Tuesday June 21st, 2016

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The quietest superstar in baseball didn’t break into the majors until he was 26 years old, and has never won a major individual award. In his first four seasons, playing for one of the league’s most visible franchises, he made the All-Star Game two times, and he’s likely to earn a third trip in about a month. He has never led his league in a glamour category, unless you think doubles and walks get you endorsement deals. He’s a fine defender, but has never won a Gold Glove and doesn’t play a premium position. He has never stolen more than five bases in a season and, before last year, never hit more than 11 homers in one, either.

Despite all this, MLB’s quietest superstar has one top-five MVP finish, and another in the top 12. Now 30, he’s on pace for the best season of his career. He just missed out on his team’s last World Series title, but he helped them get back there in 2013, when he was the best hitter on the team that scored the most runs in the National League.

It’s well past time for the Cardinals’ Matt Carpenter to get the national recognition he deserves.

In the preseason, we predicted that Carpenter would be a top-five fantasy third baseman this year. From our bold predictions column:

Come October 2016, we’re going to look back on Carpenter’s average draft position and wonder how it happened. How could a player coming off a .272/.365/.505 season with 28 homers at a relatively shallow position be drafted outside the top-70 picks in a typical draft? It’ll look even crazier when you remember that the player has a successful track record in both the batting average and OBP departments. The only third basemen who will outproduce Carpenter this season will be first-round locks Josh Donaldson, Nolan Arenado, Manny Machado and Kris Bryant. Carpenter may not match their numbers, but he will provide one of the best returns on investment of any player this season.

Thanks, Matt, for making us look good. We’re just about halfway through the typical fantasy regular season in head-to-head leagues, and Carpenter is the No. 5 third baseman, trailing, in order, Donaldson, Arenado, Bryant and Machado. He’s hitting .297/.419/.552 with 10 homers, 21 doubles, 45 runs and 42 RBI in 282 plate appearances. He has nearly as many non-intentional walks (47) as strikeouts (50).

There’s only two players in the majors hitting at least .297 with a .400 OBP, double-digit homers and 40-plus runs and RBI. One is Carpenter and the other is Mike Trout.

Breaking down one of Clayton Kershaw’s seven walks this season

One of the Fangraphs leaderboards that I like to check out from time to time is hard-hit rate, typically the purview of power hitters. David Oritz leads the majors with a 47.2% hard-hit rate. Some other members of the top 10 include Trevor Story (44.6%), Mike Napoli (43.1%), Joey Votto (42.2%, and we told you he’s fine) and Chris Carter (41.7%). It’s not necessarily a stat that guarantees greatness, but hitting the ball hard with consistency is the surest path to success at the plate.

Carpenter, who found more power last season but still wouldn’t be described as a slugger, is third in the majors with a 43.9% hard-hit rate. What’s more, his 7% soft-hit rate, which is lowest in the majors, reads like a typo. J.D. Martinez’s soft-hit rate, which, at 10.2% is nearly 1.5 times Carpenter’s, is the second lowest in the majors. To find that wide a gap between Martinez and another player, you have to scroll all the way to No. 37 on the list where you’ll find a tie between Nick Markakis and Khris Davis. Over the first 11 weeks of the 2016 season, Carpenter has come as close to eliminating soft contact as is realistically possible.

During the first three years of his career, Carpenter became known as an excellent contact hitter who would work the count and use the entire field to get on base. No one lucks their way into hitting 55 doubles in a season, as Carpenter did in 2013. Heading into his age-29 season last year, it seemed Carpenter was as known as a commodity could be.

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The Cardinals roster turned over from the first three years of Carpenter’s career, and suddenly they needed him to be a different hitter. In short, they needed him to unlock the power they believe resided inside his bat. In those first three seasons, the Cardinals had enough pop in the middle of the order for Carpenter to take a back seat in the power department while serving as one of the league’s best table setters. They didn’t have that luxury in 2015, and the responsibility of filling the power void fell to Carpenter. He tailored his swing and, more importantly, his approach, getting more aggressive early and when ahead in the count. He hit a career-high 28 homers, a number he should approach, though he likely won’t surpass, this season.

Baseball has enjoyed an influx of young talent over the last five seasons, starting most notably with Trout and Bryce Harper. Since then, players like Arenado and Bryant, Carlos Correa and Francisco Lindor, and Noah Syndergaard and Jose Fernandez have ensured that the sport is in good hands for the foreseeable future. It hasn’t been all guys in their early-20s, though. Baseball’s quietest superstar turned 30 last offseason. He may not win an MVP or lead the league in homers in his career, but he has turned himself into an elite fantasy asset. Next time you talk about the league’s best hitters, make sure Carpenter is in the discussion.

