field PA AVG OBP SLG wOBA Bat BsR Fld WAR
Dexter Fowler 595 .255 .359 .394 .333 5.1 1.9 -9.1 1.9
Randal Grichuk 70 .247 .296 .461 .321 -0.1 0.1 0.7 0.3
Tommy Pham 28 .252 .325 .397 .314 -0.2 0.0 -0.1 0.1
Magneuris Sierra 7 .250 .279 .334 .267 -0.3 0.0 0.0 0.0
700 .254 .351 .400 .330 4.5 2.0 -8.4 2.3
Right Field PA AVG OBP SLG wOBA Bat BsR Fld WAR
Stephen Piscotty 595 0.268 0.333 0.427 0.328 3.1 -1.3 0.7 1.5
Tommy Pham 63 0.252 0.325 0.397 0.314 -0.4 0.1 -0.1 0.0
Jose Martinez 35 0.274 0.329 0.388 0.311 -0.3 0.0 -0.1 0.0
Anthony Garcia 7 0.241 0.305 0.389 0.301 -0.1 0.0 0.0 0.0
700 0.266 0.331 0.422 0.326 2.2 -1.2 0.4 1.7
Designated Hitter PA AVG OBP SLG wOBA Bat BsR Fld WAR
Jedd Gyorko 175 0.249 0.311 0.443 0.322 0.0 -0.5 0.0 0.5
Matt Adams 50 0.262 0.315 0.455 0.328 0.4 -0.1 0.0 0.2
Jhonny Perala 45 0.261 0.322 0.408 0.316 -0.1 -0.1 0.0 0.1
Yadier Molina 30 0.285 0.334 0.404 0.319 -0.1 -0.3 0.0 0.1
300 0.266 0.325 0.445 0.324 0.2 -0.9 0.0 0.8
Totals PA AVG OBP SLG wOBA Bat BsR Fld WAR
5840 0.264 0.332 0.425 0.326 23.3 -3.7 -1.9 20.4

There’s a substantial spreadsheet I created in which all the math was computed (I don’t recommend undertaking this as I found out all of the projections are created in fractions and determining the run scoring environment for a win was not as easy as saying it’s 10 runs), but essentially, Matt Adams was awarded an additional 360 PA at 1B, allowing Matt Carpenter to spend more time at 3B where the positional adjustment is a positive one. Some of the plate appearances Peralta and Gyorko lose out on at 3B are made up at DH, either in interleague play or as pinch hitters. Garcia loses the largest percent of his PAs among players projected to receive more than seven PAs, but does not lose as many defensive innings played, where he supplies most of his value, as he could conceivably still enter late in games as a defensive replacement. So while it feels like Carpenter’s repositioning to first base is the clear cut right thing to do, the projection systems do not agree – they see Carpenter’s move to first as a tactic that dings the Cardinals 0.5 WAR. The selling point here is that the defensive value Peralta adds over Carpenter is not enough to make up for the offensive upside of having both Adams and Carpenter in the lineup against righties.

Our opinions, or our “gut”, may differ from the projected data - or maybe you agree! - but adhering to that would be in direct opposition to the exercise presented here. That’s an important distinction to make because once we start deviating from the data provided it’s easy to add in a positive contribution on defense from Fowler, at which point we’re talking about a team that boasts a top 6 offense in baseball. Alas, as I’m sure you’ve known all along, all of this is probably futile because projection systems do not account for Cardinal Devil Magic.

. . .

Mark Davidson is a Contributor at Beyond the Box Score. You can follow him on Twitter at @NtflixnRichHill.