Since the All-Star break, the St. Louis Cardinals have experienced a small resurgence, chalking up three consecutive series wins against contending teams.
The team has embraced the youth movement and retooled the bullpen, and they’ve made a change at manager. You can make an argument for all of these things helping get the Cardinals back on track, but the team also wouldn’t be where they are now if it weren’t for Matt Carpenter’s bat.
On May 15, Carpenter was had a slashline of .140/.286/.272. Three months, a new coaching staff and a few diced tomatoes later, he’s slashing .282/.394/.593. Whether you want to credit Carpenter’s turnaround to a new hitting coach or a mysterious batch of homemade salsa, the fact is that Matt Carpenter is now a serious National League MVP candidate.
With just under two months to go, Carpenter leads the NL in most offensive categories, including fWAR, wRC+, home runs, slugging percentage and ISO. In other categories, such as on-base percentage and runs scored, Carpenter is at least in the Top 5. He’s done all of this despite playing three different positions in the Cardinals’ infield.
If the season ended today, Matt Carpenter could very well be the favorite to win NL MVP. But will he actually win the award?
Despite the team’s improved play since changing managers in mid-July, the Cardinals still face long odds to make the postseason. This obviously isn’t solely the fault of one specific player or another, but there is the possibility that voters would hold Carpenter’s subpar team against him. Last season was just the second time in the past 10 years that the NL MVP came from a team that didn’t make the postseason (coincidentally, the other one was Albert Pujols in 2008).
If the Cardinals manage to earn a wild card spot, I think it would be a definite boost to Carpenter’s MVP campaign, if only because the Cardinals are going to need Carpenter to continue this production if they want to have any hope of playing in October.
As far as Carpenter’s competition for the award is concerned, Rockies third baseman Nolan Arenado is right on Carpenter’s tail in most offensive categories, particularly home runs. Although he does have a higher RBI total than Carpenter, this is largely a result of Carpenter taking so many at-bats in the leadoff spot this season. Baseball writers were infatuated with Arenado as an MVP candidate last season even though he finished 10th in fWAR, and with Arenado having an even better 2018, he’s likely going to get plenty of support for the voters this time around regardless of what Carpenter does.
Meanwhile, Javier Baez is having a breakout season for the Cubs, who are arguably the best team in the NL thus far (playing in a market like Chicago doesn’t hurt when it comes to these awards, either). Baez is currently slashing .300/.333/.585 with a wRC+ of 138, and given his popularity with fans, it wouldn’t be shocking to see him win his first MVP award. But he’s also nearly a full win behind Carpenter in fWAR.
Freddie Freeman is having another outstanding season at the plate (.316/.397/.525, 146 wRC+) for an Atlanta Braves team that currently has a hold on the second NL Wild Card spot. The same can be said for Arizona’s Paul Goldschmidt (.276/.388/.519, 143 wRC+), but at this point, none of these guys have numbers that compare to Carpenter’s.
As I mentioned earlier, Carpenter’s team hasn’t been as successful this season as some of the other candidates on this list, which only further proves that one player can’t do it alone no matter how great he is (see: Trout, Mike). Still, when you consider how frustrating the Cardinals were during the first half of the season, it’s pretty easy to conclude that the playoffs wouldn’t even be a pipe dream right now if it weren’t for Carpenter, and I don’t think you can say the same about the other players.
It feels weird to be writing all of this about a guy who had seemingly vanished off the face of the earth for most of April and May, but here we are. Either way, looking at everything he’s done along with the time frame that he’s done it in, it seems like Matt Carpenter is more than deserving of the NL MVP award. We’ll soon find out if the voters feel the same way.