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Matt Carpenter’s Time in the Sun

A brief consideration of the 2010s as we enter the 2020s, specifically through the lens of one player.

New York Mets v St Louis Cardinals Photo by Michael Reaves/Getty Images

It is spring training, all over the world. Things are happening. These things do not matter, but they are happening just the same. Red jerseys are being worn, players with numbers in the sixties are collecting base hits, narratives are being peddled. This is March, and this is Grapefruit, and this is world without end, forever and ever spring, the next six months stretching out eternally long, far over the horizon, the chill of late October and falling leaves a myth, a story, a legend we don’t really believe in. After all, how can autumn possibly be real when there is spring, and green, and baseball in red jerseys?

Of course, that is only on the screen, where the green and the red and the promise of renewal live. Here in St. Louis it is misting rain and it is foggy and it is cold and there is the threat of snow and slop and I didn’t even get one goddamned morning of waking up to a properly detailed car after spending an entire afternoon over the weekend breaking out the brushes and the bottles and the shop vac and the brand new SiO2-based spray that I cannot stop irritating the people around me with discussion of.

But still, we all know that spring on the screen means spring in the world, soon. Spring training is the seduction, Opening Day the consummation. The thing we see and covet now will arrive soon enough, in its own time. Spring training is the promise that yes, we will see our old friends again, and there will be a Tuesday night in June when something magical will happen, and then the very next night there will be another game, and something magical may not happen, but it always, always could. The baseball may not yet matter, and it may be only a rumour on the screen, but it is still real all the same.

I want to talk about Matt Carpenter.

You may ask why; after all, there is no reason to really talk about Matt Carpenter at this exact moment. Nothing in particular has happened with Carpenter. He has looked pretty good this spring, and his swing has been reworked somewhat. (I have a half-finished post on various swing changes made by Cardinal players this offseason written; I’m trying to decide if it’s actually substantial enough to finish or not.) The swing thing is interesting, largely because so many people seem convinced that the secret to Matt Carpenter being good again is to magically transform himself back into the player he was at 28, and somehow that revolves around him hitting fewer home runs and more balls to the opposite field.

The bad news for those people, I think, is that Matt Carpenter did not get bad because he changed into a different kind of hitter. Matt Carpenter got bad because time only runs in one direction, no matter how much we wish it might be otherwise. Could he rebound? Maybe. I hope so. But trying to mimic the style of 28 year old Matt Carpenter is not going to make Matt Carpenter 28 again.

But anyhow, that’s really neither here nor there. As I said, there really isn’t a reason to talk about Matt Carpenter specifically on this morning, because nothing has really happened. And yet, it is a fact that much of what the Cardinals are hoping to accomplish this year revolves around Matt Carpenter discovering a better version of himself than we saw last season. It doesn’t matter how that happens, or what it looks like exactly; it’s just important that Carpenter be more the productive player he has been in the past, rather than the shadow we saw in 2019.

For better and for worse, this is a big spring training for Matt Carpenter, and his is a name that keeps coming up in conversation. It is also, in all likelihood, one of the last years Carp will be this vital a cog in the machine. Carp at 34 has a reasonable chance of another good year. At 35 or 36? The chances only get slimmer each year, and expectations must be tempered accordingly. The contract extension Carpenter received last year was partly a legacy deal, and partly a bridge to what will hopefully be the Nolan Gorman era. (Gorman has looked very good to me at third base when I’ve seen him this spring, by the way. Just an observation.) One part looking forward, one part looking back. There is a lot of looking forward in these electronic pages; it’s called prospect coverage, after all. So let’s look back.

Matt Carpenter has been, to a degree that is still surprising even now, of the defining Cardinals of the post-Albert Pujols era. It goes without saying that Yadier Molina casts the single longest shadow over this era, and Adam Wainwright has led the pitching staff so long it’s a bit tough to recall what a Cardinal rotation looks like without him. But along with those two, Carpenter stands as the third defining pillar of the post-Pujols Cardinals. Unlike those two, Carpenter’s legacy is...a little complicated.

I think most are aware of Carp’s backstory. He attended TCU, had Tommy John surgery, ended up a fifth-year senior draft pick, was never that highly thought of a prospect. The plate discipline was always intriguing, but he wasn’t a big power guy, he didn’t have a ton of speed, and his defense at third base was always in the adequate to middling range. Maybe you know the details, maybe only the broad strokes, but the point is this: if ever there was a player who made himself into a star through work, through approach, and through smarts on the diamond, that player is Matt Carpenter.

Let’s start with some brass tacks. Carpenter came up to the big leagues for the first time at the end of the 2011 season. He received 19 September plate appearances, struck out and walked in equal measure (21.1% K and BB rates), and collected just a single hit, actually a single double, and ran a .091 BABIP. Not a particularly auspicious debut, but when you’re looking at less than two dozen trips to the plate, it’s probably best to just not pay them any mind at all.

