It's hard to find good help these days at second base.
The league average OPS for the position this year is .710, which is up from last year's dismal .701 showing. That's still the third-worst offensive performance by position in the league, a sole point ahead of catchers (.709) and 30 points up on the lowly shortstops, who are mustering only .680 as a group. What's worse, of the 50 or so players who have played 75 percent of their games at second, and who have appeared in 20 games or more, only the top six have an OPS over .800. Many of those others aren't elite defenders at second base, either; they're projects like Gordon Beckham of the White Sox, or stopgaps like Kelly Johnson of the Tampa Bay Rays, or whatever the hell's going on in Kansas City that has their fans incensed about the treatment of Johnny "career .606 OPS" Giavotella.
Which is why it's amazing -- and to their rivals, infuriating -- that the St. Louis Cardinals have managed to produce one, seemingly out of nowhere.
Matt Carpenter was taken in the 13th round of the 2009 draft, as a 25-year-old third baseman out of Texas Christian University. His main attraction as a prospect was his batting eye and plate discipline, but he was never well regarded enough as a total package to ever make either Baseball America's Top Ten Organizational prospects with the Cardinals, let alone their league-wide Top 100. This makes a certain amount of sense; not only was St. Louis's farm system just as stacked with talent in 2009 as it is right now, but as a collegiate position player in his mid-20's, Carpenter was presumed to be more or less a finished product, and the majority of prospect lists are geared towards blinding fans with their prospects' upsides, not their median projected outcomes.
After a brief seven-game cup of coffee in 2011, the league's first real introduction to Carpenter came in 2012, when he was forced into duty as St. Louis's semi-regular first baseman, following injuries to Allen Craig and Lance Berkman. He saw further playing time at third base and right field as the season wore on (one of the few weaknesses of the Cardinals' current roster is its propensity for injuries), and did a curious and impressive thing: He essentially hit major league pitching the exact same way he hit minor league pitching -- a .300 batting average, with doubles power and an OPS in the low-to-mid 800's. He only got 340 plate appearances in 2012, however, which is about half a full season, and it was expected there would be some sort of a regression as the league's pitchers adjusted to him. After all, if Matt Carpenter had been seen as a guy who could play third base in the majors while hitting .300 with doubles power at the time of the draft, he certainly wouldn't have gone in the 13th round.
Carpenter could have continued as an extremely valuable super-sub, but Mike Matheny and the Cardinals wanted his bat in the lineup every day, and while Carpenter was blocked at both the infield and outfield corners, a starting job did open up over the offseason: second base. Carpenter had never played second before, but that was hardly a problem; over the past few years, St. Louis has developed a bit of a tradition of finding their second basemen elsewhere on the diamond. Carpenter's predecessor, Skip Schumaker, had been an outfielder before Tony La Russa converted him to second base across 2009 and 2010, and while Schumaker's bat was at best average, that was good enough, once he learned to handle the position defensively. Matheny, who was with the organization at the time as a special adviser, and Jose Oquendo, the Cardinals' third base coach and infield instructor, envisioned the same thing for Carpenter, hopefully with a little more pop, and began moving him over during Spring Training this season.
The experiment has been an unqualified success: Carpenter is hitting .317/.391/.486 in 452 plate appearances, leading all National League second basemen in OPS and third in all of baseball behind New York's Robinson Cano and fellow breakout star Jason Kipnis of the Cleveland Indians. He fields the position with above-average range and good instincts, and unlike some guys who've been moved between second and third -- Brett Lawrie of the Toronto Blue Jays comes to mind -- Carpenter is able to turn double plays like he's been doing it for years. Carpenter has been so successful, in fact, that it might be unfair to classify his transformation this year as an experiment. It might be more accurate to say it was just the last step in a process the St. Louis Cardinals have expertly refined over the past decade or so.
The quintessential Cardinals hitting prospect in General Manager John Mozeliak's organization does three things at the plate: He hits for a high average, he hits doubles, and he hits a relatively modest number of home runs. His defensive polish is not a priority, and in fact being raw and unproven as a defender might be a bonus, as it will scare away teams that overvalue that. Matt Carpenter, David Freese, Allen Craig, Matt Adams, Kolten Wong and top prospect Oscar Taveras all fit this mold (although Taveras could show great home run power, too).
That's an extremely valuable profile for a hitter. It avoids, to an extent, the strikeout mania that's plaguing the majors right now; it also plays up in Busch Stadium, which suppresses home runs but allows more triples, while being fairly doubles-neutral. Two other factors make it a valuable skill-set to target: First, it doesn't require IFA bidding wars, or spending high draft picks on batting practice warriors with obscene raw power (because let's face it, home runs still get all the attention), so those picks and dollars can be spent in other areas, such as pitching. Second, that profile is very, very difficult to identify properly in a high school or college hitter, making it difficult for other front offices to compete for the players who have it.
With the seemingly out-of-nowhere success of the Cardinals' homegrown hitting talent over the past couple years, it's evident that the Cardinals organization has figured out how to scout that kind of a bat. It's possible that the person responsible was former Vice President of Scouting and Player Development Jeff Luhnow, who is now the general manager of the Houston Astros and something of a cause célèbre for the advanced stats crowd, but it's dangerous to give an executive too much credit for the success of his operation.
It's more reasonable to believe that the Cardinals front office has a system in place that works from the scouts on the field up to Mozeliak himself -- an actual process, as opposed to the ongoing punchline in Kansas City, which identifies these hitters and acquires them for a relatively small investment, because nobody else values them like St. Louis does. Oscar Taveras, for instance, signed with the Cardinals for a mere $145,000 in 2008, and he's now arguably the best prospect in baseball. Kolten Wong is the only name in the list above who was drafted in the 1st round, because his hit tool projected so well that no scout could possibly miss it; the rest were drafted anywhere from the 8th round (Craig) to the 23rd (Adams).
As expected from one of the most successful, effective front offices in sports, St. Louis has identified an inefficiency in the market and, using superior information and analysis, is currently exploiting it. I just don't think anyone ever expected that inefficiency to be guys who hit .300 with some pop.