St. Louis Cardinals

Greatest Cardinals No. 39: INF Matt Carpenter

The 100 Greatest Cardinals: 41-50

Counting down the top 100 Cardinals of all-time, this video features numbers 41-50 on the list.
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Counting down the top 100 Cardinals of all-time, this video features numbers 41-50 on the list.

NOTE: The BND has endeavored to identify an objective list of the top 100 St. Louis Cardinals players of all time, based on statistical formulas developed through sabermetrics. We’ll count down the list daily, player by player, until April 4, the day of the Cardinals’ 2019 home opener. The running list and player bios can be found at bnd.com.

NO 39: MATT CARPENTER

It’s little wonder the Houston Astros called on Jeff Luhnow when their general manager’s job came open in 2011. Over the five MLB amateur drafts he had directed for the Cardinals as their top talent assessor, 49 of his picks eventually reached the major leagues, which nearly doubles the average.

The masterpiece of his St. Louis years, though, was his draft class of 2009, which included five picks who played significant roles in the Cardinals winning 97 games and a National League championship just four years later. Shelby Miller was a 15-game winner in 2013, Trevor Rosenthal posted a 2.63 ERA in 75 innings of relief work, Joe Kelly won nine games in 12 starts after the All-Star break, and Matt Adams pounded 17 home runs in just 296 at bats.

But the valedictorian of Luhnow’s all-star class was his 13th-round pick— Matt Carpenter. And the left-handed hitting infielder may have been a reach at No. 399.

The Cardinals found Carpenter at Texas Christian University, where he reached base in 210 of his school-record 241 games played. The three-time all-Mountain West Conference second team pick had a career average of .312 as a TCU Horned Frog.

Pro scouts liked his statistical line as well as his baseball pedigree — his father, Rick Carpenter, was a USA Today National High School Baseball Coach of the Year — but his off-the-field habits raised some cautionary flags. After rupturing a ligament in his throwing arm as a junior, Carpenter was allowed two years off as a medical redshirt. His weight ballooned to more than 240 pounds — about 50 pounds higher than where he started before the injury — validating a bad reputation.

“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,” TCU head baseball coach Jim Schlossnagle told The New York Times. “He never failed a drug test, never got in trouble with the police; just college stuff, being lazy.”

Schlossnagle gave Carpenter the lecture he estimated he’d given a thousand times to college players. In a nutshell, he urged his young infielder to not let his natural talents go to waste. Sensing a fleeting future in baseball, Carpenter took heed, quit fast food cold turkey, and shed those excess pounds. One of Luhnow’s scouts, Aaron Krawiec saw that Carpenter had transformed himself and gladly endorsed him come draft day.

“A lot of guys make contact,” he told the Springfield (Missouri) News-Leader. “But consistent, hard contact is a different story … It was the 13th round and they said ‘We need a bat.’”

Carpenter made his major league debut with seven games at the end of the 2011 season. The year after, in 114 games split between first and third base, he batted .294 with 46 RBIs. 

It was in 2013 that the draft class of 2009 took its place in prime time and it was Carpenter who led them back to the top of the National League. Starting at second base for the first time ever and leading off in the lineup, Carpenter batted a career-best .318 and led the league both in hits (199) and runs scored (126). His 55 doubles not only led the NL, they were most by the Cardinals player since Stan Musial in 1953.

St. Louis defeated Pittsburgh in the divisional series then took down the Los Angeles Dodgers in a six-game NLCS, but lost the World Series to the Boston Red Sox four games to two. But Carpenter was selected to his first of three All-Star Games (to date), won the Silver Slugger Award at his position, and placed fourth in the MVP vote.

There have been several record-breaking moments throughout his eight seasons in the big leagues.

In a May 19, 2016 win over the Colorado Rockies, Carpenter became the first Cardinal since Red Schoendienst in 1953 to record two doubles, a home run and six RBIs in a single game. The feat was punctuated by a home run to Busch Stadium’s right-field bleachers.

On Oct. 2 of that same season, facing Pittsburgh relief pitcher Antonio Bastardo with two on and two out in the sixth and the Cardinals trailing 2-1, Carpenter did something he had never previously done in the major leagues — he swung at a 3-0 pitch. The 407-foot deposit to the right field bleachers sent St. Louis on its way to a 10-4 victory.

At home against the Cleveland Indians on June 26 of 2018, he had a double and two home runs as part of a 5-for-5 day. Three weeks later, he became just the second player in MLB history by hitting three home runs and two doubles in a single game. He added seven RBIs and four runs scored, all of it before the sixth inning, in a 18-5 win over the rival Chicago Cubs.

In 2018, handicapped by a slow May and a poor September, Carpenter inserted himself back into MVP consideration by hitting a career best 36 home runs to go with 42 doubles, 111 runs, 81 runs batted in and a slash line of .257/.374/.523 from the leadoff spot. With a torrid early-summer pace, he went from batting .140 in May to .260 by the middle of June and had a six-game home run streak fueled, he said, by his own homegrown salsa.

But a more typical season at the plate is closer to the one he posted in 2015 when he batted .272 (.274 career) with a .380 OBP (.377 career), .505 slugging average (.470 career), 44 doubles (averages 42 per season), 28 home runs (21 avg.), 84 RBIs (77 avg.), and 101 runs scores (104 avg.).

The kind of reliability is Carpenter’s calling card, and it goes back, he says, to the talk he had 11 years ago with his college coach.

“If you try to do something that’s not what you do and not to your strength as a hitter, that’s exactly what (pitchers) want. It’s a lose-lose,” Carpenter said. “So you don’t change your approach. As a hitter, you go with your strength.”

SEASONS IN ST. LOUIS: 2011-present

KEY STATS

.274/.377/.470 | 3x AS | Silver Slugger ‘13 | 25.9 WAR

TOP 100 SCORE: 3.44

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BND Assigning News Editor Todd Eschman has won numerous state and regional awards for his columns, feature stories and news reporting. He was born and raised in Belleville, attended SIU-Carbondale, and is a member of the BBWAA, SABR and St. Louis Sports Hall of Fame.
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