Matt Carpenter finds place among baseball's top third basemen

The top 10 active major league players at each position were recently named by ESPN.com, and, as always, there were surprise omissions and inclusions, as well as a number of players that seemed a little too high on some lists and others a little too low. Few rankings were more curious than the Cardinals' Matt Carpenter ranking 10th among third basemen, which sounds much too low.

But it also speaks to -- and this is rare -- the surplus of talent at the position.

There are fewer third basemen in the Hall of Fame than any other position in part because of the degree of difficulty of the position. To play it well requires so many attributes and skills -- power, great hands and nimble feet, a strong arm and an inordinate amount of courage: the best third basemen of all time could play the piano, and move it, too. The third baseman on the fictional baseball team in the famous Abbott and Costello routine is named I Don't Know, which is appropriate given that so many teams over the years have had issues finding a competent third baseman for more than a few years. It is cyclical, of course, but for now, the position is pretty well stocked. And it's getting better. The Cubs' Kris Bryant is only a week into what could be a great major league career, and the Dodgers' top prospect, shortstop Corey Seager, might up end up as a tremendous third baseman.

"But Matt Carpenter is better than the 10th-best third baseman," Cardinals pitcher Adam Wainwright said. "It's a Midwest thing. It's a great place to play, but the exposure isn't the same there. The media isn't crazy there. Matt Carpenter is unknown, but he is a great player."

He almost wasn't. In 2006, when Carpenter was a junior at TCU, he was overweight, out of shape and had just undergone Tommy John surgery. Carpenter said TCU coach Jim Schlossnagle told him after the surgery: "Man, this is your opportunity. It's important to dedicate yourself to the game. A player's career only lasts so long. You're running out of time."

So, Carpenter said: "I took the bull by the horns. I got in great shape. Right now, I weigh 205 with 8 percent body fat. Then, I was 240 without 20 percent body fat. It's wasn't like, 'He's a fat guy,' but my body was sloppy. So I got healthy, lost 40 or 50 pounds, came back as a redshirt junior and started out 2-for-40. It was the worst stretch of baseball in my life. I was devastated. But it was the best thing that has ever happened to me because it made me mentally stronger. I got hot, I hit two homers in the [college baseball] regionals. But, I wasn't drafted after my junior year. I was a 22-, 23-year-old college player that had no discussions with any teams about playing professionally. I was thinking I might play baseball only one more year, but I had a great senior season, and the Cardinals called."

The Cardinals drafted Carpenter in the 13th round in 2009, and he methodically moved through the system. In 2013, he batted .318, led the major leagues in hits (199) and doubles (55), and finished fourth in the National League MVP voting. But last season, he dropped to .272 with 33 doubles, yet still took tremendous at-bats against left-hander Clayton Kershaw in the playoffs.

"He was mad the whole year," Wainwright said. "Most guys would have loved to have the season he had, he made the All-Star team, but he was angry about the way that he played."

Carpenter said, "Not once last year did I say, 'This is it. I'm swinging the bat really well.'"

So he changed his approach at the plate. No one has taken more pitches (just over 4,000) since the start of the 2013 season than Carpenter. Last year, he saw 4.37 pitches per at-bat, the third most in the game. But this year, he is seeing 3.94 per at-bat, 64th in the game.

"In 2013, I was a patient hitter, but I was a hitter first," he said. "Last year, I was patient hitter, but I was patient first. I was more passive at the plate. I still feel comfortable hitting with two strikes, or hitting behind in the count, but if I see a pitch over the plate that I can hit earlier in the count, I'm going to swing at it. I feel really good at the plate now."

Through Friday, Carpenter was hitting .387 with three homers and 11 RBIs. He is, by a fairly wide margin, the best player on the Cardinals.

And yet, in the ESPN.com rankings, he was the 10th-best third baseman in the game. Again, that appears low, but the talent at the position is deeper than it has been in many years. Nos. 1-10 are Adrian Beltre, Josh Donaldson, Anthony Rendon, Evan Longoria, Kyle Seager, Manny Machado, Pablo Sandoval, Nolan Arenado, David Wright and Carpenter.

Beltre is perhaps a future Hall of Famer. Donaldson finished fourth in the AL MVP balloting in 2013 and eighth last year. Rendon finished fifth in the NL MVP last year. Longoria has been a middle-of-the-order hitter for the Rays pretty much since the day he arrived in the big leagues in 2008. Seager had a breakthrough season last year with 25 homers and 96 RBIs and he made the All-Star team and won a Gold Glove. Machado is a spectacular defensive player and finished ninth in the AL MVP balloting in 2012, his first full season in the major leagues. Sandoval twice has been a World Series hero, one of the toughest outs in October. Arenado is a Gold Glover. Wright holds all sorts of career records for the Mets.

It is a stout group, no doubt, but if Carpenter continues to swing the bat as he is now, and continues to swing as often as he does now, he will move up that list of third basemen by several notches. And he won't be angry at himself all the time.