As someone who feels like the only Matt Carpenter fan left, I both feel obligated to write this and am seriously dreading the snark my title will bring. Have no fear, everyone else: Matt Carpenter is guaranteed to not have his option vest for next year. That was already true by the way. But it’s really true now. Best case scenario for Carpenter, the NL institutes the designated hitter before the season, and he’s the left-handed side of a platoon.
So before I get started on Matt Carpenter’s role on the 2021 team, allow me to make a sort of quasi-defense of any playing time he’ll receive. Because while he’s well past his prime, it’s not that hard to imagine he brings something to the table, something the Cardinals otherwise don’t have. And that is the ability or the theoretical ability to hit right-handed pitching.
Yeah you know all those articles that have been written about the need for an outfielder who can hit right-handed pitching? Well, that need extended to the St. Louis bench as well. The Cardinals seemingly only have right-handed hitters who can be expected to be not particularly great against right-handed pitching. The list is long: Lane Thomas, Austin Dean, Edmundo Sosa, and whoever ends up sitting between Dexter Fowler, Harrison Bader, and Tyler O’Neill.
Well actually let me make a quick digression here. I have no idea what’s going on with Fowler. For most of his career, and in fact just about every season of his career before he came to the Cardinals, Fowler was a better hitter against LHP. Every season he’s been a Cardinal, he’s been better against RHP. Do you know why this is absurd? Because despite four straight seasons now with a better line against RHP, his better split for his career is still easily against LHP, with a 114 wRC+ to 105.
Switch hitters are a much more stable group than other hitters. The Book says you need to regress lefty platoon skills against 1,000 PAs against LHP of league average splits and righties against 2,200 PAs against LHP of league average splits. On the other hand, The Book says we have a pretty good idea of a switch hitter’s skill after just 600 PAs. He has had only 337 PAs against LHP as a Cardinal, so weirdly, statistically speaking, the last four years have been a weird fluke and theoretically, you would expect him to be better against LHP still. I don’t know, I’ve never heard of anything like what Fowler has done here, but I’ve also never paid specific attention to splits year-to-year.
Back on topic, Matt Carpenter seems to be, even in his diminished state, the best option against RHP on the bench. This is not a controversial statement only because the bar is incredibly low. Every player I’ve named has a below average hitting projection and is worse against RHP. I could see an argument for Fowler, but his combined ZiPS/Steamer projection is an 89 wRC+, so even if he actually is better against RHP, it’s still definitely well below average.
The reason I didn’t go into any detail about the specific numbers is because Matt Carpenter still has an above average hitting projection specifically against RHP. The way I try to estimate splits in a given season is, I take the disparity in their career and then apply it to their new projection. So Carpenter has a career 133 wRC+ against RHP in comparison to a 111 wRC+ against LHP. His career wRC+ is 127. His new projection is a 97 wRC+, so you can expect him to hit 103 wRC+ against RHP and 81 wRC+ against LHP.
A 103 wRC+ line with Matt Carpenter’s defensive inflexibility is not a valuable player (though easily above replacement level), and even a 103 wRC+ purely as a pinch-hitter is not all that valuable, but there’s not no value either. Plus, there’s always the tiny chance he has a little more left than we expect and he bashes like 15 HRs in 250 PAs or whatever. While the other bench players undeniably have more upside as players, I think Carpenter has more upside purely offensively speaking.
So Carpenter has no identifiable role and is getting paid $18 million to sit on his ass. That is if nobody gets hurt. He is also, unfortunately, the best option to backup three of the four positions on the infield, unless you’re a much bigger Edmundo Sosa believer than I am. I’m giving Sosa shortstop. But that’s it. Carpenter is not a good defender at 3B, but his badness is overstated for sure thanks to an ugly looking throw. He can obviously play 1B. And he can fake 2B for a short period of time.
The alternatives are Sosa (projected 69 wRC+), minor league invites Max Moroff (76 wRC+), Jose Rondon (75 wRC+), or Irving Lopez (72 wRC+). The latter three aren’t even on the 40 man roster. Yeah I know this article is coming off the heels of Kolten Wong signing with the Brewers, but the Cardinals have ZERO depth behind the starting four in the infield. Again, we’re not dealing with a high bar here, but Carpenter is the best option - for now anyway.
So what’s Carpenter’s role? Well, again assuming there’s no DH, in which case his role is to be the DH against right-handed pitchers, his role is to sit on the bench and be the first guy off the bench when a right-handed pitcher is on the mound and a pinch-hitter is needed. He will be there if someone gets injured, but if not, he’ll just be a very expensive pinch-hitter and he’ll be the DH whenever the Cards play in an AL park.
And as someone has mentioned in the comments, if he shows himself to really be that bad, the Cardinals have shown a willingness to just release players in their contract year: Jhonny Peralta being the main example. I think Carpenter might be able to escape that fate because he just will never accumulate enough PAs and can be buried on the bench fairly easily. But the calculus right now is: does he fit on the team? And for now, the answer is, weirdly yes, just not as a starter.