Padres Add Matt Carpenter in Effort to Build a Winner

Matt Carpenter
Brad Penner-USA TODAY Sports

A day after landing Seth Lugo, the Padres added another versatile player to the fold in Matt Carpenter. The 37-year-old lefty swinger, who rescued his career from oblivion with the Yankees, will serve as something of a utilityman according to’s A.J. Cassavell, potentially picking up playing time at designated hitter, first base, and both outfield corners, with the possibility of backing up second base and third base as well.

In a season bookended by a stint with the Rangers’ Triple-A Round Rock affiliate and a fractured left foot, Carpenter hit an astounding .305/.412/.727 with 15 homers in just 154 plate appearances. His 217 wRC+ was the highest of any player who received at least 20 PA in 2022, 10 points higher than teammate Aaron Judge. It was also the highest wRC+ of any player with at least 150 PA since 2005, a cutoff I chose in order to avoid peak Barry Bonds, who topped the mark three times from 2001 to ’04:

Highest wRC+ Since 2005 (Minimum 150 PA)
Rk Player Team Season PA HR AVG OBP SLG wRC+
1 Matt Carpenter NYY 2022 154 15 .305 .412 .727 217
2 Aaron Judge NYY 2022 696 62 .311 .425 .686 207
3 Juan Soto WSN 2020 196 13 .351 .490 .695 201
4 Bryce Harper WSN 2015 654 42 .330 .460 .649 197
5 Miguel Cabrera DET 2013 652 44 .348 .442 .636 193
6 Hanley Ramirez LAD 2013 336 20 .345 .402 .638 191
7T Mike Trout LAA 2018 608 39 .312 .460 .628 188
Luke Voit STL/NYY 2018 161 15 .322 .398 .671 188
9 Freddie Freeman ATL 2020 262 13 .341 .462 .640 186
10T Mookie Betts BOS 2018 614 32 .346 .438 .640 185
Yordan Alvarez HOU 2022 561 37 .306 .406 .613 185

That’s mixing a few small-sample seasons in with some MVP-winning ones (Betts, Cabrera, and Harper in addition to Judge), with Freeman in both camps, but that’s kind of the point. What Carpenter did in his small slice of playing time was otherworldly and unsustainable. That it even happened was almost unimaginable given that at this time last year, it wasn’t clear whether he’d ever occupy a major league roster again.

Carpenter was cut free by the Cardinals after hitting a combined .176/.313/.291 (76 wRC+) with 0.2 WAR in 180 games and 418 PA in 2020–21. The team declined his $18.5 million option for 2022, instead paying him a $2 million buyout and ending his 13-year run in the organization that drafted him out of Texas Christian University in the 13th round in 2009. During his 11 seasons in St. Louis, he made three All-Star teams, received MVP votes in three seasons, and outproduced every Cardinals position player this side of Yadier Molina, helping the team to four NL Central titles, six playoff appearances, and the 2013 NL pennant. But he hadn’t hit at even a league-average clip since 2018, making his two-year, $39 million deal a minor disaster, and so it made no sense to push to salvage the deal via its third year.

After his option was declined, Carpenter reached out to longtime NL Central rival Joey Votto for advice on how to reverse his mid-30s decline, as the Cincinnati first baseman had done. In a conversation that Carpenter recalled lasting 3 1/2 hours, Votto gave him a combination pep talk and roadmap to fixing his swing, one that centered around a data-driven approach. While working with hitting gurus Tim Laker and Craig Wallenbrock as well as former teammate Matt Holliday over the winter, Carpenter switched to a new bat and underwent a full mechanical overhaul to improve his swing path and refine his body movement.

As Holliday told the New York Post’s Dan Martin in June:

“Just watching on TV, his front hip was leaving early, which was pulling him out and around even inside pitches… He was missing under pitches that were middle-away and then balls that were in, he was hooking a little too much. As a friend and someone who likes hitting, I told him, ‘This is what I see’ and we talked about hitting and why his average on balls out over the plate had gone down and why he was getting under balls and striking out more than he ever had.

“After a few days, there was a different sound off the bat and the ball was traveling much better… He was getting carry on the ball with different spin and it was more true.”

Once the lockout ended, Carpenter signed a minor league deal with the Rangers, one that guaranteed him a salary of $2 million in the majors. After missing the cut for Opening Day, he accepted an assignment to Round Rock, where he hit .275/.379/.613 with six homers in 95 PA, but the team didn’t see fit to call him up. By mutual decision, he was released by the Rangers on May 19, then signed with the Yankees a week later, after they placed Giancarlo Stanton on the injured list with a right calf strain. Carpenter debuted that day, homered off the Rays’ Jeffrey Springs the next day, and just kept slugging; his first three hits, and eight of his first 12, were homers. Despite playing only sporadically during the periods when Stanton was healthy, he continued to wield an incredibly potent bat, making 16 starts at DH, 11 in right field, three apiece in left field and at first base, and two at third base; he also pinch-hit 12 times.

The storybook comeback came crashing to a halt when Carpenter fouled a Logan Gilbert pitch off the top of his left foot on August 8. He completed the plate appearance but didn’t play again before the end of the regular season. While the Yankees included him on their postseason roster, his 1-for-12 showing with nine strikeouts amply illustrated that he needed more time to get his rhythm back.

