Last night, Matt Carpenter hit his first home run of the 2021 season for the St. Louis Cardinals, and admittedly, it was a pretty weird experience. It wasn’t an especially game-significant home run–besides the offensive explosion of the fifth inning rendering it moot, it only bumped up the Cardinals’ win probability from 77% to 89%. But the moment felt enormous. On television, Dan McLaughlin narrated the home run as though Carpenter had overcome trials far more arduous than “he’s been really bad lately”. At Busch Stadium, fans commanded a curtain call, which Carpenter provided. The curtain call was almost self-aware in its silliness, but ultimately, every party seemed to enjoy it, so I declare anyone complaining about it to be a hater.
The rationale, if somebody were forced to explain why Matt Carpenter got a curtain call, would have to be that Carpenter, while not quite Yadier Molina or Adam Wainwright, is one of the thirty or forty greatest players in St. Louis Cardinals history, and that this was a way of honoring a player who had humbly accepted a lesser role with the team in what will almost certainly be his final season in St. Louis. But the implication is that the novelty of Carpenter’s home run is what made the moment significant. Yadier Molina, a more beloved Cardinals legend than Carpenter by any measure, did not receive a curtain call when he hit a home run the night before, but there is also an expectation that Yadier Molina will hit more home runs for the Cardinals, while the expectation for Matt Carpenter seems to be that he may be forced into retirement at any point.
There is a certain point at which the Cardinals would be willing to outright release Matt Carpenter, but it would take quite a bit. The bar which Carpenter must clear is not that he be an MVP-caliber player, like he was in 2013 or 2018, nor that he succeed at a level consistent with his $18.5 million annual salary; if it were, Carpenter never would have made it out of Spring Training. He must simply be better–and while being given a generous “tie goes to the guy we don’t want to pay not to play” rule baked in–than his potential roster replacement, and as of right now, every infielder on the St. Louis Cardinals’ 40-man roster is already on the team’s active MLB roster. The Cardinals already seem incapable of finding playing time for Edmundo Sosa–imagine if they also had to find a spot in the lineup for Rayder Ascanio, Delvin Pérez, or Brady Whalen.
But more to the point is that Matt Carpenter, despite two consecutive down seasons (though his 2019 season looks considerably more palatable in the rear view mirror than he seemed in the moment) and an unsightly Spring Training, is showing tangible promise at the plate in 2021. Like most Cardinals fans, I couldn’t help but jump to conclusions based on his first plate appearance of the season–a three-pitch strikeout during which he swung and missed in pitcher-like incompetence at the final strike. But since that moment–and if we are being fair, every player in baseball looks at least that foolish at least once in a season–he is hitting the ball very, very hard. At 96.4 miles per hour, Carpenter has his highest average exit velocity of the Statcast era (which granted, only goes back to 2015, but he had some very good seasons in that era), and despite only thirteen batted balls so far this season, he has already eclipsed his peak exit velocity from 2020.
His raw numbers on the season, microsample though they are, are not very good–a .111 batting average and a wRC+ of 58 are well below acceptable. But Carpenter’s .083 batting average on balls in play is impossibly low and cannot be explained away merely by his relative lack of speed. Matt Carpenter is hitting the baseball very hard and he’s still quite disciplined at the plate, and while he is still swinging and missing a fair amount, a 25% strikeout rate for a bench player who is also leading your team in expected weighted on-base average is perfectly acceptable.
Expected batting average, on-base percentage, and slugging percentage are not perfect metrics, but with a sample size as small as this one, deferring to them is almost certainly the more reliable measure of a player’s true ability. Over twenty-four plate appearances, it’s pretty common for a player to inflate or deflate his averages with a presence or absence of luck, but numbers which weigh the likelihood of outcomes is a more realistic portrayal. And thanks to a 69.2% hard-hit percentage, Statcast estimates that Matt Carpenter should have a batting average of .296 and should have a slugging percentage of .746. His wOBA of .250 puts him in the territory of average-hitting pitchers; his .458 xwOBA would put him behind the career marks of Babe Ruth, Ted Williams, Lou Gehrig, Jimmie Foxx, Rogers Hornsby, and no other players in baseball history.
Do I expect that Matt Carpenter is now fully, unabashedly back? Well, I don’t think 2021 Matt Carpenter is actually an all-time great hitter, and the same Small Sample Size caveat that I am using to explain away Carpenter’s poor real-world statistics also can be used to explain that there are twenty-five players in baseball (granted, none are Cardinals) with superior xwOBAs to Carpenter. But in order to be a valuable and useful player to the 2021 Cardinals, Matt Carpenter doesn’t need to be a superstar. Defensively, he is holding his own at second base, and he is capable of spelling Nolan Arenado and Paul Goldschmidt in the corner infield positions. With the Cardinals extremely starved in the outfield, having a useful Matt Carpenter to play second allows Tommy Edman to slip into right field. After his terrible first plate appearance, Carpenter garnered comparisons to Jhonny Peralta or even Ty Wigginton, veteran bench players who became such liabilities that the team had no choice but to designate them for assignment, but Carpenter is showing far more potential for legitimate success, not to mention mere competence, than either of those players ever did in their DFA-ended campaigns.
If Cardinals fans want to call for a curtain call for Matt Carpenter every single time he hits a home run in 2021, that would be enjoyable, if for no other reason than to annoy the easily annoyed in a low-stakes way. But there’s plenty of reason early on to believe there might be a lot of those coming.