Since we have so many important things to talk about…hahahahaha....OK for real, though...I’m bored. You?
Let’s use Baseball Reference’s awesome Neutralized Batting tool. (It can be found on a player page under the advanced stats tab, or in their Play Index) to answer a “What if” question. I was on Twitter Monday morning and saw a comparison between Derek Jeter and Matt Carpenter (pre-2019) and I looked and found something really cool. Here's the first two sets of years that I clicked to sum up for both to try to make it as equal as possible (in terms of prior to their first sub 100 OPS+ year near the end of their career): Carpenter 2011-2018 .274/.377/.470/.847 Jeter 1995-2009 .317/.388/.459/.847
Pretty darn cool, no? Now, this post isn’t going to try to compare Jeter and Carpenter any more than that. (Probably) not at all. The next place my brain went was how Jeter was absolutely beloved by the New York Yankee faithful and Matt Carpenter is adored by a subset of Cardinal fans and hated by a different subset of Cardinal fans.
My brain wondered if Matt Carpenter would be more beloved were he to have been old enough to come up and bat first and hit like he did while playing 2B and 3B when the Cardinals had Rolen and Edmonds and Pujols? Would they have won 3-4 championships in the early- to mid-2000s with Carpenter as a leadoff hitter? Carpenter’s career best years were the 7 years spanning 2012 to 2018. What if those seasons came exactly one decade earlier?
Let us first take a look at what actually happened statistically in Carpenter’s career.
Those are really good numbers in their own right. In fact, as the original tweet surmised, better than Jeter - with a caveat. The caveat is that you had to adjust for league and season, in other words use plus stats. By OPS+, Carpenter's 2012-2018 were better than Jeter's career. Oh, and if you were to extend them out to as long as Jeter played.
Now we’re going to look at the 2002 to 2008 time period in which the St. Louis Cardinals already won 634 games (out of 1,133 for a .560 win percentage and an average season of 90.57 and 71.29). It was a 7-year stretch in which they made the playoffs 4 times, made the World Series twice, and won one World Series. It was a stretch in which they did not need Matt Carpenter, but he still would have made a difference.
In 7 years, Cardinals leadoff hitters hit .284/.335/.372/.707 with a wRC+ of just 89 in 5,392 plate appearances. If you simply plug in (the stats from the shown above Matt) Carpenter for 4,296 of those at those same stats and give the other 1,096 plate appearances to that same average leadoff man from those 7 years, the stats jump to:
.277/.368/.451/.820 - so leadoff hitters got 16% better by OPS. By wRC+ it would be a LOT more than that. The closest comparison I can find to that line in 2002-2008 by a single player is Tim Salmon of the Angels, who had a 119 wRC+. So adding Carpenter would have added 30 points of wRC+ to the leadoff spot for the Cardinals, if you do not adjust for when Carpenter played. The mid-2000s were much more hitter friendly than the 2010s, when Carpenter was playing. What happens if we make that adjustment? Because as we can already see, the difference between Carpenter and these guys that actually led off for the Cardinals was HUGE!
In fact, 30 points of wRC+ over a 7 year-stretch from the guy getting the most plate appearances in the entire order is multiple wins per year of an upgrade and makes the numbers of the guys behind him much better. Over the course of 5,392 plate appearances, the difference between a .335 OBP and a .368 OBP is an extra 178 chances to drive someone in. Now let's talk about extra production out of that spot besides just those chances for hitters behind him.
The actual 2002-2008 leadoff hitters had 215 doubles, 37 triples, 51 homers, 700 runs scored, and 389 RBI. They stole 106 bases and got caught 43 times. In that same time frame, in just 80% of those plate appearances, Matt Carpenter had 263 doubles, 25 triples, 133 homers, 653 runs, 485 RBI, and 19 SB to 16 CS.
If we plug in Carpenter's numbers and add in 20% of the actual totals from that time period, the Cardinals leadoff spot loses 4 triples and 65 stolen bases, but gains 92 doubles, 92 homers, 95 runs, 175 RBI, and get caught stealing 18 less times. Remember, this doesn't account for 2 things: 1) Edmonds, Pujols, and Rolen hitting behind him and 2) the context of the hitting environment change. Wow. That's already a difference of 178 runs over 7 seasons - or 25 runs a year (runs + RBI - HR).
