I’m not a big fan of player comps. Since we have few objective measures of a player’s tools, the comparisons are highly subjective. There’s also an element of memory involved that I’m skeptical of. A lot of the comparisons made are to players who haven’t played in years — if you ask two people what that players career looked like, you’d probably get two different answers. Humans have a tendency to warp memories to a narrative.
Of course, there’s also the dreaded HoF comparison where a player is compared to the elite outliers of a huge dataset of players. It’s nonsensical to draw straight lines between a new sample/player and a known outlier/Hall-of-Famer but those comparisons happen all the time.
If two players have a similar body type or swing and they they achieve vastly different results with those building blocks, should we care that they looked the same or had the same swing plane? Fundamentally, this is the argument for a player projection system built on statistical comparisons (ZiPS, PECOTA, etc) and that’s a model that I’d rather more adhere to. Matt Carpenter continues to be an interesting and unusual player to me. He doesn’t hit for much power, he walks a ton and hits for a good average. Can we find anyone in the last decade that looks like that statistically?
The answer is that it’s hard and it largely depends on just how high of a walk rate you think Carpenter can achieve. If you filter out at 15% walk rate, I think Daric Barton’s 2010 season is a great comparison. That year, Barton hit for an ISO of .131 including 10 HRs. He had a good average and ended the year with a .273/.393/.405 season over 686 PAs. His bat was worth nearly two and a half wins over the average offensive player.
The low power output combined with the high walk rate is very unusual though. Barton’s career line shows a player that struggles to hit for average (career BA .252) and that’s not a weakness that Matt Carpenter has shown to date with a 3 year batting average of .298 in the minors. If you think that Carpenter could hit for more power, maybe you start to look at Nick Johnson with career numbers of 15.6% walk rate, .270 average and a .170 ISO.
Those are both tall player comps for Carpenter namely because I’m sampling the elite walk rates of the last decade. From 2000 to 2009, there were nine players who average walk rates over 15% and Bobby Abreu hit for the least power of that group: a .195 ISO.
You can find a collection of players in the last decade with a lower walk rate threshold who also are low power output guys: Kosuke Fukudome, Matt Lawton and Russell Martin. All of them walked between 11-15% of the time and had ISOs under .150. They all also struggle in the same area – batting average – with only Russell Martin hitting for a decent batting average of .276.
I like the Daric Barton comparison. A player with exceptional on base skills who doesn’t necessarily have the power output you normally associate with first base and who fares well defensively at his position. (Obviously, there’s a gap between an average 3B and an average 1B defensively.) There’s one other player from the 2000s that I also like as a comparison. He had a peak that is probably too much to expect from Carpenter but John Olerud just feels like a good match to me.
An exceptional fielder at first, Olerud probably could have held his own at third base (though he was always known as exceptional at picking balls out of the dirt at first). For his 17-year career, Olerud hit 255 homeruns or 15 a year with a .152 ISO. That’s the furthest stretch of the comp for me as I just don’t see Carpenter’s stroke delivering that much power, especially not that many HRs. Olerud hit for a .295 career average and had a .398 on base percentage.
The comparison to Olerud is certainly an optimistic one. He was an excellent player (elite in some seasons) and a borderline hall of famer. (Didn’t I rail against those comparisons in my introduction?) My expectations are not that Carpenter would have an Olerud level career but more that their skillsets are similar and could deliver a similar though lesser level of offensive output. Daric Barton is a more recent comparison that makes some sense as well. It’s important to remember that comparables are rarely the mean outcome of a player and closer to what they could be.