On Monday night, following Max Scherzer’s excellent outing against the St. Louis Cardinals, one of my admittedly numerous pet peeves sprung up—the deeply retrospective takes that the Cardinals committed historical malpractice by not signing Scherzer, Who You May Have Heard Grew Up In St. Louis And Went To Mizzou, when he became a free agent following the 2014 MLB season.
Given the gift of hindsight, I know that Max Scherzer is probably the second-greatest free agent signing in history from a team perspective, behind only Randy Johnson putting ink to paper with the Arizona Diamondbacks. The Cardinals and twenty-eight other teams, had they known what they know now, should have and would have signed Scherzer. But any grievances about the non-signing are ahistorical on two levels. One is that while there were certainly fans who wished the Cardinals would sign Scherzer, as there are fans who wish they would sign any free agent worth mentioning, the clamoring never really exceeded the demands for Jon Lester, who himself was a quite nice free agent signing but wasn’t quite superb enough for fans to complain about it seven years later.
And two is that the 2015 Cardinals for whom Scherzer would’ve debuted were literally the 21st century’s greatest assemblage of pitching prowess. Despite losing staff ace Adam Wainwright to a non-pitching injury in late April, the 2015 Cardinals, en route to a 100-win season, had the lowest team ERA recorded by an MLB team this century. Every single starting pitcher was All-Star caliber. And while Scherzer would’ve helped, because he’s awesome, he would’ve helped 29 other teams more in 2015.
Ultimately, though, I like Max Scherzer. He’s a deserving future Hall of Famer and he seems like a genuinely cool guy, and not only by the milquetoast standards of MLB players. While his discourse is catnip for foul-weathered fans who work hard to be mad about their ostensibly favorite team, however, what ultimately annoys me is that much of the Scherzer discourse requires erasing the 2015 Cardinals from our collective memories.
The 2015 Cardinals had perhaps the most enjoyable regular season, for me, of my lifetime. It is undeniably linked to my state of life at the moment: it was the first year of my adult life where I had a consistent job and place to live and so I was programmed to feel sentimental, and then they went out and won 100 dang games. They had enjoyable young position players, they had a seemingly unstoppable array of starters, and even with the Pittsburgh Pirates and Chicago Cubs as good as they would get in their 2010s runs, it was the Cardinals who won the NL Central.
But then, the Cardinals had a bad extended weekend. They lost on a Saturday, a Monday, and a Tuesday. And now, the 2015 Cardinals are an afterthought.
2015 was probably the third most memorable Matt Carpenter season. But just as the 2015 team embodies the simple truth that champions are what stand the test of time, with countless wonderful six month runs obscured because of less than a week of substandard performance, Matt Carpenter embodies the type of player who can slip through the cracks of the team’s most beloved historic stars.
While Matt Carpenter did accumulate 19 non-postseason plate appearances with the 2011 Cardinals, his decade as a full-time Cardinal has not brought a World Series championship to St. Louis. Ted Simmons is the only player in the World Series era to accumulate more Wins Above Replacement as a Cardinal without participating on a World Series-winning team—Simmons even has the “honor” of having played in the 1982 World Series which was won by the Cardinals as a member of the Milwaukee Brewers.
But what really separates Simmons from Carpenter in Cardinals lore, aside from about 20 WAR, is that Simmons was *the* guy on some otherwise forgettable Cardinals teams. While Simmons became a big leaguer on a roster with the likes of Bob Gibson and Lou Brock, Simmons eventually graduated to the level of Cardinals elder statesman. In the midst of some otherwise forgettable 1970s Cardinals teams, Simmons was often the team’s best player.
Matt Carpenter will almost certainly never hold either title. Despite reaching a full decade as a big league Cardinal yesterday, Carpenter remains only the third longest tenured member of the team. With Yadier Molina already signed for 2022, and with Adam Wainwright openly expressing interest in a return next season as well, it is increasingly likely that Carpenter will depart, in a month or so, over half a decade removed from even being the second most tenured member of the Cardinals. And while a credible case could be made that he was the team’s best player in three different seasons—2013, 2015, and 2019–he never had the allure of being the team’s very best player for any sustained period of time.
