For many, the narrative on Matt Carpenter‘s season was written weeks before the Cardinals clinched the Central last Sunday. Entering September, Carpenter was hitting .219/.329/.374, had been on the IL multiple times, and benched in favor of Tommy Edman. The idea that Carpenter was finished as a productive major-league hitter was not without merit: he started and finished 2018 poorly and had yet to look like himself in 2019. In a span of 11 baseball months, he’d been productive in three of them. Of course, those three months were historically good.
As the calendar flipped to September, Carpenter quietly started taking better at bats. Overall, he hit .267/.366/.500 with three homers, two coming against the Cubs. Carpenter did as good a job replacing Wong’s offense as could have been expected when Wong injured his hamstring. More importantly, he started turning on fastballs. According to FanGraphs, Carpenter has pulled a higher percentage of his batted balls in September than any month this season. (And, FWIW, pulling the ball has not been Carps problem). For most of the season, Carpenter has been flipping heaters into left for lazy fly outs. But in game 162, he turned on two fastballs, one for a 3-run homer and another that could have been had Shildt challenged. So it’s not just that he’s having better results, he looks much better at the plate as well.
The other factor is Harrison Bader. Obviously Bader’s defense is capable of transforming a game, but his offensive production is as known a commodity as his defense at this point. Even after being sent down, his September OBP of .274 and K% of 37.6 won’t play in the postseason. It’s not hard to imagine the Cardinals seventh place hitter being routinely intentionally walked to get to Bader, then the pitchers spot, and out of danger. Just as a manager must maximize every out in how he uses his bullpen, he has to do the same with his lineup.
Of course, one month of baseball, especially a month in which Carpenter mostly a pinch-hitter, is not a large enough sample size to base most analysis on. And, assuming Wong’s health, swapping out Bader for Carpenter would mean an outfielder of Ozuna, Fowler, and Edman. Defensively, it’s inarguably worse than an outfield with Harrison Bader in it. But October is all about small sample sizes. It’s about playing the hot hand and maximizing every at bat because the game, and the season, are always on the line in a five or seven game series. Carpenter (right now) gives a Cardinal’s offense the best chance at scoring enough runs to support a pitching staff that has been very good in the second half, even if it means Edman has to start in the outfield.
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