I’ll get back to the performance, but first, the contract. Carpenter is guaranteed $12 million in 2023–24, with incentives that can take the deal to $21 million. Via The Athletic’s Ken Rosenthal, he’ll receive a $3 million signing bonus, a $3.5 million salary for 2023, and a $5.5 million player option for ’24. For both seasons, he gets an additional $500,000 for reaching plate appearance thresholds of 300, 350, 400, 450, 500, and 550; what’s more, each of those thresholds that he reaches in 2023 also increases his 2024 base salary by another $500,000.

Thus, if Carpenter makes 400 PA in 2023, he’ll earn $8 million and then have a $7 million player option for ’24. If he has a 550-PA season, he’ll make $9.5 millon in 2023, and if he picks up his $8.5 million option and then reaches 550 PA again, he’ll earn a total of $11.5 million in ’24, reaching the $21 million maximum for the package. Even if he doesn’t max out, that’s a pretty impressive payday under the circumstances.

Carpenter’s arrival adds yet another moving part to a San Diego roster that was upended by the Xander Bogaerts signing earlier this month. That pushed Ha-Seong Kim from shortstop to second base and Jake Cronenworth from second to first, and more or less ensured that Fernando Tatis Jr. primarily plays the outfield. While Carpenter appears likely to see the bulk of his time as the team’s DH, he could spot at first against some righthanders, which would return the lefty-swinging Cronenworth to the keystone and put the righty-swinging Kim on the bench. Carpenter doesn’t seem like much of a threat to take significant playing time away from Tatis (whose PED suspension still has 20 games to go) or Soto in the outfield corners, but he could fill in while one of them DHs or gets a day off.

As to how productive he can be in San Diego, it’s worth considering how Carpenter did what he did in New York. He hit the ball pretty hard in general (13.7% barrel rate, 42.1% hard-hit rate, 89.8 mph average exit velocity), but the key was putting it in the air with great frequency while playing half of his games in a ballpark that specifically rewards lefthanders for doing so. Among hitters with at least 150 PA, his 60% pull rate led the majors, and his 53.3% fly ball rate was third. All 15 homers — nine in Yankee Stadium, six on the road — came via pulled fly balls:

Carpenter hit just 25 pulled fly balls, but his 761 wRC+ on them ranked third in the majors, behind only Judge’s 902 (including 31 homers on 48 such balls) and Nathaniel Lowe’s 883 (17 homers on 26 such balls). Both of those guys had over 400 batted ball events in 2022, so their pulled flies represented a much smaller fraction (11.9% for Judge, 5.8% for Lowe) than for Carpenter (26.3%).

That strategy might not work as well in San Diego. Where Yankee Stadium is 314 feet down the right field line and 385 to right-center, Petco Park is 322 feet down the right field line and 391 to right-center. And that’s before considering the park’s notorious marine layer, which brings in cool, moist air and suppresses home runs — something not accounted for in Statcast’s expected home runs stat, which shows Carpenter matching his season total of 15, 14 of which would have gone out in San Diego based on distance and angle. By our park factors, which use five years of data, Yankee Stadium had a home run factor of 109 for lefties, and Petco
95; by those of Statcast, which are based upon three years of data, the gap is even wider, 118 to 96.

ZiPS isn’t tremendously optimistic about Carpenter’s production, which shouldn’t be a surprise given the sample sizes feeding it; after all, he preceded those 154 PA of videogame numbers with 910 that produced just an 87 wRC+:

ZiPS Projection – Matt Carpenter
2023 .213 .329 .402 249 35 53 12 1 11 37 38 83 2 106 -1 0.9
2024 .207 .321 .383 227 30 47 11 1 9 31 34 79 1 99 -1 0.6

Via Dan Szymborski, ZiPS values that production at $8.2 million on a two-year deal, though the low playing time is obviously a factor; if Carpenter reaches the higher percentiles of his 2023 projection, he’ll play more frequently. At a baseline of 400 PA, ZiPS projects a contract worth $12.8 million over two years, which is more in the ballpark of his deal, though if he’s good enough in 2023, he could opt to pursue something even more lucrative.

The Padres are banking that the things Carpenter did to overhaul his swing will make it more likely he can remain a productive hitter, if not a guy who homers at a Bonds-like rate. His addition pushes the team’s payroll to $266.7 million for Competitive Balance Tax purposes, about $6.3 million short of the third tier of penalties. Padres ownership has shown that it’s not too concerned about such matters at the moment, particularly if such moves give the team a better chance to win at a time when the Dodgers have suddenly gotten cost-conscious, to say nothing of how the Giants must be reeling from the shock of the Carlos Correa switcheroo. There’s no guarantee Carpenter can remain a big bat, but at the very least, the NL West’s deepest roster has gotten deeper.

Brooklyn-based Jay Jaffe is a senior writer for FanGraphs, the author of The Cooperstown Casebook (Thomas Dunne Books, 2017) and the creator of the JAWS (Jaffe WAR Score) metric for Hall of Fame analysis. He founded the Futility Infielder website (2001), was a columnist for Baseball Prospectus (2005-2012) and a contributing writer for Sports Illustrated (2012-2018). He has been a recurring guest on MLB Network and a member of the BBWAA since 2011, and a Hall of Fame voter since 2021. Follow him on Twitter @jay_jaffe... and BlueSky

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1 year ago

Is it just me, or has the fangraphs website been borderline unusable on desktop chrome for the last several months? Terribly slow loading, page freezes and site/browser crashes. No ill-intent meant here but if it’s a wider issue than me and my devices I thought it may be helpful to raise. Mobile works OK, fwiw

1 year ago
Reply to  zjgifford

I have not had issues using Chrome on a desktop.

1 year ago
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1 year ago
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zero issues here

1 year ago
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Same issues. Very slow on Chrome.