The debate surrounding Matt Carpenter's early 2021 returns seems, on it's surface, to be a debate between old school and new school; a debate between actual results and expected results; a debate between batting average "idiots" and sabermetric "nerds." I don't believe that is the debate at all. I don't think anyone can argue (at least not successfully) that Matt Carpenter is not getting the results that anyone desires out of him - unless you root for opposing teams. I also don't think that anyone can argue that Carpenter is hitting the ball much harder this year than he has since his magical 2018 run where from May 16th through August 31st, he had an OPS of nearly 1.100 and had 60+ xbh, 60+ runs scored, and 60+ RBI in 90-95 games.
So why do I say that there is a debate (or at least a lot of discussion) about this conundrum of Carpenter's? Let's peruse who has discussed this in only the last couple of days:
Ben Fredrickson, writer at the St. Louis Post-Dispatch, posted an article, about Carpenter on April 23rd, too.
Bernie Miklasz, now of Scoops with Danny Mac, also hit up the internet with his take about Carpenter's early season troubles / not troubles / what's going on?
While I seem to be coming to this topic a bit late in a formal writing setting, but I have been talking with many others on both Cardinals' Twitter and Cardinals Facebook (along with private DMs and messages), and on my podcast basically all season.
I was not going to write about this until Colin Garner, BotB's own Zach Gifford (who John references in his article), and I (and potentially others) had a Twitter conversation yesterday that lasted a bit of the day off and on - and into the DMs. I did enough research that I decided even if others were writing about it already, that I was going to put it all out there for people to see...even if that was just placating myself.
If you have trouble following Twitter threads at times, because frankly they get confusing, here's where I chimed in. In the conversation, Zach pointed out correctly that Statcast's expected statistics for Batting Average (xBA), Slugging (xSLG), and wOBA (xwOBA) do not properly take into context the launch direction (opposite field, straightaway, or pull field) when they input Exit Velocity and Launch Angle into their database to spit out their xBA/xSLG/xwOBA. Zach also points out that this makes a HUGE difference for batters because of the spin on the ball coming off of the bat and how the ball then travels through the air. At this time, if you love visuals, go to John's article. He puts to visuals to parts of what I'm going to put in tabular form below. I'll wait for you to go do that and then begin again below the fold.
Before I go further, let me say a few things that are not really debatable in my mind, about this situation.
Matt Carpenter's actual current line of what has happened when he's been in the batter's box in 2021 is abysmal. Nobody would be proud of a line that boasts an .081 batting average, .205 on base percentage, .162 slugging percentage, or .367 OPS (on-base plus slugging). Nobody would be proud of an OPS+ of 6 (94% worse than league average) or wRC+ of 9 (91% worse than league average).
Matt Carpenter's got those low numbers despite hitting the ball fairly well because he also is swinging and missing. He's doing that a lot. Nobody would be proud of a 36.4% strikeout rate. His 66.7% contact rate is the lowest of his career (his career average is 82.1%). His contact on pitches in the zone is down to 72.9% compared to his career average of 89.5%. His contact on pitches out of the zone is at 56.7% compared to his career average of 65.9%. Now, sometimes it's probably good to miss the pitches outside of the zone, as to avoid weak contact, but he's swinging at 26.1% of pitches outside of the zone compared to a career average of 21.0%. He cannot be proud of all of that either.
When you're swinging at more and making less contact, that makes for a worse hitting line in general. That is severely affecting his line. That is not debatable in my mind. I preface what is to come with this because while I think I can prove that he has had quite a bit of bad batted ball luck, his batted balls only add up to 22 of his 44 plate appearances.
So now let's talk about the other half of the plate appearances. The ones where he does hit the ball. We're talking only 22 balls in play here. I will focus mostly on the 18 that he recorded outs on (he has 3 hits and one reached on error).
If you did not want to read through the Twitter conversation above or got lost in it, here are four nuggets of research that I did that kicked off what I wanted to do with this article:
Notice how pulled balls are always the best outcome when a player is barreling up a baseball, hitting to the opposite field is the second best option, and hitting to center field is almost always by far the worst option - especially in that top-right scenario, when a player hits the ball between 95-100 miles per hour on the barrel. In that instance, it's almost twice as good to go to the opposite field and almost 4 times better to pull the ball. In all of the other scenarios above it's never even twice as good to pull it as it is to go to center, but pulling the ball hard should always give you the best outcomes if you're barreling up the baseball.
