Matt Carpenter's improbable path to becoming an All-Star talent
We think of the All-Star Game as an assemblage of baseball legends who have left their imprint on the game. From Babe Ruth to Carl Hubbell to Stan Musial to Ted Williams to Pete Rose to Reggie Jackson to Gary Carter to Pedro Martinez, the game brings out the best of the best.
Of less legendary note, but perhaps of even more delight, is the side of the All-Star Game that puts the spotlight on those who never had such acclaim. Few baseball sights are more joyful than watching a first-time All-Star soak up the surroundings, like the guy who just got upgraded from the back of the plane to first class.
This season, if the selection of the teams has any justice, no surprise story will be better than that of the first-time All-Star who nearly ate his talent away, who used Tommy John surgery as a wakeup call, who signed for the pittance of $1,000 as a fifth-year college senior taken with the 399th pick of the draft in 2009, who learned a new position at the major-league level, and who, at the late baseball age of 27, has enjoyed such a breakout season that he is second in the National League in runs (56), third in times on base (131), fourth in on-base percentage (.403), fifth in hits (92), sixth in doubles (21), seventh in batting average (.322) -- and first in making the most out of a second shot.
"I'd be lying if I said I didn't think about it at all," Carpenter said about his chances of being named to the All-Star team. "But I want to say that I think I've done a pretty good job of blocking it out. I try to keep my approach the same: just concentrate on what's in front of me that day and let things happen. It's not something I can control."
Carpenter won't be alone when it comes to surprising breakout stars that could wind up at Citi Field in New York for their first All-Star Game. The crop of late-blooming, first-time All-Stars this year could include:
• Chris Davis, 27, first base, Baltimore. Yes, he did hit 33 home runs last year. But we've never seen anything like the 2013 version from Davis. A career .258 hitter entering this year, Davis is hitting .331 and leading the league with 27 home runs. How rare would it be for Davis to maintain that high of a batting average and hit 40 home runs? Nobody has done it in the AL in the PED-testing era. The last to do so were Jason Giambi (2000) and Carlos Delgado (2000).
• Josh Donaldson, 27, third base, Oakland. Entering this season, the former catcher and first-round pick of the Cubs was a middling major league ballplayer: .232/.280/.386 in 89 games. But in 76 games this year, he is a .305/.373/.488 hitter. His .860 OPS is better than those of Manny Machado and Adrian Beltre.
• Carlos Gomez, 27, outfield, Milwaukee. Critics scoffed last winter when Milwaukee gave Gomez, a guy with a .294 career OBP at the time, a three-year, $24-million extension that begins next season. But Gomez has put polish on his skill-heavy game and has become a bargain, with a slash line of .313/.355/.570.
• Jean Segura, 23, shortstop, Milwaukee. As a minor leaguer in the Angels' system, Segura suffered a broken leg and foot injury that left him with an uneven gait that led scouts to wonder if he were bound to suffer from hip and leg injuries. Scouts also questioned whether he was an everyday shortstop or better suited for second base. But give the Brewers credit: when they talked with the Angels last year about a Zack Greinke deal they insisted there would be no deal without Segura. All Segura has done this year is lead the league in hits and rank among the top 10 in slugging and OPS.
It is just a coincidence that Carpenter, Gomez, Donaldson and Davis are all 27 years old. Gomez was a high-profile prospect since the Mets signed him at 16, while Donaldson and Davis, a fifth-round pick, also were highly touted as prospects. Carpenter's development story does not include nearly as much fanfare.
Carpenter was undrafted as a third baseman out of Elkins High in Missouri City, Texas (the same school that produced first baseman James Loney), but he was the top recruit for Texas Christian University. He didn't play like the top recruit at TCU. He hit .289 as a freshman and .349 as a sophomore, but he hit only two home runs over those two seasons and, worse, displayed poor work and eating habits. After entering college at between 200 and 205 pounds, the 6-foot-3 Carpenter got as heavy as 235 to 240 pounds.
"You've heard of the freshman 15?" Carpenter said. "I was a case of the freshman 40. I just thought, 'Yeah, I'm good. I'll just put in my three years and get drafted. I don't have to worry about and I don't have to work at it.' I didn't put in the work in classroom or on the field like I should have."
Then, eight games into his junior season, and while hitting .185, Carpenter felt a sharp pain in his elbow. He needed Tommy John surgery.
"If I had played in one more game -- if I had one more at-bat -- I would not have qualified for a medical redshirt," he said. "I was so scared that I would never play again."
TCU coach Jim Schlossnagle called Carpenter into his office soon after Carpenter had the surgery.
"First he told me all the reasons why I had been the top recruit at TCU," Carpenter said, "and that while I had been a decent player, I had not been the player they expected. He was totally right. And then he said, 'You basically have only two choices now: you can just continue to be a decent player and get out of here and maybe become a high school or college coach, or you can get serious and let this be a wakeup call and get to work.
"I literally changed overnight."
Carpenter, who favored a junk-food diet of fast foods and sodas, hired a nutritionist and cleaned up his diet "cold turkey."
"I became super strict about what I ate. I went all-in," said Carpenter, who hasn't had a soda since and can't remember his last fast-food burger. While he leaned out, he devoted himself to strength training and "I ran every day." He cut about 40 pounds and came back for his redshirt season as that player TCU expected. He hit 22 home runs over his redshirt junior and senior seasons. The Cardinals drafted him in the 13th round in 2009. They offered him $1,000 to sign.
"It was basically, 'We'll give you a thousand dollars or you can go get a job somewhere,"' Carpenter said. "I took the thousand dollars. After taxes, it was about six hundred something."
Carpenter played almost exclusively at third base in the minors, with a handful of appearances at first base or the outfield. He showed a knack for grinding out at-bats and finding his way on base, putting up a minor league slash line of .299/.408/.450.
Last season Carpenter carved out a role with the Cardinals as a corner utility player, getting 65 starts at third, first, right field and left field -- and two emergency starts at second base. Carpenter began this season as St. Louis' starting third baseman, but only because of an injury to David Freese. Once Freese returned, Carpenter split time at second base with Daniel Descalso and occasionally spelled Freese at third. But by mid-May, as Descalso was hitting below .200, Carpenter emerged as the everyday choice at second base by manager Mike Matheny.
While Carpenter admitted, "I'm not the prototypical leadoff guy" -- he has two career stolen bases in five attempts -- he sets the tone for a dogged St. Louis lineup by seeing many pitches (4.09 per plate appearance, well above major league average), striking out infrequently (12.5 percent of his plate appearances) and generally making himself into a tough out regardless of the score. While Carpenter deserves a spot in the All-Star Game, he actually could be voted as the starter at second base.
The fan voting is a close race between Carpenter, Brandon Phillips of the Reds and Marco Scutaro of the Giants. Phillips, 31, is a two-time All-Star. Scutaro would be an All-Star story of perseverance himself: playing for his eighth organization at 37 years old, Scutaro never has made an All-Star team. Regardless of the fan vote, Carpenter has the credentials, and the will, to be a first time All-Star at a new position just six years after his playing career hung in the balance.
"My coach was right," he said. "If I didn't completely change I don't know where I'd be right now -- probably coaching somewhere. I know I wouldn't be here."