A high-powered engine is not all that useful without a good starter. And the St. Louis Cardinals are that high-powered engine and the starter is Matt Carpenter. Not only is he getting on base at a .396 pace that allows him to be the third highest run-scorer in baseball, but he has solidified a position that has been a Cardinal weakness for a decade. His consistent on-base skills are added to his strong fielding and base running skills to make him the best second baseman in the National League thus far this season.
The Cardinals have had difficulty finding a guy to play second base for years. It was so bad that Tony LaRussa resorted to bringing Skip Schumaker in from the outfield to play the position for a few years. Here is the position's OPS breakdown since 2004 starting with that season: .695, 703, .701, .667, .754, .746, .671, .712 and last year, .642. This year, the position is at .840. A big reason is Matt Carpenter.
And this does not appear to be a fluke either. At this point in the season, Carpenter has nearly the same number of plate appearances as he had all of last season. In fact, with 338 this year, he is only two plate appearances from last year's total of 340. In those 340 PAs last season, Carpenter walked 34 times. He has walked 34 times this season. In 2012, he had 22 doubles. This season, he has 21. Last year, he had six homers. This year he has six.
But in other areas, he is improved over a year ago. Last year, Matt Carpenter struck out 18.5% of the time. This year, he is only striking out 13.3%. He has always had good plate discipline and this season has only swung at 23.2% of pitches out of the strike zone, similar to last year. But a big difference is that he has always had a low swing and miss rate, but this year has taken it a step further and has only swung and missed 3.7% of the time, tied for sixth best in baseball.
Matt Carpenter has also been a line drive machine. Last year, he hit a lot of line drives, to the tune of 23.8% of his batted balls. This season, he is at an amazing 27.2%. He is fairly ground ball / fly ball neutral and so his high BABIP of .358 seems justified and in line with his .346 BABIP of last year. The thing I especially love about Carpenter is where his batted balls go. He has pulled the ball 58 times. He has hit the ball to center 62 times and he has hit the ball the opposite way 52 times. It is impossible to defense that kind of spray chart. And his batting average of over .360 on each of those directions also tells me that his BABIP is not a fluke and worthy of regression.
While Carpenter is a good base runner, he is not a base steal guy. He only has one. So that is his only small weakness as a lead-off batter. But his on-base skills more than make up for that lack. In other words, he is no Juan Pierre, but then again, he is no Juan Pierre.
The only thing holding Matt Carpenter back from the second base All-Star vote is that the Cardinals still bounce him back and forth a bit between second and third base. He has played 476+ innings at second and 167+ innings at third. That kind of thing is great for Fantasy Baseball players, but sort of takes him away from being considered a true second baseman. But for me, he has been one of the most valuable members of a very good baseball team and he would be my second base pick for the All Star Game.