St. Louis Cardinals: Looking back on Matt Carpenter’s career

St. Louis Cardinals infielder Matt Carpenter will likely be gone after 2021. His career has been an eventful one.

A strong St. Louis Cardinals career from the team’s third longest-tenured player appears to be wrapping up not with a bang, but with a whimper. Infielder Matt Carpenter has stated that he wants to play beyond 2021, but the likelihood of that being with the Cardinals — the only team he’s ever known — looks very low. It’s too bad it’s not a better conclusion, because he was a very solid player in his prime.

The Cardinals took Carpenter in the 13th round of the 2009 MLB draft, and he came to be one of the poster boys of the Cardinals’ “devil magic” in finding major league talent in the late rounds of drafts. He debuted with the Cardinals in 2011 and came into his own in 2012. He had his best season in 2013, leading the major leagues in runs, hits and doubles.

Carpenter served as the Cardinals’ primary leadoff hitter from 2013 to 2018, and during that time, there were few better in that spot. His exceptional eye at the plate and large number of walks made him an outstanding offensive catalyst.

2018, while not Carpenter’s best season, was probably his most popular among fans. After slumping to start the season, Carpenter hit .287 from May 16 onward.  He credited his turnaround to his homemade salsa, which became a legend around the team and around St. Louis, even selling at Schnucks. “It’s gotta be the salsa” was a tagline prominently featured on hastily created shirts.

But when baseball changed, Carpenter struggled to adjust. Put simply, the increasing ubiquity of defensive shifts led to Carpenter hitting into outs at a ridiculous pace. What were base hits in previous years were suddenly right at the defenders.

In 2018, Carpenter seemed to be able to conquer the shift by simply barreling the ball at a high rate; his 56 barrels were 10th in the major leagues. Unfortunately, one of his greatest strengths has disappeared. He wasn’t able to put the wood to the ball as solidly in later years, and his strikeout rate, historically quite low, has risen to over 30% in 2021 for the first time in his career. When he’s put the ball in play this year, his metrics are quite close to those he produced in 2018, but the drastic strikeout increase likely points to slowing bat speed and the need to guess at more pitches.

Age and the shift haven’t been kind to Carpenter in the later years of his career, and it’s hard to believe that a competitor will take a flier on him. If a struggling team wants to add a veteran presence, Carpenter might fit their bill.

While Adam Wainwright and Yadier Molina will receive heaps of praise and fond memories in their final year, Carpenter’s likely denouement in St. Louis has been tough for fans to swallow. Baseball is very much a “what have you done for me lately?” sport, and Carpenter hasn’t played much or produced when he has played. But he was a pivotal part of the offense for most of the 2010s as one of the best table-setters in the game, and his career and contributions should be noticed and appreciated.