Matt Carpenter is struggling through the worst season of his career. Fresh off signing a contract extension, it looks possible that this is the end of the line for the 33-year-old. That’s the bad news.
What baffles me are all the people - in the comments here and on Twitter - who seem to want to revise the history of the last decade and argue that Matt Carpenter was overrated, or never that good at all. For me, Matt Carpenter was clearly the most productive hitter of the last decade, and that makes him a slam-dunk, first ballot Cardinal Hall of Famer.
I decided to put that idea to the test. What does it mean to be the most productive hitter of the decade? Are the players who fit that bill the all-time greats I imagine them to be? And does Matt Carpenter rank among them?
First off, I’m sure some wisenheimer will say sorting by decade sets arbitrary end-points. On the one hand, of course it does, but this is also fundamentally how we organize the world. You’ll find no end of complications of music from the 80s, or 90s, etc. I don’t think I’ve ever seen a collection of the Top Hits from 1993 to 2002.
As far as this idea of being the most productive hitter, we’ve got to zero in on the stat that gives us exactly what we need. I don’t want any kind of a rate stat. If we look for the highest wOBA or wRC+ from a given decade, we’ll find some short-timers with high peaks - and that’s not what we’re looking for here. Carlos Beltran and Tommy Pham both rank in the Top 5 of this decade in terms of wRC+, but their tenures were so brief they don’t enter the conversation about most productive over the entire decade.
What we want to look at are Weighted Runs Created, or wRC. As Fangraphs describes the stat: “If you’ve looking to measure a batter’s value using a cumulative statistic that credits a player for total production rather than on an at bat by at bat basis, then wRC is extremely useful.”
Who created the most runs, and by extension the most value, with their bat? That’s what we are looking for and that’s what wRC tells us.
But before we get into the leaderboard for the 2010s, let’s test if this stat is actually identifying the most productive hitters from decades past. Here’s the Cardinals leaders in wRC by decade:
If before you saw that table, I asked you to write down who was the most productive hitter by decade, and in general, even just the more elusive “best hitter,” that’s pretty much exactly the list you would have come up with.
(On an unrelated note, it’s really something to see that Albert Pujols’ 2000s was slightly more productive than even the best decade of Stan Musial’s career. Of course, Stan did it longer and never became a Los Angeles Angel of Anaheim.)
So it seems clear that we’ve got a statistic that measures exactly what we want, and when we look back over the decades, everyone who leads in that statistic is an absolute slam-dunk Cardinal Hall of Famer. Now, let’s look at the wRC leaders for the 2010s:
Matt Carpenter is indeed at the top of the list, and his total wRC puts him in-line with what we’ve seen from leaders during past decades. He hasn’t approached 1,000 wRC the way Pujols and Musial did - but those guys are inner circle Baseball Hall of Famers. But Matt Carpenter has put together a decade of offensive production that is on-par with the likes of Ray Lankford, Curt Flood and Ted Simmons. Those guys are all Cardinals Legends and very worthy members of the Cardinals Hall of Fame.
What I’m getting at here is this: Matt Carpenter’s legacy is already set. He is an all-time great Cardinal. Don’t let the fact that he is struggling now, and under contract for two more seasons, make you lose sight of that.
I’m still optimistic that we’ll see some rebound from Carpenter. Even if it doesn't come this year, we could very well next season see the same kind of return-to-form we are currently seeing from Dexter Fowler. Matt Carpenter has been a very good hitter for a decade, and while players like that eventually taper off as all players do, they generally don’t crater like this. But sometimes they do.
Whatever disappointment and frustration we may experience with Matt Carpenter in the final years of his career, let’s not forget his place in the Pantheon of Cardinal Greats.