Though the Cardinals are sitting in first place, all is not well in Birdland. Or, maybe it’s more correct to say that things are great under the arch since the team is sitting at the top of the NL Central perch despite their offense leaving something to be desired. By wRC+, the team is 19th in baseball – a place they didn’t seem destined for after adding Marcell Ozuna to the lineup in the offseason. By runs scored, they’re tied for 24th. The bottom line is that most would agree that the team should be hitting the ball better and scoring more runs than it is.
To this point, the primary culprits for the team’s offensive struggles have been Ozuna, Dexter Fowler, and of course, Matt Carpenter. All of them are performing well below average at the plate and certainly worse than projections and Cards’ fans expected them to perform. There will certainly be time to address the 1st 2, but since Carpenter’s struggles are so concerning, let’s deal with him today.
When you go to Baseball Savant to see about Carpenter’s contact quality, it appears to be very good. His xwOBA is .382, higher than Paul DeJong’s, for example. If his actual wOBA was .382, we wouldn’t even be having this conversation right now. Just for reference, that would put his wOBA above Joey Votto’s and would be the highest wOBA of his career. When he’s putting the ball in play, his contact is very good. Unfortunately, therein lies some of the problem…Carpenter is striking out at a Grichuk-like pace – about 28% of the time. So when he hits it, the contact is very good. The problem is that’s not happening often enough.
As I’ve addressed before, sometime in the offseason, Carpenter decided that he didn’t like the approach he’d taken in the last few years. He had increased his launch angle trying to hit home runs and he’d gone from a contact-and-doubles guy to a homers-and-K’s guy. Over the offseason, he decided he wanted to revert to the hitter he was before. To some degree, this has worked. (Realize, by “worked” I mean that he has decreased his launch angle from 21.7 degrees in 2017 to 17 degrees in 2018. I do not mean to imply it has made him a better hitter because, as you’ve figured out by now, it has not.) His fly ball rate is down by 7% and his line drive and ground ball rates are each up by around 3.5%.
In fairness, that sounds exactly like what he wanted to do with his batted balls. Unfortunately, however, Carpenter’s plan didn’t account for the shift. Carpenter’s wOBA on ground balls is a woeful .110 and his wOBA on line drives is “just” .469. (That’s 286th out of 306 qualified batters in wOBA on line drives. Last year his wOBA on line drives was .674.) Clearly, there’s some bad luck here and this surely helps to explain why his actual wOBA is so much lower than his xwOBA. On the other hand, his wOBA when the opponent does any sort of defensive shift is a Pete Kozma-like .194. He’s hitting into the shift when last year he might be hitting over it. It just doesn’t do a lot of good to hit fewer fly balls when that means fewer homers and more outs into the shift.
Now, the tradeoff for that was going to be fewer strikeouts. Carp was going to cut down on his swing, make more contact with 2 strikes, and put the ball in play. He’d give up homers but make up for it with batting average and doubles. So how’s that working out for you, Matt? “Not very good, thank you!”
Carp has always been very good at seeing a lot of pitches and working counts into his favor and this year is no exception, seeing a career high 4.53 pitches in every plate appearance. One of the main purposes of working the count in one’s favor is to draw walks. By that measure, Carpenter is doing quite well, with a 16.9% walk rate. It’s the one thing he’s got going for him at the plate. The other reason for working the count in one’s favor, however, is to get pitches to drive and by that measure, Carpenter is failing miserably. For instance, he’s gotten himself to a 2-0 count nearly 20% of the time – much higher than the league average of 14.2% -- but he didn’t even register on Baseball Savant with a wOBA with a 2-0 count (min. 5 AB’s) because he hasn’t been swinging the bat when ahead in the count 2-0. In fact, he’s seen 27 2-0 counts so far this season but has only swung the bat 4 times (14.8%; league average is 34.8%) on the next pitch – likely to be a very hittable fastball.
His decision-making in other plus-counts is similar to that when he’s up 2-0. He’s had 9 3-0 counts (6.6%; league average is 4.9%) and has not swung the bat even once (league average is 9%). He’s been ahead in the count 3-1 29 times (21.2%; league average is 9.4%) and has only swung the bat 8 times (27.6%; league average is 53.9%). So, aside from deciding to change his swing plane to create a lower launch angle leading to more grounders and line drives, he has also decided to swing less often. Overall, he is only swinging the bat 32.7% of the time. Among qualified batters, only Joe Mauer is swinging less frequently.
But wait…there’s more! Carpenter has struck out looking 14 times. Approximately 37% of Carpenter’s strikeouts have been of the backwards-K variety. The league average caught-looking % is just 25%. He’s batting 2 for 29 with 12 K’s after getting to a 3-ball count! How does that happen? With a full count – which Carpenter has worked 37 times – he has just a .207 wOBA and has struck out nearly a third of the time. He has just a .797 OPS and is slugging just .357 when he’s ahead in the count. After getting to a 3-1 count, he’s slugging just .250. That’s a pitcher number!
There’s so much to unpack here it’s hard to make any sense of what it all means but there are a few conclusions we can reach.
He’s still good at working counts and getting ahead in the count.
When he gets ahead in the count, he’s still electing to take pitches, neglecting to swing even at hittable fastballs in the zone.
Even though he’s ahead in the count and can be expecting hitters’ pitches – fastballs in the zone – he’s still not getting the results he should be getting the few times he does swing.
He’s changed his swing plane to hit fewer fly balls but hasn’t gotten the corresponding decrease in his K rate that he wanted.
Despite all of this, his overall contact is good and he should be getting better results. No one in baseball with at least 100 AB’s (201 hitters) has a bigger gap between his xwOBA and his actual wOBA.
It’s true that Matt Carpenter has been an absolute mess so far this year. I think it’s at least partially due to the change in his approach to try and hit fewer fly balls. Even so, in order to get the corresponding decrease in his strikeouts he’s going to have to start swinging the bat when he gets into plus counts.
Maybe nothing says more about where Matt Carpenter is right now than the following: He has seen 115 pitches in the strike zone when he’s ahead in the count. He has only put 35 of those 115 balls in play (30.4%) and his wOBA on those swings is a feckless .268. This is when he should be looking for pitches in the zone to drive and he’s getting pitches in the zone to drive and he’s either taking them, which helps pitchers get back into the count, or hitting them at people.
There’s no doubt that part of what’s going on with Matt Carpenter is bad luck and hopefully will sort itself out with more PA’s. But some of it is also due to his approach at the plate which seems, to be charitable, confused at best.
Thanks to fangraphs, baseball savant, and baseball-reference for the copious amounts of data included and thanks to you all for reading.