Sports fans have always been obsessed with individual performance and the mentality that an individual player can, by sheer will, guide his team to a championship.
In basketball, arguments over whether generation-defining talent Michael Jordan or generation-defining talent LeBron James is the greater player are most often distilled not to which one is the greater scorer, rebounder, passer, or defender, but to which one has won more titles. Jordan has six; LeBron has three; therefore, Jordan must be deemed the greater player, ignoring the critical context that both players were surrounded by other, Hall of Fame-level players whose presence was critical to the result.
While yelling about who has won more championships in the NBA is itself a silly exercise (if the total number is a reflection of individual quality, seven-time champions Jim Loscutoff and Robert Horry put MJ and King James to shame), there is at least some grain of truth to it. Individual players can make more significant contributions in the NBA than in any other team sport. Top NHL forwards, the players who do the lion’s share of scoring, are on the ice for about one-third of games. Chuck Bednarik, the NFL’s last two-way player, retired 55 years ago, thus rendering even the greatest players totally dependent on a unit which does not include them for scoring or defending purposes (not to mention special teams).
In baseball, a sport with a defined batting order in which, statistically, it is impossible for one player to get more than 14% of his team’s plate appearances in a nine-inning game (and if this did happen, his team scored a maximum of one run, so it’s not a great strategy), there is at least some level of understanding that an individual player’s greatness only matters so much. Mike Trout, the best player in baseball today, has only appeared in the postseason once and has never won a playoff game. Ted Williams and Barry Bonds never won a World Series; countless forgettable New York Yankees piled them up during their more dynastic years.
But man-against-the-world attitudes towards a player’s individual responsibility for his team’s successes or failures do persist to some degree. And star players, the kinds of players who receive additional criticisms on hot-take sports talk shows for lack of rings (the most recent examples I can recall of this phenomenon on a national level in baseball were Alex Rodriguez, who eventually overcame this reputation with his 2009 postseason, and Clayton Kershaw), will inevitably receive the majority of the criticism.
Entering the 2017 season, the St. Louis Cardinals were supposed to be a good team—not quite division favorites, because the Chicago Cubs returned most of their historically excellent 2016 championship team, but an inner-circle contender for a Wild Card spot. And Matt Carpenter, the team’s best hitter by Offensive Wins Above Replacement since joining the Cardinals on a full-time basis in 2012, was expected to continue leading the offensive charge, particularly with two of the franchise’s bigger bats, Matt Holliday and Brandon Moss, departing via free agency.
At the All-Star Break, as measured by wRC+, Matt Carpenter’s offensive production has been solid. At 119, meaning that Matt Carpenter has been roughly 19% more productive at the plate than the average MLB hitter in 2017, Carpenter is tied with San Francisco Giants first baseman Brandon Belt. He has been a better hitter by the metric than such notable names as Nolan Arenado and Mookie Betts. Granted, these are two players known for their defensive value and not simply for crushing baseballs, but these are also players who are not routinely criticized for their offensive shortcomings.
So far, while Carpenter has been above-average, he is in the midst of his second-worst offensive season (not counting his 2011 season and its 19 plate appearances), barely outpacing 2014 and materially below 2013, 2015, 2016, and to a lesser extent 2012.
The most obvious culprit for this is that Matt Carpenter has encountered an unprecedented (for him) level of bad luck in 2017. His batting average on balls in play of .256 is tied for 20th worst among baseball’s 156 qualified hitters this season, and while the not especially fleet-footed Carpenter is not an obvious candidate to have a naturally high BABIP, it is his worst mark in a full season by a remarkable 51 points.
Carpenter’s BABIP is the difference between being a fine but unspectacular hitter, as he has been in 2017, and being a near-elite hitter, as he has been since 2013. He is walking in a career-high 17.5% of his plate appearances and his strikeout rate, while higher than it was early in his career, is the lowest since he magically transformed into a legitimate power hitter in 2015. All the while, Matt Carpenter is hitting home runs at a higher rate, in 5.9% of his at-bats (normally I’d use plate appearances, but I’m intentionally excluding walks, where Carpenter wasn’t actively trying to hit a home run), than he did from 2015 through 2016, in 4.7% of his at-bats.
