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Matt Carpenter proving his worth yet again

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Matt Carpenter is not only the Cardinals' most valuable player, he's in the middle of a four-year stretch that ranks quite well compared to recent team history.

Justin K. Aller/Getty Images

The Cardinals are playing their best baseball of the season and were able to complete the sweep of the Pirates yesterday, even with Matt Carpenter missing his second straight game with inflammation in the middle finger on his right hand. It was a precautionary measure and he's supposed to be back in the lineup against Houston on Tuesday, which was comforting to hear as it's hard to envision the Cardinals going on a serious run without Carpenter being an integral part.

Backing up to the start of the series, Friday night's 9-3 final score victory over the Pirates was a welcome surprise to anyone who turned off the game before the 8th inning, which would have been understandable since up until then it seemed the universe decided long ago this would be a game the Cardinals would not win, circumstances be damned. Pirates ace Gerrit Cole lasted only two scoreless innings before exiting with an unidentifiable injury (turned out to be right tricep tightness). AJ Schugel, who heading into Friday had a 4.74 ERA in 24.2 innings, replaced him and promptly tossed four more shutout innings. In the bottom of the 4th, Pirates catcher Francisco Cervelli left mid-at-bat with another unidentifiable injury (this one turned out to be a broken left hand), and was replaced by career backup Chris Stewart.

A pitcher who wasn't supposed to be in the game was tossing to a catcher who wasn't supposed to be in the game and the Cardinals bats showed no hints of protest. That is until the top of the 8th when Carpenter roped a ball down the right field line that stayed in the air just long enough for the camera to show it sneaking past the inside of the right field foul pole. Three runs scored and the entire game changed. Things got really fun in the top of the 12th when Adam Wainwright cleared the bases with a two-out double - quite possibly the highlight of the year thus far for the Cardinals - and the late-forming route was on.

The Cardinals never get to that point without Carpenter, the Cardinals' most reliable hitter in the after-Pujols era. Since his breakout season in 2013, he's hit .288/.380/.464 with a 136 wRC+ and has been worth 18.4 wins according to fWAR - eight more wins than the next closest Cardinal (Yadier Molina - 10.4). His WAR total ranks third in the National League during this span behind only Andrew McCutchen and Paul Goldschmidt.

Offensively, the Cardinals have had a lot of nice surprises in 2016 but Carpenter's hitting is the one to be depended on. As has been noted on this website, there have been several iterations of Matt Carpenter and the 2016 version might be the best one yet. His on-base percentage (.399), slugging (.566) and wRC+ (156) are career highs and he's been worth a team-leading 2.4 fWAR to date. Both Steamer and ZiPS see his numbers regressing ever so slightly and being worth a total of 5.0 wins, which would bring him to a total of 21.1 since 2013.

Jay Jaffe created the JAWS system as a way to gauge a player's Hall of Fame credentials by measuring their seven-year peak. I borrowed a bit from that idea because I was curious where Carpenter's current four year stretch would rank in the last 50 years of Cardinals baseball. Stipulating that Carpenter will finish the 2016 season with the slightly more conservative ZiPS/Steamer WAR totals, here, via FanGraphs Leaderboard, are the 20 best four-year stretches for any Cardinal since 1966 (this is one per player - you could take any four year stretch from Albert Pujols's time with the Cardinals and he'd be at the top of this list):

Rank

Player

Years

fWAR

1

Albert Pujols

2003-2006

33.1

2

Jim Edmonds

2001-2004

27.5

3

Ozzie Smith

1986-1989

23.7

4

Keith Hernandez

1979-1982

23.1

5

Scott Rolen

2003-2006

21.8

6

Ray Lankford

1995-1998

21.6

7

Mark McGwire

1997-2000

21.3

8

Matt Carpenter

2013-2016

21.1

9

Ted Simmons

1975-1978

21.1

10

Joe Torre

1969-1972

19.6

11

Matt Holliday

2010-2013

19.1

12

Yadier Molina

2010-2013

18.1

13

Lou Brock

1965-1968

17.7

14

Brian Jordan

1995-1998

17.4

15

Garry Templeton

1977-1980

14.3

16

Willie McGee

1983-1986

14.1

17

Edgar Renteria

2001-2004

14.1

18

Curt Flood

1966-1969

13.9

19

JD Drew

2000-2003

13.9

20

Tim McCarver

1966-1969

13.2

(A few stray thoughts: I'm not subscribing to the idea that a player's WAR totals are higher so therefore he was unequivocally more valuable - this is more just a fun exercise - but here's another reminder that Ray Lankford (especially Lankford) and Scott Rolen never get proper due. Lankford was on mostly average teams and his best season happened to be in 1998 when all the attention was rightfully on Mark McGwire. And Rolen spent his entire Cardinals career in the shadow of a giant. He's fifth on this list even though he only saw 223 plate appearances in 2005.)

Four years doesn't tell as good as story as JAWS, but since 2013 Carpenter's value has not only been imperative to the Cardinals' divisional success, he stands near the top in the NL and he's had one of the better four-year stretches in recent team history. Various Cardinals have strung together a few weeks of elite hitting in 2016, all of it has been welcoming, but as we get into the summer months of the season, Carpenter, to the surprise of no one, is again emerging as the most valuable player on the team.