By any reasonable measure, Matt Carpenter’s 2018 to this point has been a disappointment. After an abysmal start to the season offensively, Carpenter has rebounded significantly, but he has still been only roughly average at the plate. While Carpenter has logged material innings at first, second, and third base, he is generally not well-regarded defensively–his reputation is far worse than his numbers, but even by the metrics, he is no better than passable with his glove.
Matt Carpenter is under contract through the end of the 2019 season, and if he maintains his first third of 2018 pace for the remainder of his contract (a pace which would require him to be by far the worst hitter he has ever been over two seasons), Matt Carpenter will be, by Wins Above Replacement, the greatest player with the last name “Carpenter” in St. Louis Cardinals history.
At the moment, Matt Carpenter trails Chris Carpenter by 4.7 WAR. Matt Carpenter sits at 21.9 WAR, while the former starting pitcher retired with 26.6. Speaking anecdotally, I would guess that the relatively minor gap between the two Cardinals is not really a huge surprise anywhere but St. Louis.
Chris Carpenter, unlike the unrelated Matt whose career ever-so-slightly overlapped with his, is something of an urban legend in St. Louis beyond his actual performance. To be clear, Chris Carpenter was a very, very good pitcher, and he was recognized across baseball as such, but only in St. Louis is the matchup of Chris Carpenter and the late, great Roy Halladay from Game 5 of the 2011 NLDS considered a matchup of peers rather than a matchup of a good pitcher and a very clearly superior one in Roy Halladay.
Recalling the 2011 playoff run is itself a valid argument against Matt Carpenter’s legacy in St. Louis ever surpassing Chris’s–while RINGZZZZZ isn’t exactly an intelligent argument for establishing a player’s greatness, it certainly captures the sentiments attached with it. And Wins Above Replacement doesn’t measure postseason success, much less quantify the drama of the moment.
The case of Carpenter vs. Carpenter is a unique one because the two players are on such wildly different ends of the spectrum not only in terms of perception between Cardinals and non-Cardinals fans, but also among different faction of Cardinals fans. In the case of Chris, he came to St. Louis at a time of a bit of a dearth of pitchers. Three times, Chris Carpenter (among qualified seasons) surpassed the best ERA+ (a context-adjusted measure of a player’s run suppression, a particularly necessary step when looking at wildly disparate run environments) of the decade preceding his arrival. Only one Cardinals pitcher, Matt Morris, surpassed the 120 ERA+ mark twice–Carpenter did it four times (and matched it a fifth).
But relative to baseball as a whole, Carpenter wasn’t nearly as exceptional. A big part of this, to be clear, was injuries–he threw a total of 21 1/3 innings between his age 32 and 33 seasons. But between 2004, the season in which Chris Carpenter made his Cardinals debut, and 2011, his last “real” season in St. Louis (his 17 innings near the end of 2012 aside), he ranked 13th in Wins Above Replacement among pitchers. He was surpassed by the Roy Halladays and Johan Santanas of the world, but he was also surpassed by the Mark Buehrles and Josh Becketts, as well as two starters, Felix Hernandez and Justin Verlander, who did not make their MLB debuts until a full season in Carpenter’s Cardinals career. If we were to exclude 2004 from the results, Carpenter ranks 17th.
While Chris is compared locally to the Donovan Osbornes and Garrett Stephensons who comprised the rotation before his arrival, Matt has had the unenviable task of following beloved local baseball icon David Freese at third base, and then following the guys who followed Albert Pujols (in their cases, this was beneficial–a phenomenon I’ve discussed). Yes, Matt also replaced Skip Schumaker, but if there was a significant slice of Cardinals fans railing against Matt Carpenter in 2013, I must have missed it.
And Carpenter has been a legitimately terrific hitter in that time. Of the 87 players with at least 3,000 plate appearances from 2012 through 2017, Matt Carpenter tied with Jose Altuve for 17th by OPS+. But his mold of hitter is one which is perpetually underrated–in Carpenter’s first half-decade as a full-time starter, of the 162 players with at least 2000 plate appearances, he ranked seventh in walk rate, and with a mark that kept increasing over time. The modern king of walks, Joey Votto, has long dealt with a vocal minority of Cincinnati Reds fans who blame his patience for the team’s slide into mediocrity (not, you know, the entire team around him getting materially and demonstratively worse). Carpenter isn’t as good as Votto (few are), so while Votto mostly deals with fans being annoyed, Carpenter deals with fans who want him to lose his job.
And again, Matt Carpenter has been nearly as good as a Cardinal as Chris Carpenter, who sailed into the Cardinals Hall of Fame the first chance that fans got a chance to elect him. The sheer rate of inductions all but guarantees that Matt Carpenter will eventually join Chris, but his Cardinals career will assuredly not be regarded in as high of esteem. And part of this is circumstantial–David Freese ranks below Geronimo Pena in career WAR with the Cardinals, but nobody is arguing that Pena should be held in as high of esteem as Freese. Moments matter.
But the perception of Chris Carpenter as Clutch Baseball God exceeds the verifiable reality of his career. Opposing batters had a 34 point higher OPS against Chris Carpenter in high-leverage situations than in low or medium leverage situations. Carpenter was worse by tOPS+ with runners in scoring position than otherwise. And even his postseason track record is not without its duds–five days before his legendary outdueling of Roy Halladay, Carpenter allowed four runs in three innings and walked more batters than he struck out. He was shelled in his final two postseason appearances (as it turned out, his final two MLB appearances) in the 2012 NLCS.
And for his career, Matt Carpenter has been clutch–in high leverage situations, his OPS is 62 points higher than in medium leverage and 71 points higher tehan in low leverage situations. With two outs and runners in scoring position, Carpenter’s tOPS+ (his OPS+ relative to his overall mark in a given split) with two outs and runners in scoring position is 115, thus making him better in these situations.
For both Carpenters, there is certainly some selection bias here. If a pitcher has put runners in scoring position, he’s less likely to be pitching at his best. But Matt Carpenter, despite having a higher tOPS+ with two outs and runners in scoring position than such acclaimed clutch hitters as David Ortiz and Derek Jeter, has, if anything, had a higher percentage of the sort of moments that engender players to their fan base disproportionately. It’s a fickle industry. And there seems to be something to the most absolute of absolute luck in determining perception–Matt Carpenter was not around for the 2011 World Series run, nor did he ever have the opportunity to do what David Freese did. And even when he did author some impressive postseason heroics, they had the unfortunate task of trying to live up to what fans already experienced with Freese. It was always an impossible task.