Let's adjust for hitting environment
If we adjust for hitting environment, baseball-reference's tool suggests that here is a chart of what Carpenter WOULD HAVE done. Remember, this does not adjust for Edmonds, Pujols, Rolen behind him quite often.
Carpenter still has 80% of the plate appearances at leadoff in this scenario. (I ignored SB and CS totals because Baseball-Reference only gave steals and not caught stealing in the alternate reality.) If we add in the other 20%, we end up with this line:
.283/.385/.479/.864 with 839 runs, 317 doubles, 32 triples, 146 homers, and 596 RBI
Compare that to our original (and what actually happened) leadoff line of 2002-08 Cardinals:
.284/.335/.372/.707 with 700 runs, 215 doubles, 37 triples, 51 homers, and 389 RBI
We would add 270 times on base, 139 runs, 102 doubles, 95 homers, and 207 RBI to the Cardinals teams of the 2000s. That would be subtracting just 5 triples to do so. That's basically adding 251 runs to those 7 teams - over 35 runs a season!
That changes their Pythagorean wins by 21 - or three per season. That puts our hypothetical 2002-2008 Cardinals at 655-478 over that 7-year stretch (.578) and an average of 94-68 over that time. If we apply those 21 wins evenly over the 7 years, then we get a 7-year stretch in which the worst year is .500 instead of having that one 78-84 season in the middle of what would be a stretch leading back to 1999 in which the Cardinals did not have a losing season (instead of to 2007).
So in a vacuum in which the Cardinals spread Carpenter's numbers evenly over that time period, they get better by 3 wins a year. Let's get a little more specific, though...just for fun.
In our 2002 hypothetical, the Cardinals leadoff hitters go from a slash line of .268/.331/.342/.673 to a slash line of .289/.358/.430/.788 and gain 8 doubles, 2 triples, 5 homers, 8 runs, and 22 RBI - gaining 25 runs scored as a team that season. Carpenter only had 344 of those 769 total plate appearances. Those 25 runs take the 2002 Cardinals from a 97-65 team to a Hypothetical 100-62 team. They swept the first round of the playoffs as it was, but do they put up more of a fight than losing 4 out of 5 against the Giants in the NLCS that year? For what it's worth, the Cardinals were 4-2 against them in the regular season without Carpenter's leading off.
In our 2003 hypothetical, the Cardinals leadoff hitters go from a slash line of .261/.311/.377/.688 to a slash line of .326/.399/.490/.889 and gain 24 doubles, 2 homers, 39 runs, and 27 RBI - gaining 64 runs scored as a team that season. Carpenter had 731 of the 791 total plate appearances. Those 64 runs take the 2003 Cardinals from a 85-77 team to a 90-72 team and they score 940 runs in the season in the process! That's easily the highest total in Cardinals history since 1930. It also pushes them from a 3rd place finish in the NL Central to a first place finish and gives the Cardinals a chance in the playoffs, when they originally missed out. They would have had to face the 101-win, Greg Maddux-led Atlanta Braves in the first round and may have missed out on the NLCS anyway...but it would be yet another chance for Albert Pujols, Scott Rolen, Jim Edmonds, Edgar Renteria, and JD Drew in the playoffs and who knows what happens if they have a chance. For what it's worth, the Cardinals went 2-4 against ATL that year.
In our 2004 hypothetical, the Cardinals leadoff hitters go from a slash line of .293/.335/.377/.712 to a slash line of .290/.392/.395/.789 and gain 5 doubles and 1 homer, but lose a triple. They gain 12 runs and 24 RBI - gaining 35 runs scored as a team that season. Carpenter had 731 of the 764 plate appearances. Those 35 runs take the 2004 Cardinals from a 105-57 team to a 108-54 team. They likely still take down the Dodgers and Astros to get to the World Series. I would imagine that they couldn't have been worse in that World Series as they got swept by the Red Sox. Would they have been good enough to beat them? Probably not with the way either was playing.
