Our recurring list of the twenty-five greatest Cardinals of the last twenty-five years will run daily leading up to Opening Day 2021. In case you missed it, here are the prior entries.
25. Todd Stottlemyre
24. David Freese
23. Andy Benes
22. Lance Lynn
21. Paul DeJong
20. Tommy Pham
19. Darryl Kile
18. Ryan Ludwick
17. Kolten Wong
16. Carlos Martínez
15. Woody Williams
14. J.D. Drew
13. Brian Jordan
12. Edgar Renteria
11. Ray Lankford
10. Matt Morris
7. Mark McGwire
There are a number of players on this list whose successful Major League Baseball careers were improbable, but no player’s career defies logic quite like that of Matt Carpenter.
Matt Carpenter was drafted by the St. Louis Cardinals in 2009, at the age of 23 years, 6 months, and 15 days. By the time fellow 2009 draftee Mike Trout reached this age, he had already won an MVP award and finished in second twice. An injury had forced Carpenter to take a redshirt season while at Texas Christian University, and although Carpenter became one of the school’s greatest players, at his advanced age, he was seen as minor league roster filler. Eventually selected by the Cardinals in the thirteenth round, Carpenter had almost no leverage with regards to the terms of his signing, eventually settling for $1,000.
After a mixed performance in his abbreviated 2009 season, with his level ranging from low to high A, Matt Carpenter was a revelation in 2010. In a season spent primarily with the AA Springfield Cardinals, Carpenter exhibited many of the characteristics of his eventual MLB career–solid plate discipline, good doubles power, and a keen knack for getting on base. Given that he would be 25 years old by the beginning of the next season, he still wasn’t exactly seen as a major prospect, but he looked like the kind of player who, in case of injury, could come up to St. Louis, and fake his way through a few games or through some bench duty. Carpenter would get such a chance in 2011, with 19 largely forgettable MLB plate appearances, but in a season spent primarily with the Memphis Redbirds, he continued to look like a well-rounded and capable hitter. But whether it could translate to the big leagues or whether Carpenter was a late-blooming quad-A player was still very much an open question.
Matt Carpenter would get his opportunity to prove himself in the big leagues after making the 2012 Opening Day roster. October 2011 had seemingly ended any chance that the third baseman would get a chance at substantial MLB playing time, with David Freese riding the wave not only of a pretty good regular season, but of becoming the city’s latest and greatest hometown hero, and that Freese finally had a mostly healthy season in 2012 could have acted as further evidence that Carpenter would be on the outside looking in. But Carpenter found his way into the lineup. When first basemen Lance Berkman and Allen Craig were unavailable, Carpenter filled in there. He started ten games in right field and three more in left. And in what, at the time, seemed like a real stretch, Carpenter played 18 innings at second base. His .828 OPS was firmly above league-average and despite a lack of starting role, he even got a down-ballot Rookie of the Year vote. He even got a game-winning RBI via a third-inning home run off Matt Cain to win Game 3 of the NLCS against the San Francisco Giants.
At this point, Matt Carpenter was all but assured of a roster spot in 2013, but he still lacked a full-time position. His experience was on the corners of the infield, with some credible claims at ability at the corners of the outfield, but these spots were already filled. And while it seemed he might have to settle once again for a utility role, the Cardinals made the surprising announcement that they would be giving Carpenter an audition at second base. Carpenter had never been a second baseman with any regularity, but the Cardinals saw him as a literal and spiritual replacement for Skip Schumaker, the marginal outfielder-turned-second baseman who they had just traded to the Los Angeles Dodgers. The otherwise very strong Cardinals offense of 2012 had been deficient at second base–the position had primarily been held by the below-average Schumaker and the worse Daniel Descalso and Tyler Greene–and while the team likely didn’t expect Carpenter to be any better than passable at second base, his bat alone could make him a noticeable upgrade.
2013 was Matt Carpenter’s masterpiece. It wasn’t the single greatest Cardinals season of the last twenty-five years, but it may have been the most pleasantly surprising. Defensively, Carpenter held his own at second base, a position which suited his strengths (avoidance of errors) while masking his weaknesses (a relatively poor throwing arm) at third base. And at the plate, Matt Carpenter was a revelation as one of the first Cardinals lead-off hitters to truly eschew the speedster archetype and instead focus on getting on base. His .392 on-base percentage was the highest mark on the team. His 55 doubles led the Majors and were the highest total for a National League hitter in twelve years. Carpenter finished in fourth in National League MVP voting and one could make the argument he should have finished higher. And while his performance cooled down a bit during the postseason, his third-inning double in Game 6 of the NLCS against the Dodgers, which was the first hit off Clayton Kershaw in what became a four-run inning and which came in the at-bat’s 11th pitch, became one of the season’s defining moments.
