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Buffa: Defending Matt Carpenter is somehow still a thing

Carpenter may not be what you desire, but he's a very good player nevertheless. Other teams would love to have him and pitchers do not like facing him in a tough spot.
Credit: Gregory Fisher
Mar 29, 2018; New York City, NY, USA; Cardinals first base man Matt Carpenter (13) scores a run on Cardinals first baseman Jose Martinez (38) rbi single on opening day at Citi Field. Mandatory Credit: Gregory J. Fisher-USA TODAY Sports

St. Louis Cardinals fans are notorious for under-appreciating players, and their polarizing opinions on infielder Matt Carpenter is a juicy case study.

Some want him to be the leader that Chris Carpenter was. Others wish he'd run the bases better. A small group would like him to be a superstar talent like Albert Pujols. Some don't love all the walks and the .241 batting average last season. Some simply can't appreciate a wonderfully quaffed beard.

Look, it's pretty simple. Carpenter is a unique asset to the Cardinals, a weapon that serves many purposes and powers the offense for the team. Remember when he was out of the lineup the past few seasons. Things didn't go as planned. Runs weren't generated or scored. Smiles turned to frowns.

But that's not what most fans see with Carpenter. Most see the guy who tried to stretch a double into a triple in a key game against the San Francisco Giants last year, got thrown out in doing so, and didn't own his mistake after the game. From that moment on, Carpenter was the lollygagging infielder who wasn't good enough and wasn't what the team "needed.” Trust me, I've heard it all.

Here's the truth: Carpenter also didn't care for his 2017 season either. He especially didn't like the low batting average, which was a career low by 0.030 points. According to Cardinals MLB.com reporter Joe Trezza, Carpenter wants to get back to the higher average he held from 2013-2016. That's his goal in 2018: worrying less about home runs, launch angles, and more about getting hits. In other news, Carpenter homered on Saturday in a 6-2 loss to the New York Mets.

While not as great as what came before, there was a lot to like about Carpenter's 2017 season. The .384 on base percentage was his highest mark since his breakout 2013 season, while a .451 slugging percentage and 109 walks didn't hurt either. The .835 OPS and wRC+ of 123 was solid as well. Carpenter's 2.9 fWAR was still among the highest on the team. If those stats are considered not good enough, a lot of players would like to enter that realm any time in their careers.

Maybe fans are holding him to the rigorous high standards that come with a season like the one he had in 2013. I'm talking 55 doubles to go with a .318 batting average, 199 hits, 126 runs scored, and getting on base nearly a 40 percent clip. That's an obnoxious disregard for other pitcher's feelings-being able to reach base via a walk or club a double to the gap.

However, some wanted more big pop from Carpenter's bat when the slugging and extra base output decreased in 2014. What did Carpenter do? He hit 28 home runs and 44 doubles in 2015 while slugging .505. Similar to what Matt Holliday experienced during his time here, nothing Carpenter can do will please them all.

The reality is Carpenter may never be the upfront speaker that fans want him to be, or the expert baserunner. He doesn't have a strong enough arm to play third base or crafty enough to win a gold glove at second or first base. He's going to strike out 100 times, but he'll walk at least 75% of that total while pumping 55 extra base hits or more at the same time. What he lacks in elite levels, Carpenter makes up for in versatility. You can't keep him down. If he felt like a 2.9 WAR season was a letdown, I pity the fool who awaits this guy in the summer of 2018.

Can he only hit lead-off? No. Does he fare well there for some weird reason? Yes. However, when you aren't allowed to adapt to a certain spot in the order and only truly trusted in one spot, how can the stats back up the transition? One can only hope Mike Matheny will keep his itchy trigger finger away from moving Carpenter around in the lineup. However, if the lineup has a hard time producing runs into mid-April, you'll see #13 move to the top spot. That's the Carpenter effect for you.

Perhaps the best way to evaluate a talent is to ask yourself how many other MLB teams would like to have him on their team. I can bet that most of, if not all, of the teams in the Majors would kill to have Carpenter on their side. A guy with considerable pop who can work over a pitcher while playing four positions in the field and hits left-handed. Heck, my mouth watered a bit typing that.

Somehow, the need to defend Carpenter still exists. Like Vladimir Tarasenko on the St. Louis Blues, some fans just don't see enough in Carpenter's talents to be satisfied. They want more. They want what other teams have. I can handle the average to slightly below average defense and sloppy baserunning for a guy who can do what Carpenter can do at the plate. He's a lethal, if secretive, weapon for a baseball team. There's no denying it. I also have faith in the Jose Oquendo glare in keeping Carpenter from being thrown out at third base this year.

The 32-year-old Carpenter has two years left on his current contract with an option for a third. He will be 35 years of age when the option year (2020) ends. The highest single-season salary Carpenter will make is $18.5 million. That's it for a guy who regularly produced 3.0 WAR per season.

Carpenter may not be what you desire, but he's a very good player nevertheless. Other teams would love to have him and pitchers do not like facing him in a tough spot. Seeing him walk to the plate knowing you'll offer him every pitch you own only to have him club it to the gap, take it for a walk, or strike out while doing some homework for at-bat number two must be frustrating.

I hope the Cardinals never have to face Matt Carpenter. Of course, by then, fans will truly appreciate his work if it suddenly stands on the other side. Would you trust anyone in the Cardinals bullpen to get him out right now? I didn't think so.

In November, I said the Cardinals didn't need Eric Hosmer because they already had a Hosmer type, albeit a better one, in Carpenter. When the rest of Cardinal Nation understands that, St. Louis will be a better place.

Thanks for reading and a hat tip to Baseball Reference and Fangraphs for the assist in completing this story.

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