If you’re coming here for answers, I have none. I can only lay out what I have seen, what is known, and make arguments from there. What I do know, is that our hero is faced with potentially two nemeses...and it could be up to another party to help our hero find his state of exaltation. Let me explain:
Matt Carpenter (playing our hero)
Middle of the Order (playing Nemesis #1)
Father Time (playing Nemesis #2)
Hitting Leadoff (playing State of Exaltation)
Entering the 2017 season, leadoff hitter extraordinaire, Matt Carpenter had over 3,000 plate appearances to his name. He had hit first in the order in just over 2,200 of those PA; putting up a .295/.387/.485/.871 line at leadoff in the process. Carpenter had hit anywhere but first in the order in just over 800 of those PA putting up a slash line of .255/.347/.401/.748 outside of the leadoff spot.
Carpenter was obviously much more comfortable leading off at that point. I believe the sample size is large enough to say that is the case. Many media outlets and fans believed this both at that time and believe it now; more so, they believe it now. The team wanted Carpenter to try to take that incredible line at leadoff and be a middle of the order hitter. That was completely understandable. Just think of putting an .870 OPS into the middle of that order with more speed and/or on base potential ahead of him. Heck, some people still think this today, despite what you’ll read next.
Nemesis #1: Middle of the Order
During the past two years, Matt Carpenter was shoved into a non-leadoff position in the batting order to start each season.
In 2017, Carpenter started the year as the #3 hitter. He hit there or #2 in the order in all of his first 50 starts of the season. He appeared in the 6 hole as a pinch hitter and the 9 hole as a pinch hitter as well. He did not appear at leadoff until his 51st start of the season (in the team’s 57th game of the year). Entering that game as a leadoff hitter for the first time that season (on June 7th against the Cincinnati Reds), Carpenter had a .209/.341/.396/.736 line (which was deemed absolutely horrendous by the fan base) with 16 double, 4 triple, 29 homer, 78 run, and 85 RBI pace. Note: that’s almost exactly Marcell Ozuna’s line last year.
Matt Carpenter then was moved to the #1 spot in the batting order and hit there 390 of his final 399 plate appearances, appearing at #3 in the order one game for 4 PA, #4 in the order one game for 4 PA, and #9 in the order one game as a pinch hitter for 1 PA. Carpenter hit .260/.408/.483/.891 with 46 double, 2 triple, 25 homer, 115 run, 74 RBI pace the remainder of the season. That’s ELITE. Completely dominant.
Enter 2018, when Carpenter was again thrust into the #2, #3, or #7 spots in all but 7 of his first 41 starts. He hit leadoff in those other 7 starts. Carpenter’s line entering May 26th was .200/.318/.367/.685 with 48 double, 0 triple, 15 homer, 63 run, and 63 RBI pace. That’s not what you want out of, maybe, anybody but your #8 hitter, right? If he’s a good defender.
Matt Carpenter was then put back at the leadoff spot for all but 5 of his remaining 498 plate appearances on the year. Those 5 PA came in 4 separate games as a pinch hitter (staying in one of them long enough to get a second PA in a game against the Cubs). Over those nearly 500 PA the remainder of 2018, Carpenter hit .278/.394/.580/.974 with 42 double, 0 triple, 47 homer, 136 run, and 93 RBI pace. That’s legendary. Those are Mike Trout type numbers. That’s Albert in his prime type numbers.
All in all, from 2017-2018, here is Matt Carpenter’s line as a leadoff hitter and outside of the leadoff spot:
#2-#9 in the order: 388 PA, .213/.339/.414/.752 - .329 wOBA, 103 wRC+ Hitting leadoff: 911 PA, .265/.396/.522/.918 - .386 wOBA, 143 wRC+
Nemesis #2: Father Time
The other factor here is that Matt Carpenter was 31 years old in 2017. He turned 32 prior to the 2018 season. As I so often say when projecting Yadier Molina, Father Time catches up to everybody at some point. Is that the reason behind Matt Carpenter’s slow starts? Who knows?
In the past two years, Matt Carpenter has started slowly, compared to how his stat line looked at the end of the year. In 2017, that slow start as noted above was until the early parts of June. In 2018, the slow start was more until the middle or end of May. If you average those out, you’re looking at around 45-50 games worth of slow starts by Matt Carpenter over the past two seasons. Let’s just call it March-May to make it easier on the search engine.
You saw the individual year breakdowns above, but here are the two years combined:
March - May: .223/.351/.428/.778 - .339 wOBA, 111 wRC+
June - October: .260/.392/.514/.906 - .382 wOBA, 140 wRC+
State of Exaltation: 2019?
Matt Carpenter has already turned 33, back in November. Can 2019 be his best season yet, with Carpenter holding off Father Time yet again? What about slaying the "Middle of the Order"?
All signs point to him having a stable position in the field to start the year and him being the leadoff hitter for the St. Louis Cardinals starting game #1. If Nemesis #1 really is the more difficult foe, then that nemesis can be slayed not by Carpenter, but by Mike Shildt (manager of the Cardinals and writer of names on the lineup card). If Nemesis #2 really is the greater demon, then perhaps it will take until right around June 1st to see if Carpenter is going to have the season I project for him.
I will say, with Shildt batting him leadoff every day, this season is the best chance we'll have to see Carpenter at his best the rest of his career - which isn't saying much as he is 33 years old.
As I mentioned before. I have no definitive answers for you. This is what I have seen and what I know from valuable resources like Fangraphs and Baseball Reference about how these two nemeses have affected Matt in the past and how our hero could cause these nemesis damage this season. Let's hope the last image is one we see a lot of in 2019.
All art work by Nick Childress (@nchill17). He's really proud of his work here, as he should be. I was very demanding and he met and exceeded expectations! LOVE IT.