Each year, there are normally one or two players on each MLB team where fans think, “Man, where would this team be without this guy on the roster?”
Here are some examples:
- How much worse would the Washington Nationals have been in 2015 without Bryce Harper’s MVP performance?
- Where would the New York Mets be right now without Yoenis Cespedes’ bat and Noah Syndergaard’s arm?
- Would the Houston Astros already be back over .500 if Jose Altuve wasn’t their second baseman?
That’s the kind of impact infielder Matt Carpenter has had on the St. Louis Cardinals.
It’s been an uphill battle for all contending NL Central teams not named the Chicago Cubs in 2016, and even with their small slump over the past week, things probably won’t get much easier. For most of the year, manager Mike Matheny has watched his club produce ho-hum results with a 39-36 record. Still, the Cards find themselves right in the thick of the NL playoff picture.
Overtaking the Cubs appears tough – they’re already 10 games back of Chicago – but they’re only 1.5 games behind the final Wild Card spot. Although he’s not that prototypical “superstar” player, St. Louis wouldn’t be where they are without Carpenter’s contributions in the leadoff spot.
Over the course of a 162-game season, obstacles are inevitable. For the Cardinals, they appeared before the first official Spring Training workout by swinging and missing in free agency on Jason Heyward and David Price. It didn’t get any easier when Jhonny Peralta was forced to the disabled list with a thumb injury.
While the club experienced some early-season surprises (Aledmys Diaz and Jeremy Hazelbaker come to mind), they had just as many early-season disappointments (like Randal Grichuk, Kolten Wong and Adam Wainwright). As a leadoff hitter, it’s important to consistently set the tone and put pressure on opposing defenses, which is exactly what Carpenter has done throughout the last three months.
After somewhat mixed results in April (.230/.370/.425 with three homers and 17 RBI in 87 at-bats), he’s been on another level, posting an OPS over 1.000 in both May and June (so far). When did this all start? He was already enjoying a great second month, but an interesting date to point out is May 28 – the day he returned from the paternity list.
Since then, he’s slashed an incredible .376/.477/.699 with four homers, 12 doubles and 15 RBI. His BABIP has been pretty high (.419), but he’s also collected more walks (18) than strikeouts (15). Despite all this, it’s his versatility with the glove that truly makes him so valuable to St. Louis. Sustaining this hot streak is even more impressive when considering he switched positions in the middle of it.
Once Peralta was ready to return, the Cardinals felt it was best to demote Wong for the time being. Doing so kept Diaz at shortstop, put Peralta at third and shifted Carpenter back to second. Not only did he maintain his offensive production, but he actually got noticeably better (.279/.385/.536 at third base in 183 at-bats, .345/.486/.690 at second base in 58 at-bats).
There aren’t many superstars in the game who could play two or three different positions on any given night, while also not having it negatively impact their offense.
After crushing a single-season career-high in homers last year (28), there had to be some question as to whether it was sustainable in his age-30 campaign. Already with 13 bombs in 257 at-bats, that seems to be the case. Combining his power with a keen eye at the plate and an aptitude to hit doubles (he’s led the league two of the last three years), the Cardinals have one of baseball’s most dynamic hitters.
The most encouraging part is this hot streak has basically evened out Carpenter’s overall statistics. Outside of seeing less fastballs (64.1% in ’15, 58.1% in ’16), pulling pitches more often (39.3% in ’15, 47.1% in ’16) and increasing his hard-hit rate (37% in ’15, 43.3% in ’16), this year’s stats basically mirror his 2015 performance. Jeff Sullivan of FanGraphs points out that Carpenter’s 163 wRC+ only trails David Ortiz and Mike Trout amongst qualified hitters, while being ahead of Altuve (162) and Anthony Rizzo (161). You know, guys who are categorized as superstars.
He’s been providing that superstar production without all the fanfare and at a fraction of the price ($6.5 million salary in ’16). Where would St. Louis be right now without him?
I’m reasonably certain the Cardinals don’t care to find out. He easily ranks first on the squad with a 3.1 fWAR, which also ranks 14th in all of baseball. Without him at the top of the order, it’s hard to see this team even sniffing postseason contention at the moment, let alone being in the middle of the Wild Card race.
Carpenter’s newfound power in 2015 was a big help in him placing 12th in NL MVP voting. If that continues and his contact rate returns to what we saw in 2013, he should be a top-three finisher in voting this year. And if it weren’t for Clayton Kershaw having a truly historic season, he’d be a heavy favorite.