St. Louis Cardinals: Matt Carpenter’s cost of toughness

ST. LOUIS, MO - APRIL 29: Matt Carpenter
ST. LOUIS, MO - APRIL 29: Matt Carpenter /

Matt Carpenter doesn’t like to make excuses. However, the 2018 St. Louis Cardinals would be wise to look past his history of toughness if they expect to get Carpenter at his best.

The presumed St. Louis Cardinals first baseman — formerly, a super utility daydream — and 3-hole lineup anchor had plenty of reason to blame for his decline in performance since the middle of 201. However, Matt Carpenter insists there’s nothing to see here. The shoulder issues of 2017 have been “cleaned up” and he’s “not concerned at all” about the recurring tightness in his back…but maybe he should be…

On July 6, 2016, in the middle of his best offensive season to date, Carpenter tore his oblique muscle. The first half of that season saw his OPS at an MVP-conversation-worthy .988 and his wRC+ (weighted runs created plus) at 62% above average. After returning from the injury, though, Carpenter’s power, along with that OPS, plummeted to .689 and his wRC+ dropped to 7% below average.

After 2016, it was clear the notoriously nagging oblique injury was the root of his 2016 decline, but it was believed that an off-season full of rest and rehabilitation would cure the problem. Then came the Spring of 2017…

It was March 4, 2017 when Carpenter withdrew from the World Baseball Classic due to “lower back stiffness,” an issue that had him concerned because he thought it felt like a precursor to his previous oblique injury. Thus, Carpenter didn’t have a full Spring Training, and his poor finish to 2016 became a slow start in 2017.

Despite the poor start, though, Carp rebounded to have a decent — if unlucky — first half until a new injury caught up to him and altered his approach at the plate. Again, he finished the season not hitting the ball with any authority and having to scrap his way on base. Again, it became clear a lingering injury, this time the shoulder, was the cause. This time, though, Carpenter admitted that the pain was such that it affected both his throwing and his swing.

Adding further concern to this trend of injuries piling on injuries and second-half declines, was the note that Carpenter’s 2017 shoulder bursitis came with some “bone-on-bone grinding” that caused pain he just had to manage. Again, he toughed it out. Again, fans were told that an off-season full of proactive rest would be the answer…

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Flash forward to Spring Training in 2018. Again, Carpenter arrives with a tight lower back and a sore shoulder.

This time, though, it’s being described as “tendonitis”, yet Mike Matheny is now saying the shoulder is always a source of concern, despite Carpenter’s optimism that he’ll be ready to go for the final two weeks of exhibition games.

It would be reckless to suggest that surgery is the solution to all of Carpenter’s shoulder problems.

These things aren’t a guaranteed fix. Furthermore, an increase in oblique injuries throughout baseball in recent years suggests a connection to more intense training and stronger athletes (see: Tyler O’Neill). However, there are trends that can’t be ignored here, and they all seem to be tied to Carpenter’s desire to stay on the field.

In professional baseball — or, sports in general — it’s well-known everybody gets hurt and everybody plays through pain. That’s a given. However, there’s a difference between playing through the aches and pains of a long season and playing through injuries. One of them is a necessary evil, while the other is a recipe for long-term decline and repeat injuries. Carpenter seems to be causing both of these effects to occur, and at what cost?

Is it worth being tough to play as a lesser version of yourself, despite the front office selling you as the St. Louis Cardinals’ answer to Anthony Rizzo? If you’re the front office, is it worth putting all of your chips in on Carpenter as a middle-of-the-order threat when he’s spent half of each of the last two seasons just trying to scrap his way on base?

Unless you’re sold on Jose Martinez repeating his strong rookie season (at half of Carpenter’s plate appearances, with worse defense) and you’re comfortable with a full season of Jedd Gyorko at third base (something we haven’t seen), then sure…duct tape Carp together and throw him back onto the field.

Next: Injury prone first base confounds

If the trend continues, though, the middle of the 2018 St. Louis Cardinals lineup — and the team’s infield depth — is going to be tested come midseason, if not sooner this time. Then what will the team’s excuse be?