Is Matt Carpenter a good, great, or stud baseball player? Is he a team leader? Will he ever be?
These are the questions that have followed the St. Louis Cardinals infielder for the majority of his playing career; an MLB career that began with such high hopes and furious output that it would make one question where he fell on the scale of great baseball players.
There's another measurable trait that baseball players are graded on — and it's called leadership and accountability. If you look up accountability in the dictionary, it will say "the fact or condition of someone being accountable." In other words, a player's responsibility to be accountable for his actions on the field by backing them up off of it.
For example, when Adam Wainwright was being pummeled by opposing hitters, he was thoroughly accountable for his mistakes. When Kolten Wong gets picked off a bag, he stands in front of the media and takes the heat. Anybody can recall the 2013 World Series Game 4 for that latest example. What about Carpenter?
On May 20, the Cardinals and San Francisco Giants were locked up in a scoreless game heading into the bottom of the ninth inning. Carpenter was leading off, and he only had four doubles on the season. There were moments in the past few seasons where he'd collect four doubles in a two-game series. He launched a ball over the left fielder's head that bounced so hard off the wall, that the ball came several feet back towards the infield.
Just to recall facts, Carpenter isn't fast by any means. He's not slow, but he should have stopped at second with his fifth double. He didn't. Carpenter was thrown out easily at third base, and once the play was completed, he dropped his head in disgust along with 45,000 people watching at Busch Stadium. The announcer pronounced after the play that it was a cardinal sin to make the first out of an inning at third. It's becoming a Matt Carpenter sin on the basepaths, and a St. Louis Cardinals-type sin very quickly.
Making matters worse, Carpenter refused to speak to media after the game, showing an instant sign of a man who doesn't know how to own up to a mistake. That is something a rookie or second-year player would do. Wong was a rookie in 2013 when he faced the music. When Carpenter approached the media a couple days later about it, he defended his actions instead of taking the blame for a costly mistake. That's a double miss on Carpenter's end. Initial and eventual deflection, which are the signs of a guy who doesn't want to lead, but merely participate.
Matt Carpenter is a very good, sometimes great baseball player. You don't have a career 128 OPS+ by being decent or good. You don't average 41 doubles, five triples, and 17 home runs over a seven-year career by being good. Carpenter shows flashes of greatness, but constantly reminds you why he will never be a true stud player or MVP of this league.
The closest Carpenter got to MVP status was in 2013 when he finished fourth in the National League in MVP voting, and produced 6.4 wins above replacement. Since then, he has relied on a higher power output along with an above-average on-base percentage and infield versatility to achieve greatness. In 2015, he finished twelfth in MVP voting, and that was due to 75 extra-base hits and a .505 slugging percentage.
2017 hasn't been kind to Carpenter, and his offensive struggles have mirrored the team's overall ability to produce. Carpenter has just five doubles in 174 plate appearances, and his batting average of .213 is well below his career average of .280. The strikeouts are piling up at 50, and Carpenter's ISO (isolated power, essentially a player's ability to collect extra-base hits) is a career-low .195, which ranks 64th in the Major Leagues.
Carpenter's 35 walks are the bubble that his on-base percentage of .349 benefits from, but that mark is low by his standards. Carpenter usually has 70-90 more hits than walks by seasons end, but these days he has just two more hits (37) than walks. That is a problem, but can it be mended?
The theory is laid out plain and simple: where Carpenter goes, the Cardinals' offense will follow. With Carpenter and Dexter Fowler enduring slow starts, the lineup has mustered an average of three runs per game in the past month. I don't think moving Carpenter to leadoff would solve the problem. While that's been the norm for Carpenter in his career, moving him one spot higher than his recent spot of no. 2 wouldn't change his approach or help his hitting.
Photos: Cardinals infielder Matt Carpenter
Better luck on balls put in play can help. Carpenter's .237 average on BABIP is well below his career mark of .324. A few more hard-hit baseball need to drop for his hit total to rise, but I wouldn't expect the batting average to reach his usual .270 range any time soon. What we are seeing is something different. Perhaps a man relying on power output instead of simply finding a hit. Carpenter's power was sustained last year, but he wasn't the same player after the midseason oblique injury. Perhaps the injury to his side is still lingering. Sometimes, a back and oblique can team up and slowly hurt a player's output.
Carpenter's WAR has never gotten close to the 2013 mark, and that is because his defense and baserunning do the team no favors. It doesn't matter if he's playing third, second or first base, Carpenter is a liability on defense. He costs the Cardinals runs with his glove, and has been shuffled around constantly due to his inability to own a position. Carpenter's baserunning is the worst on the team, unless Stephen Piscotty is playing. His lack of fundamentals spreads, like his hitting does, around the roster.
Carpenter turned 31 in November, and that is an age where a player either is a leader or just a teammate. There's no late surge in the big leagues for leadership. Leaders can be quiet or loud, but when a veteran player doesn't take the heat for a crucial error, an alarm goes off, echoing a recognition that has been long rumored but not yet completely nailed down.
Fellow Cardinals scribe Jon Doble said it best to me on Twitter:
He's a great Robin. Not quite a Batman.— Jon Doble (@JonDobleRBD) June 1, 2017
Adam Wainwright and Yadier Molina are Batman types. Chris Carpenter was Captain America, and it didn't matter if he started 10 or 35 games. When he spoke, people turned and listened. Carpenter doesn't have that, and will never attain it. If you think players didn't pay attention to Carpenter sidestepping the media on May 20, you don't know the game and the players who roll around in it as well as you think.
The realization is simple: Matt Carpenter is a solid player, but not a stud or team leader. He can work over a pitcher like few others in the game, but he will never achieve that revered status that Mike Trout or Kris Bryant. He will never walk to the plate and make a dugout tremble. The fans watching him round first may tremble more. Carpenter is the annoying fly that gets in another team's ointment; he isn't the beast that could wreck their world, and that's fine.
Carpenter can still climb out of this rut, have a monstrous June, and put together a good season. He'll win his team more games with his bat than he loses with his glove. The baserunning troubles will remain, but the blame game could thankfully rest.
No one asked Carpenter to be a hero. Like every Cardinal who has hit third in the order since Albert Pujols left, the pressure to be the stud has been too heavy of a weight to bear.
2017 is the first season Carpenter is making $10+ million. The ten million will rise to $13.7 million in 2018 and $14.7 million in 2019 before an $18.5 million option in 2020. For context, Carpenter is still producing a lot more this year than fellow ten million dollar check recipient Jhonny Peralta.
For Matt Carpenter, the goal is simple right now. Find your bat, do what you do best and remain a valuable asset to the St. Louis Cardinals. As much trouble as he gets into in the comics, Robin still has to do his part in order for Batman to look good.
The bigger problem is this, folks: the Cardinals' Batman right now is Jedd Gyorko, a career .245 hitter having a huge first half.
Worrying about Carpenter is warranted; assuming he is going to save the day again may be a stretch.