Carpenter's incredible surge? MVP worthy

August 15th, 2018

To understand why Matt Carpenter has emerged as the National League's best offensive player and why he's suddenly smack dab in the middle of the NL Most Valuable Player Award conversation in a season that started so poorly, we should begin with the mental side of things.

Is that what this remarkable season is all about? Actually, it's what a lot of seasons are about. Funny how it always comes back to that. What was it Yogi Berra once said?

"Baseball is 90 percent mental. The other half is physical."

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Virtually every baseball player on the planet understands what Yogi meant. In Carpenter's case, that might be the larger message of his entire career, from his final two years at TCU to his earliest days in the Cardinals' organization.

Carpenter was the 399th player taken in the 2009 Draft, a fifth-year senior who endured some injuries and needed some time to understand the importance of conditioning, diet, etc.

Looking back on it, Carpenter might see that being the 399th player taken in that Draft ended up being a good thing. Again, the mental side of it. As his buddy and former teammate , himself an eighth-round pick, put it: "When you're a lower Draft pick, they're looking for a reason to release you. I think Matt and I both thought we came close to being released out of Rookie ball. Whether it's true or not, it's how you feel. You have to overperform everyone else just to stay on the roster. You develop an attitude."

Carpenter had remade his body and his work ethic during his final two years at TCU, and so Rookie ball was a continuation of that change. Pretty much everything he has done since then -- three All-Star appearances, 969 hits and this incredible season -- is a byproduct of that.

Like his college teammate, Phillies ace , Carpenter has developed a routine that is both physical and mental: film study, weightlifting and (in Carpenter's case) hour after hour hitting in indoor cages.

Another point: Carpenter's entire life has been spent around baseball. His dad, Rick, is a legendary and beloved Texas high school baseball coach, and some of Matt's earliest memories are celebrating state championships with his family.

Matt, 32, needed all the support he could get for a season like this one, which was unlike anything he'd ever experienced early on. He was lost. What else is there to say about a .140 batting average and a .286 OBP on May 15?

This from a player who had been one of the NL's best players in his first six seasons, averaging 37 doubles, 16 home run and a .378 OBP (and a .840 OPS).

Around that time in May, Carpenter asked the Cards' analytics group to see if they could help him get back on track. Here's what they told him:

"You're fine."

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How's that for advice? They showed Carpenter that he was pretty much the same player he'd always been, that he'd hit into some bad luck, that his hard-hit contact rate and other quantifiables suggested a turnaround was inevitable.

So Carpenter changed nothing. He went back to his usual routine with the confidence that there would be a return to normalcy.

"I'm not really making it up when I said I never really panicked in May when I was struggling," Carpenter told reporters recently. "I felt like I was close. I knew I was going to turn it around."

Heading into Tuesday's game, Carptener's numbers since May 16 are the stuff of a video game. Sample size? Plenty large enough. He has 100 hits in the Cardinals' past 79 games. In that stretch, Carpenter is hitting .332 with 27 doubles, 30 home runs and 52 walks. Also: a .433 OBP and a 1.154 OPS. From a season that started with six of the toughest weeks he has had, here are the categories he's now leading the NL:

• 33 home runs

• .598 slugging percentage

• 160 wRC+

• 5.1 Wins Above Replacement

• .409 wOBA

"I couldn't imagine the stretch that I'm putting together," Carpenter said. "It's uncharted territory for me. I couldn't have guessed this. But it's been fun."

The NL MVP Award race is wide open, with cases to be made for Freddie Freeman, , , , and Carpenter. For Carpenter to even be in this conversation after how this season started is incredible on its own.

"Clearly, he's a special player, a special guy," Cards interim manager Mike Shildt said. "I'm just happy to see him get the fruits of his labor."

Carpenter's candidacy could get a boost from being part of a team that's playing its best in the stretch run, having won 10 of 12 games to get within five games of first place in the NL Central and within two games of the NL's second Wild Card berth.

As MLB.com's Jenifer Langosch reported, before Carpenter's 33rd home run on Monday -- a three-run shot in the bottom of the eighth inning that turned a 4-3 deficit against the Nationals into a 6-4 lead -- Cardinals shortstop turned to teammate and said:

"This is Carp's MVP moment right here."

The Cards won, 7-6, on DeJong's walk-off homer in the bottom of the ninth. Carpenter could have another one or two before it's over.