There’s a particular disconnect between a sports fan base and a declining player. It develops around the time that particular player starts to struggle consistently, no longer able to do what he once was able and expected to do. Once that divide forms, it’s not easily vanquished. Instead of remembering all the good seasons that player gave the team and the fans, they just see the recent development of mold on his game. It’s all they see, unfortunately.
This describes what it’s like right now between 90% of Cardinal Nation and Matt Carpenter, who will be playing in his final regular season game today. They mock him every at bat, hope he doesn’t play in games, and blame him for the demise. While the latter accusation isn’t wholly unwarranted, it’s a trickier situation than most people assume. Let’s recap.
Over 11 seasons, 1328 games, and 5,222 plate appearances, Carpenter has slashed .262/.368/.449. He has an OPS+ of 122 (100 is average) and contributed 30 fWAR, aka wins above replacement. He’s given the team those 30 extra wins while being paid a sum of $87 million for his services. 11 seasons and $87+ million. The sabermetrics analysts value an individual WAR at $8 million, so you could say Carpenter has given the $240 million in value.
Yes, it’s true. He’s being paid $18.5 million this year to stink at his job, but that’s a line for many older baseball players. He sure isn’t trying to suck out there. You can see it in his eyes every at-bat, the final opportunities slipping away to rewrite the final paragraph. He’s not walking to the plate wanting to give the first base field box a stiff breeze with each swing and a miss; no, he’s trying to do something good, something that will remind fans how great he was.
Carpenter is searching for the hallowed ground of a Matt Holliday-type honorary final series moment. Friday night, he had a chance. It was all designed for him to succeed and get that final time in the daylight of a career. St. Louis was down 6-5, and Carp came to the plate representing the go-ahead run. He worked the count to 3-1 and drove a pitch to the opposite field, nearly to the track before it was caught. Holliday moment denied, but he’ll get another shot today.
Let’s face it. The Cardinals’ front office gifted Carpenter with a generous extension two years ago, totaling around $37 million. It came after a resurgent 2018 season that saw him get off to a disastrous start yet finish with MVP-type numbers. The part that irks fans is that he still had a year remaining and had been shunned by MLB pitchers for nearly 45 days that season before going on a surreal four-month hitting streak. He finished 2018 the way he started it, struggling mightily. No problem, John Mozeliak and Bill DeWitt Jr were like, “here you go, man, nicely done.”
Cardinal Nation, what would you have Carpenter do right then and there… say no?! It’s $37 million dollars to play a guaranteed three more seasons under the bright lights in the Lou, one of the best places to play in the league. The 2022 option won’t be exercised, traded in for a $2 million buyout instead. That’s fine, but please stop the resentment act out there. It’s not Carp’s fault his swing aged faster than Game of Thrones’ final season. He didn’t design it this way; no player gets to write their ending. Baseball does that for you, and it can be shitty for thousands of ballplayers, basically walking away in the dark while a fair share of his teammates continue to thrive.
Carpenter didn’t try to become a home run hitter. He did that out of health necessity. A series of back injuries started to flare up around 2016 caused him to alter his approach in my opinion, even just slightly. If you asked him today if he would mind slipping back into that walking, doubling Carp from years ago, he would definitely say yes. But from 2015-18, Carpenter averaged 27 home runs while still getting on base plenty with a .376 OBP. So it doesn’t really make sense. In the end, the game simply won on points over the player—same as it ever was.
Don’t forget how great he was. As the Cardinals prepare to potentially face the Los Angeles Dodgers Wednesday, who can forget his postseason heroics off Clayton Kershaw and the men in blue? The bases-clearing double in 2013 that set the team off on a deep playoff run. The constant doubles and walks–bleeding pitchers down for the rest of the lineup.
Fact: Carpenter was the team’s last GREAT leadoff hitter. Not Dexter Fowler, Tommy Edman, or Harrison Bader. Carpenter did the job and did it well for many years. You can’t change the past few seasons, so appreciate the sum before booing or blasting him on his final day at work. The future isn’t bright for him. 2022 playing prospects aren’t exactly great, especially with a batting average under the Mendoza line for the past couple seasons. This could be his final start today for a good while, unless he locates the fountain of hitting youth this winter.
So give him a standing ovation. Give him two. Celebrate a great Cardinal like we do the rest. Remember the good times instead of hating the bad times. When you hit 300+ doubles and 150+ home runs for a team with a 125 wRC+ for a career, some respect should come your way.
Please, with sugar on top, show Matt Carpenter some respect as the curtain falls on his career. Is that too hard to ask?