Unlike Albert Pujols, whose return to the Busch Stadium field was the biggest story of the day on which Carpenter officially became Hall of Fame eligible, the man who started at first base for the Cardinals will not be enshrined in Cooperstown. Like Chris Carpenter a decade earlier, he will assuredly make the ballot, but unlike Chris, he may not reach the levels of local acclaim that one might expect given his length of Cardinals career.
It isn’t some grand mystery why not. Chris Carpenter, as the ace of two World Series champions, is easily defined by his 2005 Cy Young Award and his three-hit shutout in the fifth and final game of the 2011 NLDS. Matt Carpenter is not without his postseason moments—his epic 11-pitch battle against Clayton Kershaw in the 2013 NLCS and his bases-clearing go-ahead double off Kershaw in the 2014 NLDS immediately spring to mind—and it’s not as though his reputation is one of a postseason choker. But because he has never played on a World Series champion beyond a forgettable midseason cameo, these moments don’t really hold a candle to the upper crust postseason moments of yesteryear.
But that Matt Carpenter does not rise to the level of Yadier Molina or Adam Wainwright does not render his tenure as a Cardinal meaningless. Carpenter is a player worthy of fan adulation beyond his fairly robust track record—a college senior late round pick who eschews batting gloves on his way to a long and productive MLB career while happily playing wherever on the diamond he is asked is catnip for fans of the most corny idealized Hard Working Cardinal. But beyond these superficial qualities, Carpenter is also an avatar for the idea that seasons which do not end in a big parade downtown are still meaningful. That his career coincided with a championship drought (albeit only the fifth longest since the Cardinals’ origin) is undeniably part of his story, but to disregard the 96.7% of MLB teams that don’t win a World Series in any given year is to take an unnecessarily fatalistic attitude towards the sport. Carpenter’s unpredictable 2013 transformation into the best second baseman in the sport still mattered. His 2015 performance as the best hitter in a 100-win lineup still mattered. His 2018 late charge into MVP candidacy to single-handedly keep the Cardinals in postseason contention mattered. His less spectacular but steady seasons, littered with memorable moments to those who witnessed them with their own two eyes mattered.
If Matt Carpenter were instead a Colorado Rockie or Tampa Bay Ray for the last decade, he would rank fifth in franchise history in WAR. Heck, he would rank third in the history of the San Diego Padres, a team that existed before we put a man on the Moon. Matt Carpenter may be an honorable mention by the standards of the St. Louis Cardinals, but he ought not be regarded as a victim of his circumstances. The Cardinals do not have a divine right to perpetual success. Their past championships are not a reflection on what will come but rather what has. Aside from the players who have already reached the level, there isn’t a current St. Louis Cardinal who will more likely than not reach Matt Carpenter‘s career resume with the team–Nolan Arenado, for instance, would need to maintain his current level of play (unlikely given the typical MLB player’s aging curve) until he is 37 to reach Carpenter’s output by FanGraphs Wins Above Replacement. Forget owing it to Matt Carpenter to appreciate him. We owe it to ourselves.
When the Cardinals announced yesterday that Matt Carpenter had reached ten years in the big leagues, an admittedly minor accomplishment in the eyes of most fans but one players are known to treasure, it was met with at least as many complaints about his current state of play as the mostly stellar career which will, if the institution maintains any semblance of meritocracy, land him in the Cardinals Hall of Fame. Juxtaposed with the adoration being simultaneously afforded to Albert Pujols, a man once hated in St. Louis far more than Carpenter ever has been, the message seems to be a truly confusing one: that the supposed adoration Pujols would have received as a “lifelong Cardinal” was always going to be conditional on him continuing to perform at a high level. And that Carpenter, unlike Molina or especially Wainwright, is concluding his career with a more precipitous drop in play is a harsh reminder that not every player gets to go out on top. But as in a season, the way it ends only tells part of the story. The journey to it is what really matters.