Updated: Dec 29, 2019
I was having a conversation on the Cardinals Nation 24/7 Facebook site the other day that led me to an interesting conclusion. Matt Carpenter's 2019 issues aren't what you think they are. It was after the initial thought came into my brain that I remembered seeing something along those lines come across my Twitter timeline. It was something Rusty Groppel wrote over at Cards Conclave. So I immediately went to find that article and read it. I did. It was great. You should look at it, too. We have the same conclusion. Most people believe Carpenter needs to just slap more singles to left field to "beat the shift." Well, that's not what Rusty or I believe to be the case. I did find that he could also do a little better at that as well, as you'll see, but the title of Rusty's article hits the nail on the head: "Forget the Shift, Matt Carpenter Must Sell-Out to Pull" - and I believe that's exactly what he needs to do to be successful again. There is one caveat to that - if he simply doesn't have the bat speed to do it any more. I just don't believe that the evidence (I can find) is there to show that he can't do that anymore.
I found this paragraph of Rusty's particularly insightful:
In trying to beat the shift, he has allowed other teams to beat him. Shifting against Carpenter is as much about baiting him into trying to do something that he is bad at, as it is about trying to take away a few groundball singles. I would surmise that shifting is MORE about baiting him into going to the opposite field, because teams know that the most likely outcome is an easy fly ball. Enticing him to change his approach takes away his strength, which is pulling the ball with authority.
I really wanted to break this down and look at it more. Rusty later showed a comparison of 2019-only statistics pulling the ball vs. not pulling the ball. I thought I could look at it in a little more intricate manner by digging through both Fangraphs data and Baseball Savant data. (Both incredible resources!)
The first thing I did was split up "opposite" field balls in play and "center" field balls in play (Baseball Savant calls them "straightaway" instead of "center.") I found that Matt Carpenter is already going to the opposite field more than any season since 2012 - even slightly higher than his .318 avg / .392 OBP season in 2013! Similarly, Carpenter has pulled the ball less than any of the 2016-2018 seasons.
So I looked into further subsets of data and I (like Rusty) found that while Carpenter is going the opposite way more often, he's doing so in the air and it is not working for him.
This graphic shows that in 2019, Matt Carpenter has put 218 balls in play as of August 8th. When he pulls the ball, he mostly hits ground balls. and some line drives. He rarely pulls the ball in the air this year. When he goes to center field, he mostly hits fly balls with some line drives and grounders. To the point about opposite field hitting, Carpenter hits a vast majority of balls in the air to left field when he goes that way. A ridiculously large number compared to line drives and grounders. Why is that problematic? For that, lets look at wOBA - which is an offensive statistic that "measure a hitter’s overall offensive value, based on the relative values of each distinct offensive event" and "is one of the most important and popular catch-all offensive statistics." It is scaled to OBP so that around .320 is average every year. Here are Matt Carpenter's wOBAs for 2019 by batted ball direction and batted ball type (the same categories as above):
In 2019, thus far, a .325 wOBA is the non-pitcher league average wOBA. Keeping that context in mind (and ignoring the color scheme of the image for now), let's dig in. When Carpenter pulls the ball, he's mostly pulling it on the ground in 2019. His wOBA on those batted balls is .196. When Carpenter goes the opposite way on batted balls this year, he is hitting the ball in the air much more often than anywhere else and his wOBA on those batted balls is just .235.
Why is Carpenter's wOBA on fly balls to left just .235? His average fly ball to left field in 2019 is 90 mph at 39 degrees. An example:
Where has Carpenter had the most success this year? When he is able to actually hit a line drive or ground ball the other way - something (as Rusty pointed out) Carpenter's swing is not really built to do - he's been successful. He's only been able to do those two things on 11 occasions in 2019. Here are his results:
2 Ground Outs
1 Line Out
1 Bunt Single
1 Bunt Double
1 Bunt Out
He's also been successful when he's been able to hit that line drive to center field or right field. He's had 24 instances of hitting line drives those directions this year with these results:
11 line outs
1 sacrifice "fly"
But the place where he has had far more success than anywhere else this year has been on his 9 fly balls to right field. Yes, he has only hit the ball in the air to right field 9 times in 218 balls in play and in 360 plate appearances. On those 9 occasions, here are his individual results in chronological order:
That's because Carpenter's average fly ball to right field in 2019 is 98 mph at 33-34 degrees. An example:
He had that bad stretch in the middle where he had 3 outs in a row. Other than that, 2/3 of those have gone for extra bases and 44.4% of them have gone for home runs.
