By any reasonable standard, Joe Girardi had a very successful tenure as manager of the New York Yankees. Despite taking reigns of the franchise at, relatively speaking, the least advantageous time for the Yankees in decades (changes to the financial structure still meant the Yankees could sign more players, though it wasn’t quite the wild west that it had been, say, in the first few years of the 21st century), Girardi won the World Series during his second season and despite the core of the team aging with disappointingly few minor leaguers developing, the Yankees never had a losing season under his watch. In 2017, the team surprised many by winning 91 games and nearly upsetting the eventual World Series champion Houston Astros in the American League Championship Series.
Five days later, the Yankees announced that Joe Girardi would not return as manager.
Consensus across baseball was that Girardi had been something of a victim of unreasonable expectations in the Bronx, but that he never quite was able to establish himself as an elite manager, reputationally speaking. He seemed like a caretaker. He was never quite able to live up to what Joe Torre did before him.
Following a legend means impossible expectations. It means constant comparisons to what came before. Ironically, the aforementioned Yankees legend Joe Torre had to deal with these expectations in his previous managerial stop, when he took over in St. Louis for Whitey Herzog. It’s all circumstantial and often unfair but occasionally, as with Torre, it balances out. The obvious modern Cardinals parallel to these situations is manager Mike Matheny, who took over as manager from Hall of Famer Tony LaRussa. But in the merry-go-round of the modern Cardinals, the replacement of legends has also become a rite of passage.
Perhaps no player had a more unenviable task of replacing a legend than Royce Clayton. Taking over for Ozzie Smith was itself a tall task, but Clayton was forced to do so while Ozzie Smith was still on the team, after he won a token position battle in Spring Training. And he played reasonably well–he was a solid fielder and a good-for-a-shortstop hitter, and earned an All-Star Game appearance in 1997. But he was never embraced to even remotely the degree that Ozzie Smith was, and with his free agency looming, he was sent to the Texas Rangers at the 1998 trade deadline. The next year, the Cardinals acquired Edgar Renteria via trade; Renteria wasn’t Ozzie, but he was much more of a fan favorite than Royce Clayton ever was, or barring Hall of Fame level performance, ever could have been. It’s much easier to be the guy who follows the guy.
Following Mark McGwire’s retirement following the 2001 season, another player was forced to succeed a legend. While McGwire had spent only four-plus seasons in St. Louis, accumulating fewer plate appearances with the Cardinals than, say, Skip Schumaker, his power as a box office attraction (not to mention as a hitter) was nearly unprecedented in St. Louis. In came Tino Martinez, who had been successful with the Seattle Mariners and New York Yankees, but who never really found his footing in St. Louis and, in a rarity, received boos at Busch Stadium while still a Cardinal (the boos he received when he returned as a Yankee were a little bit less surprising). The next year, Albert Pujols took over at first base, and while having already built a reputation with the fans helped, it also helped that he was taking over for Tino Martinez instead of Mark McGwire.
The circumstances behind Albert Pujols’s departure from St. Louis for the (former) Anaheim Angels changed the public calculus a bit. Ozzie Smith and Mark McGwire retired and thus there was little chance of widespread scrutiny. Albert Pujols left of his own volition; he had an offer on the table to become the highest-paid St. Louis Cardinals player ever, and he elected to accept a more lucrative offer with the Angels.
Some fans accepted his departure as a reality of the business of baseball, but others felt spurned. For the sake of this discussion, it doesn’t really matter why fans felt this way (be it a tendency to side with ownership and feel that players are the greedy party, a sense of ownership that fans feel of players, a Midwestern inferiority complex, etc.)–what matters is that they did.
2011 right fielder Lance Berkman was expected to take over for Pujols in 2012, but because of injuries, that role went to Allen Craig. By most standards, Craig was good–he sported a .307/.354/.522 AVG/OBP/SLG line, good for a 137 wRC+. The next season, he posted a .315/.373/.457 and a 134 wRC+. But he wasn’t Albert Pujols, who had a 147 wRC+ in the worst of his eleven seasons in St. Louis.
But Allen Craig was warmly embraced. It helped that Albert Pujols was no longer “Albert Pujols”–after a fine but noticeably diminished 2012, Pujols battled injuries in 2013 and when he did play, was a well below-average base runner and a poor fielder and his offense was not good enough to be his sole baseball dimension. But what really helped was that animosity existed the moment Albert Pujols decided to take his talents to South Metro Los Angeles. Fans wanted to believe that the Cardinals were better for Pujols leaving–by the numbers, they were, but that fans were looking for numbers to confirm it in the first place only intensified the belief that Allen Craig, a good player for the two seasons post-Pujols but hardly an elite one, was something more than he was.
Allen Craig was replaced as Cardinals first baseman by Matt Adams in 2014, first because Craig moved to right field and later because Craig experienced a calamitous, inexplicable drop in performance which led to his being traded in July. And Adams was even more nondescript–he was an above-average hitter, though not to nearly the extent one would expect from somebody who could only play first base, and his defense was just kind of there. But Adams was still better than Pujols, and the Cardinals were still making the postseason, and that was what mattered in public perception. And I suppose big postseason home runs help too.
Adams eventually lost the starting first base job to Matt Carpenter, by any measure a superior player to Matt Adams. Carpenter’s wRC+ in 2017 of 123 signaled his worst offensive season in three years, yet this mark was higher than any of the last four seasons from Adams, since he became a full-time MLB starter. Although not particularly speedy, Carpenter has been above-average for his career by FanGraphs Base Running Runs. By Ultimate Zone Rating, Carpenter has been roughly average at first base, and he has shown a capacity to handle time at second and third base.
And yet, Carpenter is questioned. He is maligned more loudly within the fan base than the first basemen who preceded him (note: I said “first basemen”, thus exempting Left Fielder Matt Adams from this particular discussion). And it is not as though Matt Carpenter doesn’t have some pretty iconic moments in franchise lore.
So what has changed? My theory, amateur as it might be, is that Cardinals fans are going through a delayed response in celebrating Albert Pujols’s greatness and holding his successors to an impossible standard.
Albert Pujols is no longer a taboo name. Rather than being vilified for leaving, he is celebrated for his accomplishments in St. Louis (and rest assured, if he ever returns as an Angel, he will receive a raucous ovation). With his quest for 3,000 career hits in the news, and with his 2018 being a marked improvement over his 2017 (it’s still not good, but he isn’t quite “worst player in baseball” bad), his arrow is pointing up out of necessity.
Matt Carpenter is the guy who followed the guy (who followed the guy), but Albert Pujols is a unique case. One could argue that Stephen Piscotty got a similar bump to Craig and Adams when he took over in right field for Jason Heyward, though it’s probably too early to tell there. But Carpenter continues to be maligned, and even as he continues to put in a season which could easily be described as gritty (although he is probably best suited for first base at this point in his career, he is playing quite a bit at third base, perhaps his weakest position, in order to accommodate Jose Martinez), his reputation suffers.
Matt Carpenter is going to come back around. We’ve seen this story play out–in April, he was perhaps baseball’s unluckiest hitter (his .405 expected wOBA stood in stark contrast to his mere .268 wOBA), and over the next five months, he will almost certainly become the terrific hitter he has consistently been throughout his career. And yet he may be constantly in the shadow of peak Albert Pujols, the rare player who is materially better at hitting a baseball than he is.
Maybe Jose Martinez will (if he doesn’t maintain being The Best Hitter In Major League Baseball in the long term) reap the benefits of being the guy that, metaphorically speaking, replaced the guy. But in a just world, Cardinals fans will appreciate having a hitter as capable as Matt Carpenter in the lineup.