It was in the 2012 season that Carpenter really began to establish himself as the player he would ultimately be. He appeared in 114 games, but collected only 340 plate appearances. He played five positions that year, including both corner outfield spots, and that was enough to keep him from really ever appearing in the outfield again. (Well, so far.) In a little over half a season’s worth of playing time, Carp was worth 1.5 wins, and his 124 wRC+ suggested there could be much better days ahead, if the club could figure out a consistent position for him to play.

Beginning in 2013, Carpenter has been a fixture in the lineup and on the field. That 2013 season proved to be his best, as he played 157 games of very competent second base (okay, a little third in there as well), and posted a career-best 146 wRC+. He had some very good batted-ball fortune that season, but it was his near-1:1 strikeout to walk ratio that really did the heavy lifting. It was in 2014 that we really started to see some of the downside with Carpenter. His power, always modest, evaporated to the tune of just a .103 ISO. His strikeouts and walks were even closer to level, but he lost 40 points off his BABIP and the overall line fell off. He moved to third base and struggled, more than he had at second. All in all, Carpenter went from a 7.2 win MVP runner up in 2013 to a very solid 3.4 win lineup anchor in 2014, and the first questions about Carpenter started to appear here and there.

From 2013 to 2018, Matt Carpenter put together a fantastic six year run. Over that time he was worth 27.3 wins above replacement, and only once appeared in fewer than 145 games. Despite that huge games played total, Carp somehow developed a reputation for being somewhat fragile or weak of constitution, presumably because of the one season in which he struggled with fatigue. (He still played 129 games that year.) Over that six year stretch, Yadier Molina was worth 21.9 wins, but is still largely lionised in fan circles. (Admittedly, going 2013-’18 omits the first of Yadi’s two MVP-caliber seasons.) Twenty seven wins over a six year span is not a Hall of Fame peak, but it’s not so terribly far away from it, either. It’s roughly a 4.5 win per season pace, and most HOF peaks are more like 5.5-6 wins per season. The fact Carpenter got such a late start to his career will be what keeps him from probably even staying on the ballot beyond one year when it’s all said and done, but let it be remembered that peak Matt Carpenter was one of the better players in the game year over year, even if he was rarely appreciated as such.

The question, of course, is why he was rarely appreciated as such. It’s relatively easy to see why he may not have always been as highly thought of as he maybe deserved by the national baseball community; Cardinal players tend to fly a bit under the radar anyway without quite the market of New York, Boston, or L.A., and Matt Carpenter’s particular skillset and way of going about playing the game is, admittedly, tough to appreciate via highlight reel. You don’t queue up a player’s sizzle reel on YouTube and expect to see many eight-pitch walks, and that was really Carp’s stock in trade for a long time.

What is really more interesting to consider is Carpenter’s lack of appreciation amongst the Cardinal fanbase, and his legacy as a team leader for a fairly long period of time. As I said, he was better than Yadier Molina for the period of the mid-2010s, yet Yadi is still lionised, while Carpenter is not only seen as a burden now, but as a symbol of the organisation’s drive toward mediocrity for basically his whole career. No other player in recent Cardinal memory, save maybe Carlos Martinez, will get so many responses of, “overrated,” from the fanbase itself. So why is that?

The answer, as it is with so many other things in life, is timing.

As I said, Matt Carpenter has been one of the defining Cardinals of the post-Pujols era. There are two disadvantages built right in to that statement: one, we all know that the post-Pujols era has not, as of yet, produced any championships. The Cards did make it to three straight League Championship Series, and returned to the World Series in 2013, Carpenter’s brightest, shining season in a Redbird uniform, but they ultimately came up short in each of those endeavours. Second, when you inherit the title of best position player on the team from Albert Pujols, you have a truly, truly unfair and stacked comparison you cannot live up to.

More importantly, Matt Carpenter has had the misfortune to be the best player on the team in an era that has been largely frustrating, not to mention often defined by the best player(s) on the team being a little bit below the standard you want on a championship club. Carpenter actually has a World Series ring, from that 2011 club he was part of only briefly. But from the moment he became a centerpiece of the team in 2013, the club has fallen short at every turn. A disappointing World Series loss became a disappointing NLCS loss became a disappointing 100-win season turned NLDS loss became three straight years out of the playoffs entirely. None of that was Matt Carpenter’s fault, mind you; he was playing at a high level every single season throughout that stretch. But when you’re the best player during an era defined by a need for a better best player, well...

The legacies of Molina and Wainwright, the two other defining figures of this recent era of Cardinal baseball, are much more secure. Molina has presided over two championship-winning pitching staffs, posted back to back near-MVP seasons in 2012 and ‘13, and has bridged the gap from the Tony LaRussa era to the Mike Matheny experiment to this current regime headed by Mike Shildt. He has spanned two complete front office regimes. Yadier Molina is Cardinal baseball to a generation of fans.

