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Matt Carpenter has a best seller

We’re three games into the 2020 season, and it already looks like we might be nearing the end. The Cardinals are coming off a loss to the Pirates, but it sure feels like they lost 2.7 instead of one. Bader was benched during that game, which was potentially because of a sore foot or maybe because he stunk in the first two. Now the Cardinals face the Twins, who just scored a million runs on the White Sox. All these things take a back seat to the Marlins, which have been decimated by COVID. Personally, I've found writing to be more challenging this year with larger issues looming in baseball and in life. But write on I will, and since there's only 60 games this year (maybe less!), I'll have to maximize the opportunities to proclaim the sky is falling. Here’s my first overreaction: Matt Carpenter’s in trouble.

Maybe that’s not a hot take anymore. Carpenter is coming off his worst year, doesn’t have the cleanest injury record, and turn 35 years old in 2020. As I wrote in the spring, the scouting report finally caught up to him last year, which will continue to cause trouble unless he can adjust. It’s a tough time to be Matt Carpenter! Well, it’s going to get tougher.

In my spring article, which I recommend revisiting for its role in this one, I wrote about how pitchers began turning more frequently to offspeed, specifically sliders and changeups, against Carpenter than they ever had before. The change was drastic. Among all players with 400 plate appearances in both 2018 and 2019, Matt Carpenter saw the largest decline in fastball usage (cutters included), from 65% to 57%. On the flipside, he saw the fourth largest increase in changeups and sliders faced, up 6.5%. For a guy who made his living hunting and punishing fastballs, these trends were bad news.

Well, three games into 2020 and it’s gotten worse. With the obvious, boldface caveat that it’s only been three games, here are the ‘qualified’ hitters who’ve seen the least amount of fastballs so far in 2020:

And the highest rate of sliders and changeups:

Uh oh. (Also, Luis Robert. Of course he shows up).

Fewer fastballs, more junk. Not great! Maybe (hopefully?) it's because the pitchers Carpenter has faced in the first few games are predominantly offspeed guys? Imagine if he faced a Tim-Wakefield-wannabee-knuckler in the first game. He'd have a 30% knuckleball usage rate at this point in the season! But no one in their right mind would proclaim the book on Carpenter was suddenly to pound him with knucklers. The rate would be more of a reflection of his opponents than of himself. So, what if Carpenter's just faced a number of Sergio Romo wannabees (fewer fastballs, more frisbees) in the early going, and that's skewed his usage rates? Let’s see:

Nope! In fact, pitchers so far this year are half as likely to throw a fastball against Carpenter than they are against anyone else. To make matters worse, the fastballs Carpenter has seen have been located higher than he’s used to by about four inches.

Why’s that bad? Well, for all of Matt Carpenter’s success against fastballs, he’s really, really bad against the high ones. Like, .248 wOBA against high fastballs bad. Billy Hamilton-esque. He's just barely worse against changeups and sliders. Its tough to play well when everyone knows how to turn your bat into Billy Hamilton in the box, without the speed.

Luckily, I guess, it’s hard to imagine numbers this extreme continuing for long. The leaguewide fastball rate is ~57% in the early going, so we’d expect Carpenter to start seeing more fastballs eventually. Pitchers will hang some sliders that Carpenter will connect with, and they'll miss low with fastballs into Carpenter's wheelhouse. Perhaps Matt Carpenter will adjust to combat the trends he sees in the scouting report. And, of course, we’re dealing with literally three games of information. Three games can’t tell us much, especially in this weird COVID season.

Unfortunately, though, it’s clear that pitchers finally authored the book on how to attack Matt Carpenter in 2019. If the first week trends continue, Carpenters book might be a best seller.


Credit to @cardinalsgifs for the cover art and to Baseball Savant and Fangraphs for their data contributions to the post.


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