When the dust has settled and the imminent glut of extremely obvious candidates–Albert Pujols, Yadier Molina, and Adam Wainwright–is cleared, Matt Carpenter will almost certainly be a member of the St. Louis Cardinals Hall of Fame, and he should be. On the sheer merit of his production with the Cardinals, he’s a no-brainer: Only one position player outside of the aforementioned Pujols and Molina has more FanGraphs Wins Above Replacement in a Cardinals uniform than Carpenter without being enshrined, and while I am all for inducting Tip O’Neill, the movement to elect a guy who died in 1915 is admittedly not a particularly vociferous one.
It’s a bit hard to categorize Matt Carpenter in Cardinals history and it’s even harder to define how beloved he is among St. Louis Cardinals fans, though I assume that despite receiving some scattered boos during his final season in St. Louis in 2021, the response every time Carpenter comes to the plate this weekend for the New York Yankees, in his first series back to Busch Stadium as a visiting player, will be overwhelmingly positive. It won’t be a Pujols-ian ovation nor even a David Freese-ian one (that Freese didn’t make it back for a few years after his departure probably contributed at least somewhat to the sheer volume of his initial standing ovations), but I would expect plenty of noise.
What Carpenter has experienced during his 139 plate appearances in Yankee pinstripes is something all too absent from his career prior to 2022–a cultural ubiquity that is easier to reach while playing for the most popular team in the country. There’s also the sheer obviousness of his statistical resume–it isn’t, as was often the case in St. Louis, a bunch of doubles and walks on which Carpenter is building his season (though his 12.9% walk rate isn’t exactly a poor one, either). With 15 home runs, Matt Carpenter has already tied his mark from 2019, his last 162-game season as a full-time starter with the Cardinals, and if he had as many plate appearances with the Yankees this year as he had with the Cardinals in 2013, he would be on pace for 77 home runs, which is a lot. And for all of the citations of the short right-field porch at Yankee Stadium, his Expected Home Runs (per Statcast data) would be in double-digits at any park in the Majors, with eight of his home runs classified as “No Doubters” and seven classified as “Mostly Gone”.
He has not been a man of wall-scrapers, and his numbers on the whole have reached heights he has never seen before. His .322 batting average(!), .435 on-base percentage(!!), and .791 slugging percentage(!!!!!!!!) have made Matt Carpenter a cult figure in the Bronx, and his 239 wRC+ is not only by far the highest of his already very productive career, but over a full season, it would tie for the second-highest qualified mark in baseball history, tied with another Yankees lefty slugger by the name of Babe Ruth. Sure, no reasonable person expects Matt Carpenter to keep this up for the rest of the season, much less that he would keep it up over a full 162-game schedule, but even if you adjust for what is admittedly a bunch of luck, he is still tied for the 12th-highest expected weighted on-base average in the sport among players with as many plate appearances as he has this year. No Cardinal *checks to verify that the Cardinals did not, in fact, acquire Juan Soto at the trade deadline* has a mark as high as Matt Carpenter’s this year. Not bad for a guy who was released by the Texas Rangers from his minor league contract in May.
And what makes the Matt Carpenter renaissance truly special is that, with the possible exception of a legendary, salsa-fueled 2018 hot streak, he was previously great in all of the quiet ways. In 2013, he was one of the most valuable players in baseball not because he was some great slugger, hitting just 11 bombs all season, but because he hit a bunch of doubles and displayed surprising competence at second base, neither of which is an invitation for becoming overrated by anybody. When he was moved to third base, he found himself as a relative afterthought of a golden era for the position–as wonderful as Carpenter was in 2018, when he finished in the top ten in National League Most Valuable Player voting, there were still five third basemen who were both younger and, by fWAR, better (in order: José Ramírez, Alex Bregman, Matt Chapman, Nolan Arenado, Anthony Rendon). 2013 was the lone season when Matt Carpenter led the Cardinals in WAR, but he was routinely among the team’s better players: in subsequent seasons, he finished 7th, 3rd, 2nd, 4th, and 2nd, respectively.
While it is currently the New York Yankees who are paying Matt Carpenter, it will be the St. Louis Cardinals who pay him more than any other team in 2022–$2 million, courtesy of a contract buyout which the Cardinals, without controversy, chose over paying Matt Carpenter to be a St. Louis Cardinal in 2022. And while I am sure there are more than zero Cardinals fans presently stewing over how the Cardinals were such fools to cut bait with the sub-Replacement Level bench player with a .169 batting average and a .581 OPS last season, focusing on such hindsight-fueled lunatics would be disingenuous to “I was told Steph Curry wasn’t a good shooter” levels. I would rather embrace the hilarity of it–that Matt Carpenter, a guy that 60% of our Twitter voters said the Cardinals shouldn’t even grant a non-roster Spring Training invitation, joined the New York Yankees the day before Memorial Day Weekend and has been more valuable by WAR than Anthony Rizzo, Josh Donaldson, Giancarlo Stanton, or Gerrit Cole in 2022. And for a guy who mostly did his work the quiet way in St. Louis, Matt Carpenter receiving long-overdue attention is gratifying to see.