Wainwright, meanwhile, will always have Carlos Beltran standing frozen, watching a curveball. That video clip will never not be part of any franchise highlight package, and the fact that was over thirteen years ago now is actually a bonus for Waino, rather than a detraction. He’s still here this many years later, having weathered injuries and age and come out the other side a true baseball survivor. He missed the 2011 championship season, but he was there for ‘06, the team that broke a 20+ year drought, and he has been a huge part of the success the club has had since then. Multiple top three Cy Young finishes don’t hurt, either.

By contract, Carpenter really missed the last title run by one year. He was a huge part of the remarkable 2012-’15 run the club went on following Albert’s departure, but then came the slide toward 2016-’18, and Carpenter was seen as a symbol of those disappointing years, much more than he was those good runs prior to 2015. Somehow those legendary moments battling Clayton Kershaw in the playoffs did not stand up to three ~86 win seasons.

Again, it’s not Carp’s fault that things went awry during those years. He was the best player on teams that really needed a better best player, but that doesn’t change how good he was. The shadow of Oscar Taveras, as always, enters the discussion here; if Taveras had lived up to his enormous promise and taken the mantle from Carp as the club’s best hitter, how much better would those 2016-’18 teams have been? Instead, Carpenter was a three or four win player in a role that demanded a five or six win player. The fact so many things went wrong or failed to play out in the Cards’ favour from October of 2014 through the 2018 season was never directly due to Matt Carpenter’s failings, but he was never so transcendent a player he could lift the club up all on his own, either.

When I think of Matt Carpenter’s legacy, I think of another player whose legacy with the Cardinals has had its ups and downs over the years: Ted Simmons. Long one of the most underrated catchers in baseball history, Simmons finally got the call for the Hall of Fame this year, a couple years after being inducted into the Cardinals’ own Hall of Fame. It took far longer than it should have for both.

Ted Simmons was an amazing player, a level above Matt Carpenter, but similarly had the misfortune to be the best player on the team during a period in which the team was not very good. The 70s were a much worse time for Redbird baseball than the 2010s have been, but it’s a similar situation: the team is disappointing, and the club’s best player isn’t good enough to change that.

Simmons took over as the club’s best player for Lou Brock, who replaced the immortal Stan Musial as the focal point of the team in the mid-60s. Musial walked away in ‘63, Brock arrived in ‘64 and was truly great through about 1969, and Simmons was the star of the team by 1971. There is some overlap in there, and some other great players or at least player-seasons (Joe Torre jumps to mind), but there is a relatively straight line from Musial through to Simmons as the best Cardinal. The difference was that Musial was a) an all-time great, even by Hall of Fame standards, and b) part of those championship clubs of the 40s before settling in to be the best Cardinal of a down decade in the 50s. Brock was part of multiple title contending and winning teams before he became the elder statesman of those rough 1970s clubs. Simmons, meanwhile, came up in ‘68, the last year of 1960s excellence, but didn’t become great until a couple years later, after the team itself began to fall into decline.

It also hurt that Simmons was dealt by Whitey Herzog just before the renaissance of the early ‘80s, and has occasionally been directly credited for helping kickstart that renaissance. In defense of Herzog, there were cultural issues he had to deal with (by which I mean lots and lots of cocaine), and he did seemingly trade Simmons at exactly the right moment, just before his career fell apart. Still, the idea that the Cardinals somehow got good again because they traded away their best player of the previous decade is patently false.

Carpenter has the benefit of being a part of that 2012-’15 run early in his career, but he was also a big part of those clubs that fell short from ‘16 to ‘18. He was the best player on the team, but those teams were always seemingly just a little short of where they needed to be. The Cardinals of the 1970s saw some bad Gussie Busch meddling, a few cheapskate decisions, and lots of bad luck. The Cards of the mid-2010s saw a few similarly cheap moments (though none so blatant as the worst of the Busch years), and a lot of really poor luck, mixed with a few truly bad decisions. Ted Simmons and Matt Carpenter both got tarred with a lot of blame for things that weren’t really their fault.

There is still more to be written in the Matt Carpenter story, of course, but maybe not as much as one might like to think. His late start will keep his numbers from ever being Hall of Fame worthy, and the fact he is 34 in an era where older players seem to be getting worse faster than in the past does not bode well for him putting together a late-career push that will flip the narrative on him. Most of the Matt Carpenter era is past, and while the 2012-’15 run of three LCS appearances and a World Series should say all that needs to be said about Carp’s time in the sun in St. Louis, the bad luck and questionable decisions of the past five years have clouded his legacy. How he is remembered among Cardinals fans will be interesting to see, I think, because of how wide the gap is between the player he has been and how frustrated the fan base seems with him both as a player and a symbol.

Why that gap is so wide, I don’t really understand. But it is. And the decade now closed will have its own legacy, one I will fight for, but one I feel will probably end up without the respect it deserves. And the player who did so much to define the decade? He will also end up without the respect he deserves, I would bet.