How Matt Carpenter went from hitting .140 in mid-May to potential MVP

AP Photo/Charles Rex Arbogast

Through good times and slumps, Matt Carpenter finds structure in the familiarity of his routine. When he was hitting .140 in mid-May, Carpenter faithfully arrived at the park at 1 p.m. before home night games and 3 p.m. on the road. His preparation began with some tee work, followed by soft toss, a hitter's meeting, batting practice on the field, a light pregame meal and a video refresher course before the game's first pitch.

Somewhere between the start of the daily rituals and the national anthem, Carpenter always finds time to channel his inner Chipper Jones.

In 2012, Carpenter tore his right oblique muscle on a checked swing. Part of the protocol to get healthy was taking right-handed swings, and the routine persisted. To this day, he'll take about 150 swings a day from the left side and 50 from the right -- even though he is not, and has never aspired to be, a switch-hitter.

"I took it to a different level for two reasons,'' Carpenter says. "Number one, from an athletic standpoint, hitting a baseball is the only thing in your life you don't work on both sides of. If I'm going in the weight room and I'm going to bench press, I wouldn't just bench press one arm. I would bench press both.

"It's the same way hitting. You're taking thousands of swings, and turning and twisting left-handed. I'm building all these muscles left-handed, and you can get unbalanced. I started doing this, and I stuck with it. It's more a balancing-out-my-body thing.''

There's no arguing with success. At age 32, and in his seventh full season with the St. Louis Cardinals, Carpenter has emerged as a salsa-eating, batting-gloveless, ERA-obliterating machine.

Since bottoming out on May 15, Carpenter leads the majors with 31 home runs and a .688 slugging percentage. Boston's J.D. Martinez, at .672, is the only player who's close.

Carpenter's three-month spree has elevated him to a spot in the National League MVP conversation with Nolan Arenado, Freddie Freeman, Javier Baez and Paul Goldschmidt, among others. If he can see things through to the finish, he'll become only the 12th player to win an MVP Award after failing to make an All-Star team. Hank Greenberg was the first to do it in 1935, and Jimmy Rollins the most recent, in 2007.

He would also set a new standard for an in-season resurgence by a hitter. Through his first 35 games, Carpenter was batting .140 with a .588 OPS. According to Elias, the lowest batting average for an MVP winner through 35 games was Marty Marion's .231 mark with St. Louis in 1944. The lowest OPS for an MVP winner through 35 games was Maury Wills' .612 with the Dodgers in 1962.

Carpenter has stayed hot enough, long enough, to make pitchers wary and teammates marvel.

"When he gets a pitch to hit, he just doesn't miss it,'' says Cardinals shortstop Paul DeJong. "He's hitting fastballs, curveballs, sliders, changeups -- you name it. He looks relaxed and on time. He's optimizing himself pretty good right now.''

Carpenter has been a steady presence in the leadoff spot for the Cardinals, who have emerged from a .500-caliber stupor to become a threat in both the NL Central and wild-card races. They've gone 23-11 since Mike Schildt replaced Mike Matheny as manager on July 14.

Every MVP candidate can use a good backstory, and Carpenter's narrative hook got a boost in July with the revelation that his offensive exploits were salsa-fueled. Teammate Adam Wainwright built a garden for Carpenter in late May, and Carpenter recently revealed that he's been downing a Mason jar of salsa a day.

The Cardinals aren't the only beneficiaries. T-shirts with the inscription "It's Gotta Be the Salsa'' are raising money for Cardinal Glennon Children's Hospital in St. Louis, and Carpenter's teammates and coaches are happy to weigh in with endorsements.

"Have you tried it? It's fantastic,'' says Schildt, who likes his salsa with tortilla chips and hash browns.

"It's delicious,'' says DeJong, who eats it with his eggs before day games. "He cooks it for a while, so the flavors really meld together.''

Carpenter has received multiple inquiries from hitters around the game who want what he's having, but he's doling out the salsa in spoonfuls rather than jars.

"I'm getting texts from former teammates and guys on other teams saying, 'Man, you've got to send me some of that stuff,''' he says. "I'm kind of holding all the power to myself right now.''

Salsa power notwithstanding, Carpenter's success is more likely a product of health, natural ability and the knowledge accrued from years of experimentation at the plate.

Carpenter has shown flashes of MVP potential throughout his career. In 2013, he led the league with 199 hits and 126 runs. In 2015, he hit 28 homers but was too inconsistent for his liking. He missed a month with an oblique injury two years ago, and he hit a career-low .241 last season while limited by shoulder issues.

Regardless of the circumstances, Carpenter has a keen appreciation for his swing mechanics and the adjustments required of a big-league hitter. The numbers show that his production suffers when he hits the ball on the ground, so he's tailored his swing to counteract the defensive shifts he sees daily. According to FanGraphs, Carpenter's 24.1 percent groundball rate is the lowest among 153 qualifying MLB hitters this season. He has the fifth-highest fly-ball rate (48.1 percent) and sixth-highest line-drive rate (27.8).

The mindset begins in batting practice, when he concentrates on hitting line drives a few feet above the "L'' screen that protects the BP pitcher.

"If I hit the ball to the ground on the pull side, it's an out,'' Carpenter says. "I'm not trying to hit a fly ball. I hate that term. But I'm trying to hit the ball in the air -- hard line drives. The shift is there to get you to ground out. If I'm not hitting the ball on the ground, it doesn't matter what they do.''

When Carpenter breaks down the numbers, he sees a 15.3 walk percentage this year compared with 17.5 percent in 2017. He considers that a positive development.

"When I don't feel as good at the plate, I walk more,'' he says. "There are pitches I know I can hit that I'll take because I don't like where my swing is at that point. I foul pitches off I should be hitting, and I end up walking. This year I'm walking less and hitting better. I think those coincide with each other.''

Schildt, who was coordinating the Cardinals' minor-league camp when Carpenter broke into the big leagues, has cited Carpenter through the years as an example of everything a professional should be. Now their paths have crossed as part of a playoff run that seemed improbable a few weeks ago.

"Just seeing the tenacity and the hunger and dedication Matt has for his craft, it's always been impressive,'' Schildt says. "I've used him as an illustration for young people and young groups I speak to fairly often. To see him have the career he's capable of having and get the reward out of the preparation he puts in is fun. And the salsa has helped, too.''

Yes, the salsa has helped, and it will remain on Carpenter's pregame menu at Busch Stadium, Wrigley Field and other stops over the next six weeks. But as the people who share the workplace with him can attest, Carpenter's success is less a testament to what he eats than the way he works and prepares. With a little garlic and cilantro here and 50 right-handed swings a day there, he's found just the right recipe for success