Chris Carter, American League MVP Candidate in 2014 - Ezra Shaw
Everything You Ever Wanted To Know About Chris Carter But Were Afraid To Ask, also known as An Inquiry into the Past, Present, and Future of Houston Astros Slugger Chris Carter; John Sickels Goes Insane
I've had several requests for a look at new Houston Astros slugger Vernon Christopher Carter, who is no longer a rookie or prospect of course but is nonetheless intriguing.
I decided to do this Retrospective a little differently than most, looking back at all the reports about Carter that I've written over the last six years and putting them here for you to see, rather than just summarizing them. The purpose here is for you to see how my analysis of Carter changed over the years.
After this I'll take a look at where I think he currently stands and make a totally insane prediction.
Carter began his career in 2005 as a third baseman in the Appalachian League, and that is where our story begins.
2006 Chris Carter Comment after hitting .283/.350/.485 in 65 games in the Appy League:
The White Sox drafted Chris Carter in the 15th round last June, out of high school in Las Vegas. He had an impressive power campaign in the Appalachian League, slugging10 homers and posting a sound +14 percent OPS. There are problems, however. Carter has problems with breaking balls, and this showed up in a shaky BB/K/AB ratio...lots of strikeouts with a below average walk rate. He saw enough fastballs to knock 10 homers and keep his batting average up, but he will need to make some adjustments at higher levels. On defense, he has a strong arm and decent range, but needs more experience. He may move to first base eventually. There is some promise in his bat, but we need to see more. Grade C.
2007 Comment after hitting .299/.398/.570 in 69 games in Pioneer League, .130/.231/.261 in 13 games in Sally League:
Drafted in the 15th round out of Las Vegas in '05, this Carter has enjoyed two strong power-hitting campaigns in short-season ball, but he scuffled in a brief full-season trial last spring. He has outstanding raw power and will kill fastballs, but he swings and misses a lot. He improved his strike zone judgment last year and did a better job working counts, raising his walk rate, but the strikeout rate remains high. This leads to doubts about his ability to hit for average at higher levels. His defense is very rough, but it's the bat that's interesting. Carter could develop in any number of directions. I like his power,but I want to see how he handles 500 at-bats against full-season pitching before I go higher than Grade C+.
2008 comment after .291/.383/.522 with 25 homers in Sally League:
On December 3rd, Arizona acquired Chris Carter from the White Sox in exchange for Carlos Quentin. Two weeks later, Carter was sent to Oakland as part of the prospect package in the Dan Haren deal. I really like Carter; he is one of my favorite sluggers in the low minors. He's made rapid improvement with his plate discipline the last two years, also reducing his strikeout rate while maintaining his home run production. His +23 percent OPS in the Sally League was quite strong. Carter's glove is mediocre and he lacks speed, but the power should carry him forward. I expect a big breakout in 2008. Grade B+
2009 comment after .259/.361/.569 with 39 homers in the California League:
Chris Carter offers power...unlimited power!! Bwwwahahahaha!!! Uh, anyway, Carter's ability to hit homers ranks with anyone in the minor leagues. He's also patient and very willing to take his walks, his skills resulting in a +24 percent OPS. However, his weaknesses are as significant as his strengths. He strikes out a lot, usually on breaking balls, and it's possible his batting average could get unacceptably low at higher levels. Personally I'm not overly worried about that; he's shown the ability to adapt in the past, and even if he hits .240, he'll draw enough walks and hit enough homers to be productive. I'm more concerned about his defense. He has a strong arm and actually moves around pretty well for a big guy, but his glovework is just horrible. He's been tried at third base, with dismal results, and he's been below average at first base, too. He's played some outfield, but shows atrocious range out there. He's likely a born DH, and of course that will dramatically increase the pressure on his bat. Carter is just 22, but has "Old Player" skills that don't always age well: his peak may be at age 24-25, not at the normal 27-28 range. How he adapts to Double-A will tell us a lot. Grade B. This is one notch lower than the B+ I gave him last year, because I'm concerned about where he's going to fit on the field.
2010 comment after .337/.435/.576 for Double-A Midland in Texas League:
The questions for Chris Carter entering 2009: how would he adapt to Double-A pitching? Would his strikeouts get out of control? Where would he fit defensively? These questions were enough to keep him at a Grade B rating entering the season, but for the most part the answers we got were very positive. Carter adapted very well to the Texas League, demonstrating pure hitting skills without a serious reduction in power. He was less pull-conscious than in the past, more willing to smack stuff the opposite way, showing power to all fields. He showed the ability and willingness to cut back his swing when necessary, reducing his strikeout rate and easing concerns that his swing was too long.
