It is a speech, Jim Schlossnagle guessed, that he has given a thousand times to hundreds of college baseball players. Distilled, the coach’s message is simple: Give yourself a chance to succeed. Or, in blunt terms: Stop wasting your talent.
It resonated with Matt Carpenter in 2007, in his junior year at Texas Christian University. Carpenter had a tattered elbow, a bulging waistline and a fading chance of ever being drafted. His future life as the offensive engine of the St. Louis Cardinals - the best team in the major leagues so far this season - was implausible.
“He transformed himself,” said the Chicago Cubs’ Jake Arrieta, a teammate at TCU, and the result is a certified star.
Carpenter, a third baseman, is hitting .333 for the Cardinals, who are 21-7 after beating the Chicago Cubs, 5-1, on Thursday. He is the major league leader in runs scored over the last three seasons, and his 20 extra-base hits this season are tied for the most in the game. His refined approach annually helps the Cardinals play deep into October.
In a way, Carpenter’s success is fitting. He is the son of a high school coach and was raised on stories of Pete Rose, the hustling baseball savant. But early in Carpenter’s junior year at TCU, he was hitting .185 and undercutting his baseball intellect with off-field laziness.
A damaged elbow helped save his career. It gave out on a painful throw from first base in a game at Coastal Carolina, and Carpenter knew he would become the first TCU position player to need Tommy John surgery. If he wanted to do something more significant in baseball, the injury was his chance to restart.
“He always played hard, always practiced hard,” Schlossnagle said. “But everything away from the field was subpar, to say the least, whether that be his effort in the classroom, his effort in the weight room or his effort with nutrition. He never failed a drug test, never got in trouble with the police; just college stuff, being lazy. But he was never that way on the baseball field.”
Carpenter’s injury happened just in time to take a medical redshirt. He would have two more years of eligibility, a full second half of his college career. Schlossnagle challenged him to make the most of it by changing his lifestyle.
“I was pushed to the brink,” Carpenter said. “I didn’t think I was going to play baseball. And when you get to a point in your career where you don’t know where it’s headed, you’re so motivated. That’s where I was at. I was broken down, I had an injury, I was out of shape and didn’t know where I was going. But I felt like there was more in there, and I needed to let it out.”
The day after their talk, Schlossnagle said, Carpenter was different. If someone ordered pizza for the team, he passed. He never touched soda. He lost 40 pounds, studied better and, as a fifth-year senior, nearly led TCU to the College World Series.
Yet all of it was worth only $1,000 to the Cardinals, who drafted him in the 13th round in 2009. Carpenter eagerly took the small bonus. He had no other choice.
“I think after taxes it was like $500,” Carpenter said. “I just put it in the bank. Honestly, though, 500 bucks, when you’re in college and you have no money, it’s like, all right, cool, thanks.”
Ten years earlier, the Cardinals had found another gem in the 13th round: a stocky community college catcher named Albert Pujols. With Pujols, picked 402nd overall, the standout tool was power. With Carpenter, it was uncanny plate discipline - and, like Pujols, a burning passion to improve.
By his second professional season, Carpenter was hitting .316 in Class AA. Invited to major league camp the next spring, he made an immediate impression.
“He was one of those guys showing up at 5 a.m. every day, just trying to soak up every minute of it - and he still does it today,” general manager John Mozeliak said. “To envision him from Double-A to where he is today, I don’t think anybody could have told you that with a straight face. But when you think about how disciplined he is and how he prepares, I don’t think anybody in this organization would tell you they’re surprised.”
Carpenter reached the majors for good in 2012, when he played five positions and hit .294. As the full-time second baseman the next season, he made the All-Star team, led the National League in hits, runs and doubles, and humbled Clayton Kershaw in the NL championship series clincher, doubling on the 11th pitch of his at-bat to start the winning rally.
Last fall, facing Kershaw again in the opening game of the division series at Dodger Stadium, Carpenter smoked a three-run, go-ahead double on the eighth pitch of his at-bat to chase Kershaw in the seventh inning. The Dodgers lost the series in four.
“It’s certainly fun, but it’s a grind, too,” Carpenter said, referring to his mastery in those moments of the game’s best pitcher. “You’re just so locked in to what’s going on, and you’re trying your best to compete. Man, those are tough at-bats, but those are the memorable ones. I think it just boils down to staying focused.”
In at-bats like those, Carpenter said, his mindset is to keep fighting. The more good pitches he fouls, the better the chance that the pitcher will make a mistake. But he also takes pride in identifying balls, sometimes better than the umpire.
Last winter at TCU - Carpenter lives so close that he commutes by golf cart for offseason workouts - he excitedly told Schlossnagle that he led the league in called strikes that were later judged to be balls by a computer tracking system. He also led the NL in pitches per plate appearance last season, at 4.37, and has taken more pitches than any other hitter in the majors over the last two years.
Chicago Cubs manager Joe Maddon said Carpenter’s calmness at the plate reminded him of the Cincinnati Reds’ Joey Votto, who has been criticized for seeming too passive. Schlossnagle once felt the same way about Carpenter.
“He was batting third or fourth, and I wanted him to drive in some runs and swing the bat,” Schlossnagle said. “But he did that, in his own way, and I learned a lot from him in terms of coaching. The guy’s great because of what he does, not in spite of what he does.”
Yet even the best hitters can sharpen their approach, and Cardinals manager Mike Matheny said he was encouraged by a subtle change in Carpenter’s. He still sees a lot of pitches, but is more likely to pounce early in the count on a pitch he can drive.
With St. Louis trailing by three runs in the fifth inning Tuesday, Carpenter looked for an inside pitch from the Cubs’ Kyle Hendricks, who had worked him there twice already. He took the first pitch but lashed the second over the right-field fence for a three-run homer.
Carpenter did it, as always, without batting gloves. He prefers to swing with his bare hands, he said, and does not mind the calluses. The Cardinals, who once invested so little in his future, will pay him $52 million on a six-year contract through 2019.
“He’s completely deserving of all that he’s achieved,” Schlossnagle said, “because he’s a self-made player.”