If Carpenter Can Play Third Base, Great News for Jose Martinez and the Cardinals

There was encouraging news over the weekend in Jupiter: Matt Carpenter started a game at third base, then shifted over to second. This was part of the original plan, getting Jose Martinez in the lineup more often this season by deploying Carpenter at multiple infield spots.

When Carpenter was slowed this spring by back discomfort and persisting concerns over his right shoulder, manager Mike Matheny informed the media of the updated plan: station Carpenter at first base, keep him there, and lessen the risk of aggravating the shoulder.  It was safer over there; the throwing angles are different for third basemen and second basemen.

Carpenter has progressed so well, the original configuration is back on.

And this is important.  If Carpenter can handle some games at third base and second, Martinez can make starts at first base and it’s an easy way to slip his formidable bat into the lineup. Martinez can’t play another infield position, so if first base is blocked, that would mean limited starts in left or right field. Or as a DH when the Cardinals play in an American League park. Not enough.

In 307 plate appearances last season, Martinez batted .307 with a .379 onbase percentage while slugging .518. That was good for an OPS of .897, and based on park-adjusted runs created, JM’s offense was 35 percent above league average.

After reworking his swing to get more loft on the ball, Martinez powered up for the first time in his professional career, homering every 19.4 at-bats and posting a .210 ISO (isolated power) that was 49 points above league average. His exit velocity was eye-opening. Martinez hit the ball so hard, his .350 average on balls in play was more legitimate than most that reach that level. And Martinez supported newfound wallop with exceptional plate discipline, crafting a 10.4 percent walk rate and limiting his strikeouts to under 20 percent (19.5%.)

It’s a small sample size (69 PA) but the 6-7 Martinez was cruel to LH pitchers in 2017, hitting .407 with a .493 OBP and .947 slug for an OPS of 1.340. His RH swing wasn’t quite as menacing against RH pitching — .346 OBP, .427 slug,  and .773 OPS. But that was still slightly above league average (six percent) in park adjusted runs created vs. RH pitching.

Martinez is ideal for usage in starts made by lefty pitchers; it makes sense given his numbers vs. lefties. Carpenter (who of course bats from the left side) hit LH pitching very well from 2012 through 2016, but wasn’t effective against the lefts in 2017 because of the shoulder. I’m assuming Carpenter’s offensive performance vs. LHP will rebound in 2018.

Second baseman Kolten Wong bats left, and while he’s had a solid .342 OBP against LHP over the last two seasons he’s shown little power against them.

Just for the sake of discussion …

When the Cardinals go against a left-handed starter, Martinez can be at first base, Jedd Gyorko can play second, and Carpenter can switch to third. That’s one way. Or Carpenter can play second with Gyorko starting at third base, his stronger position. If Gyorko — wore down last season — needs a break, the Carpenter (3B) and Martinez (1B) alignment kicks in.

Or, consider this: if Martinez and Carpenter both are prospering offensively and not making too much of a mess defensively, Gyorko could transition to a super-utility role and move about the infield.

Whiners will fuss over Carpenter’s third-base defense. If they are basing everything on 2015, that’s legitimate because he was a minus 10 there in defensive runs saved. (Bad.) But in 2016 Carpenter was a +2 in defensive runs saved and ranked 15th in DRS among big-league third basemen. He really had only one poor season there. Same with second base ( minus 8 in 2016; otherwise average.)

OK, back to going with Martinez vs. LH pitching …

The Cards faced only 35 LH starters last season, and have gone against an average of just 40 lefty starters per season over the past three years. That leaves 142 starts against RH pitchers, so this can’t be, and won’t be, a strict platoon situation. And in this age of reliever specialization when pitching changes are being made more frequently than ever,  a rigid platoon arrangement isn’t as feasible.

Besides, I believe Martinez will improve his hitting against right-handed pitching in 2017. I base it on a small but informative piece of data supplied by a friend that works for an MLB team: Martinez had one of the highest rates of hitting to the opposite field vs. right-handed pitchers after the All-Star break last season. He also had a 45 percent ground-ball rate on balls in play vs. RH.  We’ve already seen Martinez adapt and adjust his swing to send more struck baseballs airborne. There’s no reason to believe he can’t do it again.

Thanks for reading …

–Bernie

More: As a New Baseball Season Nears, Some Perspective on the Cardinals