In our 2005 hypothetical, the Cardinals leadoff hitters go from a slash line of .295/.368/.405/.773 (not bad!) to a slash line of .282/.374/.505/.879 and gain 21 doubles and 20 homers. They also gain 18 runs and 29 RBI while losing 4 triples as a team that season, with Carpenter accruing 675 of the 769 PA at leadoff. They gain 27 runs that season is all, taking the 2005 Cardinals from a 100-62 team to a 103-59 team. Again, that's not much of a difference in the regular season at all. They still take down the Padres in the NLDS and have a better chance against the Astros in the NLCS with one more power punch in the lineup in a series that went 6 games and saw the Cardinals score one too few runs in TWO of their four losses. If it even turns one of those two games around, then you've got a chance in game 7 at home with Matt Morris toeing the rubber for the last time as a St. Louis Cardinal (unless they win and go to the World Series...then it wouldn't have been the last time).
If we're keeping track, which we obviously are, that's one more playoff opportunity (2003) and potentially one more shot in the World Series (2005).
In our 2006 hypothetical, the Cardinals still get ravaged by injuries until the playoffs, including Carpenter, who puts up his first year of under 600 PA (as a full-time starter). The actual Cardinals leadoff hitters go from a slash line of .280/.335/.366/.701 to a Carpenter-aided slash line of .280/.382/.497/.878. They gain 16 doubles, 2 triples, 15 homers, 8 runs, and 40 RBI with Carpenter at leadoff for 574 of the team's 699 PA in that spot. That's a gain of 33 runs as a team total. The 2006 Cardinals go from limping into the playoffs at 83-78 to at least comfortably taking the division at 86-75, still not needing to make up a 162nd game. They went on to win the World Series, so you have to go ahead and assume they do with a better team.
2007 In our 2007 hypothetical, the Cardinals leadoff hitters go from a slash line of .283/.323/.346/.670 (potentially their worst year thus far) to a slash line of .252/.379/.440/.818 and gain 7 doubles, 1 triple, 20 homers, 22 runs, and 30 RBI. That's a gain of 32 runs that season with Carpenter accounting for 626 of the team's 755 leadoff PA. Adding 32 runs that year makes a 3-win adjustment up to an 81-81 team from the 2007 Cardinals actual 78-84 record. That avoids a losing season for the Cardinals. It likely still keeps the Cardinals in 3rd in the division - maybe as high as second if they take all 3 from the Brewers.
Our last one, the 2008 hypothetical. In this one, Cardinals leadoff hitters go from a slash line of .289/.345/.388/.733 to a Carpenter-aided slash line of .266/.377/.517/.895. While they lose 5 triples from that actual team, the hypothetical 2008 Cardinals get 18 doubles and 28 homers, adding 20 runs and 34 RBI to their totals. That's a gain of 26 runs as a team. That takes an 86-76 team that finished tied for 3rd in the division in John Mozeliak's first year at the helm to a team that finishes 89-73 and is one game behind the actual record of the wild card Milwaukee Brewers. If any one of those 3 wins comes against the Brew Crew, then the Cardinals make the playoffs again. They went just 5-10 against Milwaukee that year without Carpenter. Does having him help them get to 6-9 or 7-8 against them and make the playoffs? If so, do the Cardinals get past the 92-70 Phillies (who go on to win the World Series) and alter the course of history? They were only 4-5 against the Phillies that year, for what it is worth.
All in all, the Cardinals potentially make the playoffs in 2008 and potentially change the outcome of the World Series, make the playoffs instead of miss in 2003, and have a chance to change the outcome of at least one more World Series in 2004 while potentially getting to another World Series in 2005. That's a lot of change that 7 good years of one player would make.
If that's the case, that's a lot of good will that would be partially heaped on Matt Carpenter that portions of the fan base do not have for him for whatever reason. A fun thought exercise. He wouldn't be as beloved as Derek Jeter for sure, but could he be a celebrated hero of the past with a World Series win under his belt - and potentially more - in this alternate reality? Sure he could!