Cardinals infielder Matt Carpenter is in the midst of the worst season of his career at the plate and will turn 36 in November, but the three-time All-Star made clear this week that he’s hoping for a chance to right the ship in 2022. The Cardinals are a lock to buy out his $18.5MM club option, but Carpenter tells Derrick Goold of the St. Louis Post-Dispatch he’s not currently thinking about calling it quits. “I don’t know what the future holds for me as far as what [the Cardinals’] plans are, what the plans for me are,” says Carpenter. “I definitely want to play.”
The question then becomes one of whether Carpenter will be able return to the Cards at a (much) lower price or find an opportunity with another club. Carpenter has just 63 plate appearances since the All-Star break, and 33 of those have come as a pinch-hitter. He’s hitless since Aug. 7 — a span of 35 plate appearances — with five walks and 13 strikeouts mixed in along the way. His season batting line checks in at .169/.304/.275, and his 32.6 percent strikeout rate is a career-high.
The downturn at the plate has been pronounced but also isn’t entirely out of the blue. Rather, Carpenter has been in a steady decline since a 36-homer campaign in 2018 that netted him some stray MVP votes down the ballot and a ninth-place finish overall. He followed that with a down year in 2019 but was at least roughly average at the plate. He then hit .186/.325/.314 with 28.4 percent strikeout rate in 169 trips to the plate last season.
Over the past two seasons, Carpenter has batted just .176/.313/.292 in 396 plate appearances. His role with the Cardinals has diminished both due to his struggles and due to the presence of Paul Goldschmidt, Nolan Arenado and Tommy Edman around the St. Louis infield. All three players will be back with St. Louis in 2022, and even a bench role might not be much of a consideration for the Cards. Edmundo Sosa has outplayed Carpenter across the board and offers more versatility in the infield. Carpenter hasn’t logged a single inning in the outfield since 2014. If a universal designated hitter is implemented, there’ll surely be calls — at least from fans — for an Albert Pujols farewell tour at that position.
It’s not out of the question that Carpenter could find another role with a new organization, however, particularly if the National League designated hitter does come into play. His 13.7 percent walk rate remains outstanding — tied for 20th-best among the 330 big league hitters with at least 200 plate appearances. Carpenter is still hitting the ball hard, too. Of the 386 hitters with at least 100 batted ball events in 2021, Carpenter is tied for 71st in average exit velocity, ranks 59th in barrel rate and sits 135th in hard-hit rate (i.e. batted balls at 95 mph or higher). It’s not a dominant profile, but it’s one that certainly looks like it should produce more than a .169 batting average and .275 slugging percentage.
Of course, Carpenter is done in both by the infrequency of his contact and by the pull-happy nature of the balls he does put into play. He’s highly susceptible to the shift, which makes his nearly 77 percent pull rate on grounders immensely problematic. Carpenter has tried to counteract that by focusing on elevating the ball, but he isn’t pulling the ball in the air like he did during his big 2018 season. In terms of exit velocity, launch angle and hard-hit percentage, Carpenter’s 2018 and 2021 seasons are strikingly similar. However, just 16 percent of Carpenter’s fly-balls have been pulled this season — down from 29 percent in 2018. Nearly 54 percent of Carpenter’s flies are going up the middle, which at least partially explains the drop from a 19.1 percent homer-to-flyball rate in 2018 to this year’s 5.4 percent mark.
Other teams will surely draw their own theories about Carpenter’s decline and drum up some plans of attack to remedy the problems. He’s unlikely to rediscover his 2018 form thanks to the huge uptick in strikeouts, but Carpenter’s walk rate, hard-contact profile and overall track record could still seemingly generate some interest elsewhere around the league.
That’s particularly possible if, as Carpenter himself puts it to Goold, he’s willing to “do whatever I have to do to continue playing.” It’s possible that with his recent struggles, Carpenter won’t find much in the way of guaranteed big league offers. But, if he’s willing to head to Spring Training on a minor league pact, a team seeking some corner infield depth and/or a veteran left-handed bench bat might be willing to take a speculative look.