When a baseball player produces for a number of seasons, he earns a certain level of respect in addition to the leeway to have a bad stretch of play without losing his spot.
Matt Carpenter has been an extremely reliable source for five seasons with the St. Louis Cardinals, getting on base at a .370 clip and slugging home runs to cover up for a shrinking batting average. This season, all of that proficiency has changed. After going hitless last night, Carpenter is hitting .147 with a .568 OPS. He's 12-96 in his last 30 games with 36 strikeouts. It's not getting better.
In previous seasons, one would prescribe Carpenter a simple dose of being moved to the leadoff spot in order to jumpstart his bat. That won't work this time. This year, in limited time there, Carpenter is just 2-25 when leading off. You could bat him first, second, or third, and be disappointed. However, at this point, the Cards can't simply abandon Carpenter after a bad start. Not yet. They need a new plan.
For Matt Carpenter and the Cardinals, the respect level needs to be shifted in order to order to jumpstart this inept slumping Cardinals offense. Pride needs to take a backseat with both sides in order to help the team, which according to the oldest rulebook in the world, should come first. The slow and steady plan isn't working, so the time is now for a shift in power and resources. If not, the Cardinals will continue to have trouble scoring runs. If the bats go where Carpenter goes, they can't wait for his bat to find more sustainable life.
Of course, if you ask Cardinals manager Mike Matheny, it's just a matter of hot air with the lineup's woes.
That's like a teacher asking a student what happened to the United States in World War II and the response is, "well, they had a small problem with a country, so they got on a boat and fought." Matheny doesn't understand that there's no harm done in dropping Carpenter lower in the order.
This is where the sabermetrical crowd will tell me to hold and be patient, because Carpenter is "expected" to get on base 40% of the time and finish with respectable stats. The projections are still decent for a guy who hasn't experienced this much struggle in years. I don't care about your projections. That's like saying a quarterback is projected to throw 30 touchdowns when he could be broken in half in week one. They are like reaching into a paper bag hoping for something nice because well, the last time you did it good things happened.
The promises aren't dishonest or drawn from nothing. Carpenter is projected by Steamer on Fangraphs to have a 1.6 WAR with a 114 wRC+, which aren't terrible, but nowhere near the levels of Carpenter's previous seasons. More so, they aren't the makings of a leadoff or #2 hitter. While Steamer has Carpenter finishing with a .371 OBP, you can't hang your hat on that alone in keeping him there if it's hurting the team in the present.
~What about health? Is the shoulder still affecting his swing? How is the back doing? I've noticed a reluctance in Carpenter's need to swing at the plate, as he has taken more pitches than usual it seems in this young season.
~The shift is eating up Carpenter's healthy line drive percentage of 25%, and he has been unable to adapt or take the ball the other way. When you are asking one of your best hitters to drop down a bunt towards third base, things are getting bad. Carpenter has never favored hitting the ball to the opposite field, preferring to use the gaps for his doubles and pulling his home runs. His opposite field hit percentage of 22.4 falls in line with his career marks, so that won't change.
The logical choice is to move Carpenter down the lineup while he figures a way out of this slump. The sixth or seventh spot would be a good place for him. He could move into a platoon with Jose Martinez or Jedd Gyorko, but I don't think rest is what the man needs to find his way. I do think Carpenter has to play 3-4 times a week at least. He just can't hit in the top three spots, not with a terrible OPS and inability to go the other way.
Carpenter's lack of speed also is good reason to keep him below the top five spots in the lineup. You have a guy who can draw a walk, but has no speed. There's nothing more uncomfortably funny than seeing Carpenter lead off in front of Tommy Pham and then see the latter literally chase Carpenter around the bases. It's not a good idea.
Here's the new plan for Carpenter. Don't sit him, but drop him in the order and feel free to swap other more potent hitters into his spot if there's a hot streak. The people who think the Cardinals should designate Carpenter for assignment are delusional. That's a highly volatile reaction to a bad 39 games for a player of the man's caliber. You aren't giving up on Carpenter by dropping him in the order and taking him away from the centerpiece of the lineup. It's helping the ballclub.
Right now, Matheny and company need to put pride and respect aside with players such as Carpenter and Dexter Fowler (hanging in the shrubs with a .146/.257/.285 slash line), and do what's right for the team. If Fowler can start seven games in the sixth spot in the lineup, so can Carpenter. Both players are former OBP machines who are having a hard time, so they can get equal treatment.
Look, I like Carpenter and have defended him in the past against the folks who want him to be a superstar for this team. He's a potent core player who provides a valuable service. However, right now, he's not providing anything positive on the field, outside of decent defense at first base. Carpenter is also getting older, hitting 32 this past offseason, so it's not outside of the realm of possibility to expect a drop in overall performance.
Having said that, you can't push him out. It's just not smart. With no offense to Gyorko or Martinez, neither have put together a season like Carpenter. Saying they should replace the guy all together is a little short-sighted and narrow-minded approach. When this offense is at its best, Carpenter is getting on base and hitting home runs. He's not close to that right now, but you need to slowly point him in that direction. You do that by dropping him in the order and giving him a couple days off a week.
Projections aside, Carpenter's wRC+ of 60 right now isn't that appetizing, but the expectations and hope for his season aren't completely gone. You could send him to Memphis, but what would that solve? Carpenter would feast on that pitching and be right back at the same road marker in the big leagues. He needs to figure it out here against the best pitchers, only from a lower spot in the order.
If the Cardinals are to contend for a playoff spot in 2018, they need a potent Matt Carpenter. Getting him back to that level starts with the dismissal of the past and pride, but not with a complete demotion.
It's definitely not hot air, Matheny.