Matt Carpenter a keeper for Cardinals

St. Louis second baseman has excelled ever since becoming leadoff hitter in May

Originally Published: October 21, 2013
By Michael Knisley | ESPN.com

On the clear days, he says, St. Louis Cardinals general manager John Mozeliak could see Matt Carpenter coming from a year away. Maybe not in the specific, exacting 11-pitch detail with which Carpenter undid Clayton Kershaw in the third inning of Game 6 of the NLCS on Friday night. And maybe not in the bigger-MVP-conversation-picture season that Carpenter put together with all of his at-bats as the Cardinals' unexpected leadoff hitter in 2013, his first full year as a big league starter. But by the time the 2012 season had ended last October with St. Louis one game shy of the World Series, Mozeliak could see it -- something like it, anyway -- coming.

On those clear days, Mozeliak says he could see this season coming from the 26-year-old utility player. (He turned 27 last November.) From the 26-year-old utility player without a position. (Was Carpenter a first baseman? A second baseman? A third baseman, where he played in the minors? A left fielder? A right fielder? He filled in everywhere for St. Louis in 2012.) From the 26-year-old utility player without a position who was suddenly thrust into the Cardinals' leadoff role in May with no expectation that he could, or even would, run. (He had one career stolen base before the 2013 season began.)

[+] EnlargeMatt Carpenter
Stephen Dunn/Getty ImagesMatt Carpenter batted .261 and scored four runs in the six games it took the Cardinals to eliminate the Dodgers in the NLCS.

So, really, not every day leading up to Carpenter's 2013 season could be all that clear.

"You can't look into a crystal ball that'll tell you exactly what's going to happen," Mozeliak said. "But when you think back to the success he had in the minor leagues and then to now, and correlate that into his current production, it is something that we envisioned. We always thought that if we could get him more at-bats this year, he could be a very productive major league hitter."

Now, of course, Carpenter is just that and more: a very, very productive major league hitter. In 2013, he led the majors in hits (199), runs (126), doubles (55) and multihit games (63), and he led the National League in batting average with two strikes (.279). He was an All-Star. He is an MVP candidate, though the Pirates' Andrew McCutchen likely will be the winner. (Carpenter should finish somewhere in the top five.)

And he's a fixture for the Cardinals at second base, which was the position of greatest need for St. Louis heading into the season. As optimistic as Mozeliak was about Carpenter's future, he wasn't so sanguine about it that he envisioned Carpenter beating out David Freese at third, or Allen Craig at first, or Matt Holliday in left, or Carlos Beltran in right. Second base, on the other hand, for the most part was manned a year ago by Daniel Descalso (66 starts there, and a .227 batting average in 2012) and Skip Schumaker (traded to the Dodgers in the offseason).

So could Carpenter himself see it coming?

"I'd be lying if I said yes," he said. "But it's been a fun year. And to top it off with a berth in the World Series, I mean, that's just icing on the cake. I'm really excited about the opportunity we're going to have. I'm really looking forward to getting it going."

Much has been made of the Cardinals' young pitching on their road to the World Series, and rightly so. Michael Wacha, Joe Kelly and a talented and youthful bullpen were instrumental in carrying St. Louis to the next steps this year: the NL Central title (the Cardinals were a wild-card team in 2012) and the National League pennant (they lost to the Giants in the NLCS a year ago). But the everyday production provided by Carpenter is, at the very least, just as significant.

With the exception of Matt Adams, who's filling in at first base for the injured Craig, Carpenter's presence at second base and hitting leadoff is the only major difference between the lineup that lost to San Francisco last October and the lineup that beat the Dodgers last week. Center fielder Jon Jay, now usually at sixth or seventh in the batting order, hit leadoff a year ago and acquitted himself reasonably well: a .305 batting average, .373 on-base percentage and 19 stolen bases. Jay spent the first month of the 2013 season at the top of the order, too.

At the start of May, though, Jay was hitting .204. The Cardinals moved Carpenter to leadoff and asked him to … well, do exactly what he'd been doing as the No. 2 hitter throughout April.

"That was the beauty of it. They just told me to be myself. 'Go out and do what you do.' And that's really what I've done," Carpenter said. "I've just continued to try to be the same guy and stick with what's been working for us. Really, they just threw me in there. I was in spring training and [manager] Mike [Matheny] just mentioned, 'Don't be surprised if for a change of pace we use you in the leadoff spot.' And the opportunity came, and I was able to run with it."

"Run" with the leadoff spot -- literally, anyway -- wasn't part of Matheny's request. Most of Carpenter's numbers in 2013 put him in some elite Cardinals leadoff company. He's just behind Lou Brock's single-season club record for RBIs and extra-base hits from the leadoff spot, and he's just behind Vince Coleman's club record for runs from the leadoff spot. But the other St. Louis tradition established by Brock, Coleman, Ozzie Smith, Lonnie Smith and other leadoff hitters -- speed -- isn't Carpenter's game. He stole three bases this year.

Thirty-eight other players stole more bases from the leadoff spot in 2013. One of them was Boston's Jacoby Ellsbury, whose 52 steals led the majors, so the World Series should provide something of a study in leadoff role contrasts over the next week and a half. The Red Sox ranked fourth in the majors in team steals (123) this season. The Cardinals just don't run with Carpenter hitting leadoff; their 45 steals ranked 29th.

That obviously hasn't mattered. As long as Carpenter is getting on base (he was fourth in the majors among all leadoff hitters in OBP, and fifth in OPS) and seeing enough pitches (4.12 per at-bat, which ranked second among primary leadoff hitters) to give Beltran, Holliday and the rest of the Cardinals hitting behind him a clue or two about what to expect, St. Louis flourishes.

And those parts of his game … well, Mozeliak wasn't the only one who could see Carpenter coming.

"I knew he was going to be a very good player," says the former Cardinal Schumaker. "I'm not sure I saw him leading off for them. I envisioned Jon Jay leading off. Jon Jay was so good for them last year in that role. But once [Carpenter] started leading off, the team kind of took off. He's not the prototypical leadoff hitter. He doesn't steal bases, that type of thing. But he puts together as good a professional at-bat as anybody in the big leagues. He works the count. Works the pitcher for four or five at-bats a night.

"So you knew he was going to be a good player. No question about it. You knew his work ethic was going to translate into that transition to second base. There are guys you worry about in the game. You don't worry about Matt Carpenter. He's too good of a person. His work ethic is off the charts."

Carpenter, along with the rest of the Cardinals, struggled at the plate in the first two rounds of the playoffs. He hit .053 (one measly single in 21 plate appearances) against the Pirates in the division series, and .200 (3-for-15) through the first four games of the NLCS. But a couple of hits in Game 5, and then, his epic 11-pitch at-bat, which ended with a double that served as the beginning of the end for Kershaw and the Dodgers in Game 6, perhaps have righted the course for him.

"A lot of it is just the ups and downs of the season," Carpenter said. "It just happened that a down came at the postseason for me. As a hitter, you're always going to go through slumps and slow periods. I just hit one at the beginning of the postseason. Obviously, I'm starting to get out of it. I feel good at the plate. It's a long year. And the good news is that in every at-bat, you have an opportunity to do something to help the club. That's the thing. It's about winning games.

"The thing is, the postseason is dominated by pitching anyway. So to be able to go out and have an at-bat that can change the course of a game -- that's really what it's all about. To get a chance to be able to do that, that's what I'm trying to do."

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