Updated: Apr 12, 2018
Tuesday night, with the Cardinals nearing a 4-7 record after a night of sloppy play, Matt Carpenter tucked a two-run, walk-off homer down the right field line.
With that home run, Cardinals fans witnessed three relative rarities in the at-bat. Walk-off home runs aren’t common, and neither is your three-hitter attempting to bunt for a base hit in extra innings. The other rarity: pitch #3, below:
Matt Carpenter, for his career, has crushed pitches in the location of pitch 3 to the tune of a .451 wOBA according to Baseball Savant. According to Fangraphs, it’s one of his hottest zones for his career and since 2015. And yet, despite Matt Carpenter seeing eight pitches here so far in 2018 while ahead in the count, he’s only swung at three.
Eight pitches is a tiny sample. It means nothing. It’s impossible to gain anything from isolating such a small portion of the strike zone over the first two weeks of the season. However, it’s part of a bigger trend which suggests that maybe Matt Carpenter is being too patient.
So far this year, Matt Carpenter has only swung at 27.1% of the pitches he’s seen. That’s the lowest in the MLB among qualified hitters. Joe Mauer is second at 27.9%. Brett Gardner is third at 31.0%. Carpenter is the lowest, but not so extreme.
Carpenter’s profile becomes an outlier when we consider contact. On pitches inside the zone, his contact rate is 73.0%. On pitches outside the zone, it’s 42.9%. Overall, Carpenter is making contact on only 62.1% of his swings.
Putting it all together, here’s how Carpenter’s swing and contact rates compare to other qualified hitters in 2018:
Carpenter is extreme. Guys with low contact rates usually swing more. Guys with low swing rates usually make more contact when they do swing. Matt Carpenter isn’t swinging, and he isn’t making a lot of contact. Below is the same chart for all qualified hitters since Fangraphs began tracking these metrics in 2002.
Carpenter is historically extreme! No one has ever had a swing and contact rate combination like Matt Carpenter is showing in the young 2018 season. Overall, Carpenter is swinging and making contact on only 16.8% of the pitches he sees. The next lowest of the 2608 qualified hitters since 2002 is at 22.3%. The average over this period is 37.0%. The average in 2018 is 35.2%.
Of course, we understand that Carpenter has been picky at the plate throughout his entire career, and he’s never been a guy who makes contact with everything. Context is important.
The context, however, doesn’t clear this one up. Carpenter is chasing about the same amount of pitches outside the zone as he did last year. But he’s swinging a lot less at pitches inside the zone. He’s making less contact with everything, but he’s especially making less contact in the zone. A 20% drop in contact rate is a ton.
To show how drastic those changes really are, I plotted the overall swing rate and contact rate changes for the 114 hitters who qualified for the batting title last year and so far this year:
Matt Carpenter is all alone. There’s no one particularly close. You might say the dot in the top left is similarly an outlier – that’s Freddie Freeman, who has gotten much more selective while maintaining his contact rate. He has a 201 wRC+ as of this writing. Carpenter is swinging less and touching the ball less. It’s weird.
Next, I want to consider Matt Carpenter’s plate discipline. Maybe he’s purposefully being more selective with a goal of being more productive when he does swing. To gauge plate discipline, I like to look at the difference between a player’s swing rate at pitches in the zone (Z-Swing%) and swing rate at pitches out of the zone (O-Swing%). While not all strikes are created equally, swinging at pitches in the zone gives a hitter more chances to produce. The bigger the difference, the better.
For Carpenter, the difference between his Z-Swing% and O-Swing% ranks only at the 33rd percentile. In other words, he’s not swinging at more strikes at the expense of taking less hacks at balls – he’s just not swinging much, period.
This leads another step deeper: maybe Carpenter is swinging at less strikes because he’s hunting out pitches upon which he can do the most damage. Using charts available at Fangraphs, we can see exactly where Carpenter does his best work:
Surprise! He likes it middle-middle. He likes it down-middle a little more than he likes it up-middle, and he’s not particularly good on any corner of the strike zone. He’s not very good anywhere on the inner third. But here are his swings in 2018:
And compare that to his total pitches seen thus far:
Carpenter’s swings are concentrated high-inside and low-away, despite seeing plenty of pitches middle-middle or down-middle. Neither of his swing cores are in locations where he has typically done damage, nor are they in locations where we’d expect a hitter to do damage. He’s not being more selective to find pitches he can drive. He’s just swinging less, but when he does swing it's often at pitchers’ pitches. It’s weird, and it’s very unlikely that it’s intentional.
Is Carpenter hurting? We heard all about his should problems this offseason and his recent back trouble in spring. His average exit velocity is down more than 2 miles per hour from last year. His hardest hit ball of 106.4 mph would rank only tenth among the balls he hit last year, but it's too probably too early to draw conclusions from that. Maybe he’s still hurting. Maybe he’s just slumping and caught in-between.
Criticizing a player when he has a 117 wRC+ the day after he hit a walk-off home run in extra innings is strange. Underneath the numbers, however, it looks like something is wrong with Matt Carpenter.