Matt Carpenter was always intended as a one-year stopgap at second base, with Kolten Wong likely to arrive in 2014, but his 2013 performance made him a must-start player, so he moved back to his natural position of third base while David Freese was traded. And while he couldn’t replicate his 2013 performance, Carpenter remained a firmly above-average hitter. His numbers were less spectacular, but he improved his walk rate and despite only hitting nine home runs in the regular season, he hit one in each of his first three postseason games. He also added a double in each game, for good measure. In Game 1 of the NLDS, once again facing Clayton Kershaw and the Dodgers, he hit a sixth-inning solo home run to chip an early Dodgers lead down to 6-2, and the next inning, with the Cardinals now down 6-4, he drove the eighth pitch he saw deep into the Dodger Stadium outfield for a three-RBI double.
In the 2014 postseason, Carpenter flashed power he had never demonstrated before, but in 2015, he proved he could do it for a full season. His 28 home runs more than doubled his previous professional high, and Carpenter once again found himself getting MVP votes (he finished 12th). Suddenly, Carpenter wasn’t just a hitter capable of sitting in a big-league lineup, but he was a bona fide slugger. And while he saw slight declines in 2016 and 2017, he still cleared 20 home runs in each season and while not an MVP candidate, he remained one of the better hitters on the Cardinals. And he did so while getting to once again flaunt his defensive versatility–in 2016, injuries and inefficiencies led to Carpenter spending nearly equal time at first, second, and third base, and in 2017, with Jedd Gyorko having played his way into the everyday lineup, Carpenter primarily played first base, though once again with double-digit starts at second and third base.
In 2018, with José Martínez and Jedd Gyorko capable of playing first or third base, respectively, Carpenter’s plan was largely to alternate between the two spots. But in the first quarter of the season, his bat seemed unworthy of either position. Through May 15, Carpenter had a .140 batting average. He was still drawing walks, so his .286 on-base percentage wasn’t quite that bad, but he also had three home runs in 140 plate appearances. Surely, Carpenter wasn’t this terrible, but he had dug himself quite a hole. But then, Carpenter not only bounced back, he became, for a several month stretch, the best hitter in baseball. From May 16 through September 5, the conclusion of a series against the Washington Nationals, Matt Carpenter had 446 plate appearances and 32 home runs. He drew walks at a 15.2% rate and his 184 wRC+ would have trailed only Mike Trout and Mookie Betts (and barely–they were at 188 and 185, respectively) over the course of a full season. In one memorable Friday afternoon game against the Chicago Cubs in July, Carpenter hit three home runs and two doubles and was pulled from the lineup in the sixth inning after the team’s lead had swelled to 15-1. A popular tall tale, that Carpenter’s hot streak began thanks to his consumption of a special recipe of salsa, led to his branded salsa being sold at local Schnucks grocery stores. His awful start, and to a lesser extent his mediocre September, kept Carpenter from seriously contending for National League MVP (he finished 9th), but after years of steady competence, he was once again exciting.
It was, of course, the excitement of Matt Carpenter in 2018 that led to the team signing him to a two-year extension that the team instantly regretted. In 2019, the final year of Carpenter’s previous contract, he walked less, struck out more, and hit far fewer home runs (15, his fewest in half a decade), and while he wasn’t a terrible hitter, a 95 wRC+ for a below-average defensive third baseman is certainly not ideal, and when said third baseman will be 34 by the next Opening Day and his new contract is just starting, it immediately looked like a short-term disaster. In his abbreviated 2020 season, Carpenter was decidedly worse than the year before, with just four home runs in 169 plate appearances. The Cardinals demonstrated their lack of faith in Matt Carpenter by trading for Nolan Arenado to replace him at third base. And while Carpenter has a vesting option for 2022, he will almost certainly not be a St. Louis Cardinal a year from today.
It is more than a little perverse that Matt Carpenter, the perfect embodiment of the scrappy underdog (the guy doesn’t even wear batting gloves, for goodness sake) that Cardinals fans love, is now seen as a contract–that a player who does the thing fans purport to want, showing a desire to remain loyal to his incumbent team, is instead viewed as a liability. I suppose that comes with the territory–I’d take some people grumbling about me for $37 million, too. But forget about how being mad at Matt Carpenter impacts how he feels and consider how it impacts how the fan feels. This is a man who provided two diametrically opposed seasons, 2013 and 2018, that are among the most cherished of the era. This is a man who is second in runs and fifth in runs batted in for the Cardinals over the last quarter-century and a man who, if Keith Hernandez gets into the Cardinals Hall of Fame this year, will be worth more Wins Above Replacement with the Cardinals than any eligible MLB-era Cardinal not recognized with the honor. Whether Matt Carpenter should start for the Cardinals in 2021 or even whether he should be on the team in 2021 is beside the point–he is one of the best players of his era and one of the best 20-30 players in franchise history, and recognizing him as such is just the more enjoyable thing to do.