He led the Texas League in OPS, slugging, and OBP, winning MVP honors and universal praise as the most dangerous hitter in the league. He then proceeded to hit four homers in 13 Triple-A games, although his plate discipline took a dive in the PCL and some additional experience at that level seems like a good idea. Despite that last hiccup, I have no doubts about the bat at this point. His defense at first base is never going to be more than mediocre, but he's made some progress there and shouldn't be confined to just a DH role. He even spent some time in the outfield, and if you watch him play you can see that he's not a bad athlete at all. He has some mobility and can even steal a base if the defense gets lazy. Oakland GM Billy Beane told me that it would help them a lot of Carter can handle the outfield, but that they are in love with his bat and will find a way to get it in the lineup one way or another eventually. He could use 400 at-bats in Triple-A, but all-in-all Carter has what it takes to be a tremendous offensive force. Grade A-.
2011 comment after .274/.366/.530 in Triple-A, but .186/.256/.329 in the majors
I gave Chris Carter an aggressive Grade A- in the 2010 book because I bought into his ability to be more than a low-batting-average slugger. I'd seen him make good adjustments in games for Double-A Midland, not trying to pull everything for power and taking pitches to all fields. I didn't think he'd hit .337 at higher levels, but I thought he had a chance to be a more complete hitter than people gave him credit for. Carter continued to show immense power in Triple-A last year, but he seemed to fall back into being too pull-conscious at times, and he had problems laying off breaking pitches, though he continued to draw walks. His major league career got off to an awful start with a 0-for-33 streak, but he stayed afloat mentally and got hot after that, going 13-for-37 (.351) with a .626 SLG. No, he won't hit .351 or .337 in a full major league season, but I don't think he's condemned to hitting .220, either. Carter's defense at first base is below average. He lacks range in the outfield, but does have a decent throwing arm. He may end up as a DH down the line, but I remained enamored enough with the power in his bat to keep him rated as a strong Grade B prospect. Expect him to be streaky, but productive overall.
2012 comment after .279/.367/.486 in Triple-A, but .136/.174/.136 in the majors:
This is getting repetitive. Chris Carter has a whole bunch of power. In the minors he's drawn quite a few walks, but during his major league trials he's struggled severely with contact, being unable (so far) to adjust to breaking stuff from pitchers who know what they are doing. It is frustrating. I have seen him show some solid hitting skills in the minors. . .laying off junk pitches, working counts, even shortening his swing a bit and going the opposite way. . .but it just hasn't carried over to the majors, and even in Triple-A he's had some adjustment issues. He doesn't have much defensive value, so he either mashes or he doesn't play. Carter still has just 124 plate appearances in the majors split over two seasons, and given his overall track record I think he deserves more chances. If he makes it, it will be as a low-batting average, moderate OBP, high SLG power source, a guy who can hit .250 with some walks and 20+ homers a year. Grade C+.
If you're still reading, here is the payoff.
You know Carter hit .239/.350/.514 last year in 67 games for Oakland, with 39 walks and 83 strikeouts in 260 plate appearances. Low batting average, yes, but his OPS+ came out to 137 due to all the power. His wRC+ was identical to the OPS at 137, however his defensive limitations resulted in a 0.8 overall WAR.
So, what to make of Carter? He now has a major league career line of .214/.310/.425 in 384 plate appearances, with 48 walks and 124 strikeouts. Makes a mockery of that Grade A- I gave him a few years back.
There's an old saying: if you show a skill once, you own it. As I mentioned in the comments I wrote over the years, I've seen Carter show reasonable pure hitting skills in person, not just the exasperatingly streaky home run power we've seen so far, but a genuine feel for hitting. He isn't consistent about it, but despite everything that's happened over the last few years, I still don't think he's condemned to be a .214 hitter forever.
Carter turned 26 in December, entering his prime offensive seasons. He's moving from a difficult power park into a much friendlier environment at Minute Maid. Projecting improvement is easy and logical, but I want to go beyond that.
I have nothing super-sabermetric to back this opinion up, but I believe (and it is a belief, an opinion, just to be clear) Chris Carter is going to have a genuinely excellent season in 2013 or (more probably) 2014 that will not be a complete result of park effects, but will reflect real talent on his part. I think he'll cut back on the strikeouts one year and really go nuts and hit .302/.397/.575 or something, a season everyone will marvel at and that he won't repeat, but which will be a lot of fun to watch while it lasts and will be viewed as a classic historical example of the "age 27/28 peak" for years to come.
Insane? Probably. Maybe I should check my meds. But hey, sometimes you just have to roll the dice and say something bold, like career .214 hitter Chris Carter will make an All-Star Team and be an MVP candidate within the next two years.