Michael Ivins/Boston Red Sox/Getty Images

Hitters to watch this week

Josh Donaldson, 3B; Edwin Encarnacion, 1B; Michael Saunders, OF, Blue Jays

This trio of Blue Jays has been making pitching against the team a nightmare for the last two weeks. Donaldson’s and Encarnacion’s hot streaks actually go back a month, with the pair ranking third and second, respectively, among hitters in standard 5x5 leagues over the last 30 days. In the last two weeks, however, the three have combined to hit .357 (50-for-140) with 16 homers, 44 RBI and 41 runs. In that time, Donaldson has been the top player in standard leagues, with Encarnacion right behind him and Saunders checking in seventh. The Blue Jays start the week with the Diamondbacks before visiting Chicago for a weekend series with the White Sox.

• ​Should fantasy owners buy or sell Reds’ Adam Duvall?

Whit Merrifield, 2B/OF, Royals

It’s becoming more noteworthy when Merrifield doesn’t get multiple hits in a game than when he does. Merrifield has started 27 games for the Royals this season and his at least two hits in 13 of them, inspiring one of the best hashtags of the 2016 season: #2HitWhit (which also sponsors his Baseball Reference page). 

Merrfield’s rise facilitated the release of Omar Infante, and gives the Royals a more on-base skills at the top of their order. No matter your format, there’s room for Merrifield on a roster. The Royals will meet two teams this week they vanquished in the playoffs a year ago, opening with the Mets in New York before returning home to host the Astros.

Willson Contreras, C, Cubs

Well, that’s quite a way to make your major league debut. In case you missed it, here’s what Contreras did with the first pitch he saw as a major leaguer.

Contreras became the second player in the long history of the Cubs franchise to homer on the very first pitch he saw in the majors. The other was Jim Bullinger, a replacement-level pitcher who spent the first five years of his nondescript career with the Cubs. There’s no doubting Conteras’s talent. He’s the top catcher prospect in baseball, and spent the first two months of the season raking to the tune of .350/.439/.591 with nine homers at Triple A Iowa. There are some doubts, however, as to how much playing time he’ll get. The Cubs are happy with Miguel Montero, and David Ross, who’s quietly having one of the better seasons of his career, is Jon Lester’s personal catcher. The two of them could only dream of having Conteras’s natural talent, but the Cubs want the youngster to learn from the two veterans as he gets his feet wet in the majors. He’s undoubtedly the catcher of the future. The question for fantasy owners is can he be enough a catcher of the present to make a fantasy impact this year?

Bryce Harper, OF, Nationals

Harper’s monthly splits show the peak-and-valley nature of his season to date.

It all started when the Cubs refused to pitch to Harper back in their four-game series with the Nationals in early May, walking him 13 times in 19 plate appearances. Before that series, Harper was hitting .266/.372/.649. Since then, he has slashed .246/.379/.369 in 153 plate appearances. Did the Cubs get in Harper’s head, or did they simply help craft a way that makes attacking him slightly more doable? It’s likely a little of both, but it’s not something that’s entirely built to last. Talent, especially immense, unquantifiable talent, always wins out in the end. Harper may have to make some adjustments, but he’s the sort of player you bet on making those necessary tweaks 10 times out of 10. Don’t be surprised if it starts this week with the Nationals visiting the Dodgers and Brewers.

Adam Jones, OF, Orioles

Jones has long been among the streakiest players in the majors, and after a long, ugly stretch that lasted for most of April and May, he has turned things around in June. Jones is hitting .265/.295/.590 with eight homers and 19 RBI this month, rewarding the owners who stuck with him through the first two months of the season. At the same time, the fact that a .265 batting average and .295 OBP come as part of an extended run of success for Jones tells you the sort of player he is. Now that he no longer runs, he’s really just a three-category player. There’s still some value here, though especially when he’s swinging the bat like this. The Orioles have two more games with the Rangers before a weekend series at home against the Rays.

Brynn Anderson/AP

Prospect watch

A.J. Reed, 1B, Astros

Last week in this space, we detailed the struggles of Houston third basemen this season and how that could help top shortstop prospect Alex Bregman get to the majors, if at a different position. The team isn’t getting much on the opposite corner of the infield, either, where Marwin Gonzalez and Tyler White have combined to hit .234/.298/.390 with a .299 wOBA that ranks 24th in the league. Just like the woes at third could hasten Bregman’s arrival in Houston, so, too, could the team’s issues at first lead to them turning to Reed sooner than expected.

The 23-year-old Reed is having a strong debut season at the Triple A level, hitting .256/.343/.483 with nine homers, 18 doubles and 32 RBI in 236 plate appearances. Reed has always projected as a middle-of-the-order hitter who would make his way by leaving the yard and taking his walks, so it has been encouraging to see him do just that in his first exposure to the highest level of the minors. He’s still striking out a fair amount, but a 23.7% strikeout rate in a player’s first season of Triple A ball isn’t the end of the world, especially when he also sports an 11.9% walk rate. Reed is another player who will be immediately relevant upon his promotion to the majors. While he doesn’t deserve the same stash priority as his teammate Bregman, he is stash-worthy if you have a roster spot with which to play.

GIF of the week

We’re accustomed to seeing great glove work from Jose Iglesias. This gem from a game with the White Sox last week will likely end up on his lifetime highlight reel.

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