Carpenter determined to have bounce-back year

Cards' third baseman on '19: 'I just kind of got myself into a hole'

January 21st, 2020

ST. LOUIS -- At the end of every season, reflects on what did and did not go well the previous season. It helps him craft a game plan for the offseason to focus on the improvements he’d like to make.

After a career worst year at the plate, this winter brought the need for more improvement than any offseason before. And in a candid discussion Monday during the final day of Winter Warm-Up, Carpenter emphasized that he's embracing the good, bad and ugly of 2019.

“It keeps you from being complacent,” Carpenter said. “You can continually be motivated. I’m extremely motivated this year. I want to earn my good graces with the rest of our fans and even my teammates, showing them that I can still be an elite hitter.”

At the start of 2019, Carpenter was coming off a season where he hit a career-high 36 homers and finished in the top 10 in the National League MVP Award voting. In April, Carpenter signed a two-year, $39 million extension to be the Cards' everyday third baseman and leadoff hitter. But he slumped through the first half of last season and never really turned around.

Carpenter suffered a foot contusion in July and spent time in the Minors working on his swing. When he returned, Carpenter saw limited playing time as the Cardinals raced toward a division title, and finished last season with a .226/.334/.392 slash line.

“I think that the way the year went for me, getting off to a slow start kind of just snowballed, and it felt like at times I was trying to save a season with one swing, and it just wasn’t a good recipe for success,” Carpenter said. “I just kind of got myself into a hole.”

As he came off the bench late in the season and in the postseason, Carpenter began to feel better at the plate, mentally and physically. This was key for setting the course to finding his swing again over the final few months. After the season, Carpenter met with the Cardinals' front office and coaching staff to discuss an offseason strategy -- and apologize. Carpenter said on Monday that he felt like he "had let them down."

And at the Cardinals' season-ending press conference in November, president of baseball operations John Mozeliak and the rest of the organization pledged their confidence in the All-Star third baseman to have a bounce-back year.

“I really firmly believe that he’s ready to be in a good spot to compete and help us this year and be a more complete hitter,” Cards manager Mike Shildt said. “I know that’s what Matt has worked on, and what that looks like. Sometimes, we get in between of our identities and I feel like that has taken place with Matt a little bit.

"But then he tried to figure out, 'Who am I? Where am I? What am I doing?' And I feel really comfortable and confident that he’s created some clarity to what that looks like and he’ll be a piece of our offense for sure, and I’m sure a fairly big one.”

Shildt mentioned it Sunday and Carpenter reiterated it again Monday -- this offseason has been about figuring out what Carpenter’s identity is as a hitter. In 2013, Carpenter’s first All-Star year, he hit for average. He finished fourth in the NL MVP Award voting after hitting .318/.392/.481 with 11 homers. In ’18, Carpenter hit for power. Through it all, he’s been consistent with a career .372 on-base percentage over nine seasons.

“One thing that I know I can always do is find a way to get on base,” Carpenter said. “But as far as the balance between hitting for average and hitting for power and what that looks like and who am I and what is best suited for our club, those are the questions that I ask myself all the time, and every year is different.

“If I could evolve somewhere in the middle of who I was in ’13 and who I am now, that’s kind of my goal. That is where I’d like to be.”

Carpenter has worked this winter on not pulling the ball. His hope is to be a more complete hitter, spraying line drives across the field like he did when he first arrived in the Majors. He’s gotten back to working on the mechanics of his swing, especially on his swing plane and not hitting underneath the baseball, which leads to soft contact, popups and swings-and-misses.

Carpenter has also focused on his strength. Mozeliak mentioned at the Winter Meetings in December that Carpenter had a new offseason strength program to combat some of the issues -- one being that he couldn’t keep weight on this year like he has in the past -- that the team found when they assessed Carpenter’s health at the end of the season.

Carpenter didn’t feel as strong last year as he had in the past, which could have been because of his strategy last offseason was more about staying healthy rather than getting stronger. This year, he’s gotten back to what he’s done before.

“Work hard in the weight room,” Carpenter said. “Throw some weight around a little bit. But also be smart with it. I feel really good about the game plan we came together with, and the whole offseason has been really productive. So I feel strong. I feel definitely stronger than I did last year. But also still feeling healthy and moving well, and I’m just ready to go.”

Carpenter feels like he’s on his way to rejuvenating his swing and reinventing himself this year. He’s optimistic about what he’s done to ensure the struggles of 2019 don’t linger into '20.

But he knows he must provide evidence of that optimism come Spring Training.

“My swing, candidly, has felt as good as it’s ever felt,” Carpenter said. “I feel really good about the work that I’ve put in. I can sit here and talk to you guys about that all day long, but until I go out there and perform and prove it and show that I can be a productive hitter, it really doesn’t mean a whole lot.”