Globe iconLogin iconRecap iconSearch iconTickets icon
news

MLB News

Is resurgent Carpenter NL MVP Award material?

Cardinals veteran has slugged his way into the national spotlight
MLB.com @JPosnanski

On May 15, Matt Carpenter was hitting .140, he'd had one hit in two weeks, and one of the surest bets in baseball was that he was done. It made some sense. He will turn 33 this year. And Carpenter had always been an overachiever. He was nobody's prospect. Nobody knew what position Carpenter could play. Nobody thought he had enough power to be a difference-maker in the lineup. Nobody got him.

But Carpenter beat all those odds, became a three-time All-Star, became a National League MVP Award candidate, became the Cardinals' rock, a versatile line-drive machine who twice led the league in doubles and more than held his own at three infield positions.

On May 15, Matt Carpenter was hitting .140, he'd had one hit in two weeks, and one of the surest bets in baseball was that he was done. It made some sense. He will turn 33 this year. And Carpenter had always been an overachiever. He was nobody's prospect. Nobody knew what position Carpenter could play. Nobody thought he had enough power to be a difference-maker in the lineup. Nobody got him.

But Carpenter beat all those odds, became a three-time All-Star, became a National League MVP Award candidate, became the Cardinals' rock, a versatile line-drive machine who twice led the league in doubles and more than held his own at three infield positions.

And then came this year. A lot of players like Carpenter fall off the cliff when they are in their young 30s. It just happens. On May 15, when he was hitting .140 and teams were putting on seismic shifts that seemed to paralyze him, the end seemed near.

"He looks an awful lot like a guy who suddenly no longer has the reflexes and flexibility necessary to be an imposing Major League hitter," one columnist wrote.

Well, to be fair, it seems like every columnist wrote that or something like that, and who could blame them? The veteran looked helpless. The Cardinals wondered if Carpenter was hurt. There were a handful of optimists who pointed out that he was actually hitting into terrible luck; Statcast™ showed that he was hitting the ball harder than he had in his All-Star seasons. But the hard luck theory can only hold for so long, and as the slump went on, the chances that Carpenter was going to hit his way out of it seemed more and more unlikely.

And then, Carpenter absolutely hit his way out of it in a huge way. He adjusted a few things. He got more aggressive. Carpenter hit the ball the other way a bit more.

This is what you get, I suppose, for underestimating Carpenter.

How hot has Carpenter been? He hit eight homers in a six-game stretch -- and that was after he was pulled during a three-homer game. Carpenter is slugging .728 since mid-May. He has 27 doubles and 26 homers in his past 72 games. Carpenter has been so absurdly good that he now leads the NL in doubles, homers, slugging percentage and OPS. He leads the NL in Fangraphs WAR. Carpenter is not only an NL MVP Award candidate again, he might be the leading candidate.

Video: STL@PIT: Carpenter opens scoring with his 29th homer

Carpenter is one of the toughest players in all of baseball to quantify. You will hear him called a grinder, a hustler, a gritty ballplayer. That's probably true. It never came easy for Carpenter. This is a guy who had Tommy John surgery when he was a junior in college; how often do you hear that about a position player? That should have been the end of his baseball career. Instead, Carpenter used the injury as a reset button. He refocused his energies. He reshaped his body. Carpenter was almost 24 years old when the Cards took him in the 13th round in the 2009 Draft, but real miracle was that he had been drafted at all.

Carpenter scraped his way on to the club in 2012 after Albert Pujols left; he was pretty good. He hit a lot of doubles. Carpenter finished sixth in the NL Rookie of the Year Award voting. He also played second base for the first time in his career.

And then in 2013, Carpenter was sensational, leading the league in runs, hits and doubles, helping the Cardinals all the way to the World Series.

Was Carpenter, against all odds, actually a superstar? It sure seemed that way. The Cards locked him up to a six-year, $52 million deal.

Then Carpenter followed that year up with a series of seasons that, well, it's hard to know exactly what to say about them. They were clearly good seasons. He was obviously a useful player. Carpenter led the league in doubles in 2015. He hit 20-plus homers in three straight seasons. He walked a lot. Carpenter played wherever they asked him to play -- in '16, he played 40-plus games at first, second and third.

Video: STL@MIA: Carpenter singles to extend on-base streak

But nobody seemed to notice or care much. Nationally, Carpenter was invisible. And in St. Louis, it always seemed like the Cardinals were looking for someone to replace him, moving him up or down in the lineup, shifting him to some new position. Carpenter almost seemed beside the point. Everybody seemed to wonder when the Cards were going to trade him.

All of this is part of what makes this latest hitting stretch so incredible. Carpenter was just named the NL Player of the Week for the second time in three weeks. It's hard to remember a time when a player went from utterly finished to MVP Award candidate so quickly; I'm not sure it has ever happened before.

Joe Posnanski is a columnist for MLB.com.

St. Louis Cardinals, Matt Carpenter