Aesthetically, Matt Carpenter has checked every possible box for the label of “fan favorite” for the St. Louis Cardinals.
- He is a classic overachiever–he was drafted in the 13th round at age 23 out of Texas Christian University, signing for a famously low bonus of $1,000 (this has much more to do with his lack of leverage in negotiations as a college senior than when he was drafted, but from a narrative perspective, does it matter?).
- He plays a lot of different positions–particularly for a fan base that generally hates the designated hitter (i.e. “the fan base of a National League team”), versatility is a sure-fire way to endear one’s self. And like Skip Schumaker before him, Matt Carpenter moved up the defensive spectrum, to the challenging and foreign position of second base, and while Schumaker was merely good enough at second base, Carpenter thrived and became an All-Star, arguably performing better than any other player in Major League Baseball at the position during his breakout 2013. Carpenter has also served primarily as a third baseman and primarily as a first baseman since then, and is still capable of filling in at all three positions. He isn’t an elite defender, but the mere fact that he can frequently spare the Cardinals from scraping the bottom of their bench by moving around the infield is itself valuable.
- So, so many optics. He combines happiness and intensity in his on-field demeanor. He doesn’t wear batting gloves. He walks to the plate with a playlist of Americana and roots rock-influenced country music that encapsulate what should be his reputation as the ultimate working-class hero of the 2010s St. Louis Cardinals.
- He’s really, really good. No matter how likable a player might be, fans ultimately just want their team to win. And despite his infamous slump to start 2018, in which he was firmly below Replacement Level heading into mid-May, Matt Carpenter has turned his season around and finds himself firmly in the National League Most Valuable Player discussion, with the best chance at winning an MVP (assuming his removal from last night’s game is a temporary measure and not cause for long-term concern) for the Cardinals since Albert Pujols.
Matt Carpenter is the embodiment of what old-school baseball fans and analysts claim to love about baseball. He is the proverbial player who would be a star in any era. And yet, despite these things, Matt Carpenter remains a lightning rod from the old school, even in a season in which he leads the National League in home runs.
To pounce exclusively on one assessment of Carpenter is more than a bit unfair, but former St. Louis Post-Dispatch columnist Dan O’Neill embodied old-school criticism (or at least old-school cries of overratedness) of Matt Carpenter with a tweet on Sunday.
Matt Carpenter, both due to his playing style and circumstances beyond his control, is far behind the expectations of an MVP candidate in two of the three Triple Crown categories. He leads the NL in home runs, but his .274 batting average and 71 RBI don’t exactly stand out on the league leaderboards–his batting average is barely in the top half of qualified hitters (a grouping which self-selects for top players, granted, but this still puts him far behind the top of the list) and his RBI total is barely in the top twenty in the NL.
But these are easy deficiencies to reconcile. Matt Carpenter has a pedestrian batting average, but he also draws a ton of walks–by on-base percentage, a more useful statistic for measuring how often a player puts himself in a position to score runs, Carpenter ranks a much more respectable 8th. Considering his uptick in power, this OBP is perfectly acceptable. And his RBI total is inherently driven by his batting leadoff–while NL RBI leader Javy Baez typically bats behind some of the best hitters in the game, Carpenter opens every game with no runners on base and spends the rest of the game batting behind the worst hitters in the lineup. It is not as though his lack of RBI are caused by a lack of ability to come through in the clutch–his highest wRC+ by leverage situation this season has been in high-leverage situations.
The irony of those who disregard sabermetrics as too driven by numbers, an argument I can buy on its face far more from an aesthetic perspective than from a perspective of actually analyzing baseball, is that 21st century inventions such as wRC+ or WAR or UZR are rebutted with 19th and 20th century inventions such as batting average, team success-as-individual measurement, or errors. The problem ultimately isn’t the entire notion of using statistics–it’s the specific statistics being used. And while modern statistics certainly have flaws, they adjust for context far more accurately than vestiges of the Dead Ball Era.
And it is not as though the notion of a player like Matt Carpenter is anything new. The archetype of a hyper-patient hitter was arguably perfected with 1940s-1950s super-duper-star Ted Williams, he of a 20.6% career walk rate. Pete Rose, the beloved beacon of all that is good and pure for a certain type of (usually insufferable) old-school fan, is a prototype for Carpenter’s defensive versatility–he wasn’t a great fielder, but the mere fact that he could fill in elsewhere was part of his value.
While some players, including notables such as Max Scherzer, have spoken openly of applying sabermetrics in their own self-analysis, Matt Carpenter doesn’t really fit this bill. It’s not quite Joe Morgan, sabermetric darling by playing profile (an extremely patient hitter whose impressive offense translates to inner-circle Hall of Famer when considering a positional adjustment to second base), being openly contentious towards sabermetrics as an analyst, but Matt Carpenter’s gritty bona fides are being overlooked not through any fault of his own, but through a need of those who grow defensive of new statistics to continue to fight this long-lost battle, even if it comes at the cost of the aesthetics of baseball they claim to prefer.