You can very clearly see how much more damage is done on pulled fly balls when looking at it this way. Now that we've seen the 2019 version of Carpenter, let's take a look at Carpenter's 2012-2019 seasons as a whole when it comes to percentage breakdowns of how and where he's hit the ball.
Let me explain what you're looking at here, in terms of color scheme. Notice the totals row at the bottom. Those percentages are the mean of the data above (actually including his small sample size of 2011, of which I left off the chart but included in the totals). The darker the blue color, the further away from that mean the numbers are in a "lower" direction; the darker the red color, the further away from that mean the numbers are in a "higher" direction.
As you can see when we look at 2019 opposite field and center field balls again now and compare them to the 2012-2018 versions of Carpenter, he is basically doing what he's done the last 3 seasons to those two portions of the outfield. His opposite field fly ball percentage is a bit higher, but in terms of his opposite field line drives and grounders it's been very consistently low with his opposite field fly balls quite a bit higher. That's been consistent.
As you can see when we look at 2019 pulled balls again, this is where we see the distinct change. Carpenter is pulling the ball on the ground much like his earlier seasons and only hitting the ball in the air that direction much like those same 2012-2014 "earlier" seasons. He has not been anything close to resembling his 2016-18 versions of himself in terms of batted balls in the pull direction. THIS is what is driving the downfall of Matt Carpenter in 2019. This is shown in his wOBA data for those same seasons. Take a look yourself:
When Carpenter is pulling the ball in 2019, he's getting above average results in the air, but is getting his career worst production out of line drives. That has to turn around at some point, no? You can't just keep hitting the piss out of the ball and not get anywhere with it. On the opposite end of the spectrum, look at his opposite field fly balls and line drives. He's getting his career best production out of those two instances in 2019. Maybe this is partially why he is hitting fly balls the other way more often, or perhaps those numbers will need to regress to the mean as well at some point and even that production will go away.
I think it is clear by this point that It is not Carpenter's reliance on pulling the ball and a refusal to hit the ball the other way on the ground that is sabotaging his 2019 season. He was arguably his most successful self in 2016-2018 when he hit line drives and ground balls to the left side 5% of the time or less and he's doing that similarly in 2019.
It is either Carpenter's inability (slow bat?) to pull the ball in the air, unwillingness to pull the ball in the air, or his attempts to hit the ball to all fields itself that is keeping him from being his most successful self on the field in 2019. I don't know which it is, but as Rusty said (and I additionally deduce): "Matt needs to stop worrying about the shift and just start ripping the ball."
So how can Matt Carpenter go about doing this?
Matt Carpenter hit a fly ball in the air to right field 120 times from 2016-2018. Of course there isn't a catch all, you might think. And you'd be right. As you can see above, using either graphic that works better for you, his pulled fly balls put into play from 2016-2018 came on nearly every pitch type and nearly everywhere in the zone. There isn't really a "catch all" solution when it is looked at this way.
So what's another way we can dissect this data?
On the first image is Matt Carpenter's pitch types by location. On the second image we have Matt Carpenter's pitch type breakdown by count. Notice, these are only on the balls he has hit in the air to right field from 2016-18 still. They are a little hard to see, you might have to zoom in to specific locations to see more clearly.
Basically, what these two charts viewed in conjunction show me is that Carpenter needs to sit on fastballs largely in the middle of the plate, especially early in the count and ahead in the count. Here is a first pitch fastball from San Francisco's Matt Cain in 2017 and a 2-0 fastball from Cincinnati's Luis Castillo in 2018:
Once he gets behind in the count, he needs to really focus on hitting sliders that are on the inside half of the plate, but in the zone. Two examples of him doing this in the past three years are an 0-2 slider from Colorado's righty Jon Gray in 2016 and a 1-2 slider from Chicago's lefty Brian Duensing in 2018:
Notice how well he recognizes slider off of Jon Gray and how he just needs to attempt to put it in play hard. In the one against Duensing, it looked like he was just prepared for that pitch COMPLETELY.
The other thing Carpenter can pay attention to are scouting reports about particular pitchers' tendencies with their curve balls. Carpenter has hammered curve balls that are up in the zone the last three seasons prior to 2019. He needs to sit on those pitches in certain spots. Here are two examples, a 3-2 curve from Toronto's JP Howell in 2017 (who else remembers that walk off grand slam!?!?!?) and an 0-1 curve from Philly's Nick Pivetta in 2018:
Don't worry so much about drawing walks at the moment. For now, to get back that confidence, look for those three things, Matt. Don't worry about being the Galveston Grinder that I love(d) watching. Be that aggressive guy - especially if you're batting 5th or 6th with men on base (where they should have you right now).