And in 2017, Carpenter isn’t simply hitting the ball with less power, either—his hard-hit ball percentage is a career-high 45.1%, and he is hitting ground balls, which generally do not generate great offensive results, at a career-low rate of 26.7%. As measured by xwOBA, a Statcast-based statistic I won’t pretend is refined enough to be trusted religiously but which provides an interesting perspective on how successful a player is expected to be based on how hard they are hitting the ball, Matt Carpenter ranks 12th of the 346 players in Major League Baseball in 2017 with 100 or more at-bats.
Whether you are willing to believe in xwOBA to the point that you believe Matt Carpenter has been one of the dozen best hitters in baseball this season (I’m admittedly not quite ready to go that far, myself) is one thing, but it isn’t a stretch to believe that Matt Carpenter has been unlucky this year. And when Matt Carpenter is at his best, which he has been in the vicinity of for the majority of his career, he is a good enough hitter to play anywhere on the diamond. With his positional versatility—he is not great defensively at second nor third base, but he is passable enough that teams can afford to play him at a more premium defensive position so that they can, say, fit Luke Voit into the starting lineup to play first base—Carpenter suddenly becomes one of the more valuable players in baseball.
Cardinals fans have grown increasingly frustrated with Matt Carpenter this season. His lack of results led to Carpenter being moved from batting third in the lineup to his familiar spot of leading off, which coincided with an uptick in his production (and, probably not coincidentally, a 46 point jump in his BABIP from when he was batting third) but to this point in the season, his Triple Crown statistics have suffered, with the exception of home runs, the only one of the three that is useful in analysis.
Carpenter’s batting average stands at .237, worse than sub-replacement level players Albert Pujols, Victor Martinez, Kendrys Morales, and Mark Trumbo, while his on-base percentage of .378 surpasses that of acclaimed 2017 breakout hitters Marcell Ozuna and Logan Morrison. His 42 RBI, a byproduct of batters ahead of him in the lineup not getting on base at sufficient rates and of his return to batting leadoff, has him tied for 81st. A closer examination shows that Matt Carpenter is just fine and that if he keeps doing what he’s been doing, his bad luck will eventually turn around. But a basic glimpse at his production suggests he’s falling apart.
In this way, Matt Carpenter is the Cardinals version of Cincinnati Reds first baseman Joey Votto.
This isn’t a perfect comparison—Votto is the superior hitter, and this isn’t a slight at Carpenter. Votto is one of the best hitters in baseball—he ranks 2nd behind Mike Trout in FanGraphs Offensive Runs this decade. And while Votto hasn’t played a defensive position other than first base since he played six games in left field in 2007 as a September call-up, Carpenter has played at five different defensive positions since 2012.
But Joey Votto is the most extreme example in modern baseball of a walk-heavy player. In the 2010s, his 17.2% walk rate is tops among players with at least 250 plate appearances (he has over 4500 appearances, so this is a very conservative floor). He is a good contact and power hitter, but it is with his ability to draw walks that he becomes not only a great player, but a controversial one.
Throughout the years, the Reds themselves have indicated that they believe Joey Votto walks too much, compiling bases on balls when he could be driving in runs. Votto has taken time out of his busy schedule to troll his critics. He has many defenders, our sister site Red Reporter among them, but his style of play remains divisive.
And much of the reason for this is the belief that one player can take control of a game. The notion of a solitary hero who is able to single-handedly guide his team to a championship is so romantic that, despite all evidence to the contrary, some fans believe it. It’s why LeBron James was criticized for not being able to lead a team whose second-best player was early-30s Zydrunas Ilgauskas to a championship. It’s why Joey Votto is criticized for his team’s shortcomings rather than a historically inept pitching staff.
And it’s why Matt Carpenter, the best Cardinals hitter since the departure of Albert Pujols, may be destined for criticism. Not because he is not great, but because the team around him has struggled. In a perfect world, Carpenter would be recognized on his individual merits rather than scapegoated for coming into his offensive prime around the same time that the Cardinals went from the most successful five-year run in their history to relative mediocrity. But in reality, the Cardinals do have a player who should, in time, produce more than his fair share offensively.