Now that we know those stats a little better, I wanted to dig in a bit deeper on individual balls hit by Matt Carpenter in 2021. Those 18 balls in play. In the graphic below, I tried to color code to make it easier to follow along with me.
In the darker green on the far left side is what actually happened in the game. For instance, on the first batted ball of the year for Matt Carpenter, on April 3rd, he hit a fly ball 96.9 mph off of the bat at a launch angle of 49 degrees to the opposite field that the left fielder, Aquino of the Reds, caught.
In the darker blue to the right of that is what Statcast says the expected batting average, expected slugging percentage, expected wOBA, and estimated distance of that fly ball were based on previous balls hit approximately 96.9 miles per hour at approximately 49 degrees. It said he should get a hit 0.9% of the time on that ball hit 282 feet because of how long that ball would stay in the air due to it's 49 degree launch angle being quite high.
In the lighter green on the right side of the black bar going down the middle(ish) of that table is what exit velocities and launch angles I searched on Baseball Savant to find comparable balls hit to Matt Carpenter's including the launch direction of that baseball. In the instance of the fly ball to Aquino, a guy hitting a 96 to 97 mile per hour ball between 47-51 degrees in the air to the opposite field.
In the lighter blue on the far right side of the table is what Statcast's readout changes to when accounting for launch direction on similarly hit baseballs. In this instance, when I inputted what I said above, it changed Carpenter's hit probability from a 0.9% chance of a hit to a 1.4% chance of a hit. The slugging and wOBA went up with that accordingly. It also said that the expected distance on that fly ball was really only 255 feet, so Carpenter's went about 27 feet further than expected. That means Aquino, who typically sets up shop 299 feet from home plate, had to run less distance to catch that towering fly ball.
Let's take a look at each of those 18 plate appearances one by one. After the conversation with Zach Gifford and others yesterday and reading those articles above, I fully expected to find that Matt Carpenter was simply hitting the ball to the wrong parts of the ballpark and that his xBA/xSLG/xwOBA would drop significantly to a much more palatable numbers showing that he was not completely outplaying his actual statistics and that I could calm myself and just allow him to calmly exit the lineup and everyone's minds and allow whoever else to be the next center of division and hatred from certain subsets of the fan base.
Per Statcast's original numbers, Carpenter was expected to have about 6 hits on these 18 PA, with about 17 total bases. That's a single, two doubles, and three homers. Remember, I expected those numbers to decrease significantly. There was no way he'd missed out on 6 hits and 17 total bases, was there?
What I found was not what I expected. What I'm going to do is basically inform you of what was most likely to happen based on how hard the ball was hit, how high into the air (or far down into the ground) it was hit, and at which angle (opposite field, straightaway center, or pulled) it was hit - based on all of the data on similarly hit balls from 2015-2021 thus far. Not only that, but I'll try to convey whether or not Carpenter got the "deserved" result or whether Carpenter was "robbed." Robbed by whom, you ask? I know not. Perhaps a great play, perhaps the ball not carrying, perhaps top spin or side spin on the ball like Marcell Ozuna's problem with slicing the ball that Zach Gifford expertly discovered, but generally I don't know why and won't pretend to. (That's why I write on this blog and don't coach at the MLB level).
Batted Ball #1 - April 3rd
282 foot opposite field fly out caught by Aquino. 96.9 mph and 49 degrees off of the bat.
Knowing that it is an opposite field ball in play (BIP), Statcast thinks this ball drops for a hit 1.4% of the time instead of 0.9% of the time. It raises the expected slugging slightly and xwOBA slightly, but still has a miserable chance of getting on base or doing any damage. This ball was simply a hard hit out no matter how you look at it. Nothing special.
Batted Ball #2 - April 6th
317 foot opposite field fly out caught by Dickerson. 99.5 mph and 21 degrees off of the bat.
When you account for this being an opposite field fly ball, the expected hit percentage on this ball jumped from 44.6% to 48.2%. This ball falls for a hit nearly half of the time. The expected slugging percentage jumped nearly 100 points as well. So, despite being hit about 5 feet further in actuality than it was expected to, it had worse numbers initially when the launch direction wasn't accounted for. Matt Carpenter might not have gotten robbed here, but it was basically a 50-50 ball that was caught easily despite a poor route.
I think what's more interesting to me on that one is that somehow that's been a 50-50 ball on hundreds of similar hits over 7 seasons. We either have some really bad corner outfield defense in the majors or most balls hit like that are closer to the lines or the gaps than right at guys. That one was clearly an "at 'em" ball.
Batted Ball #3 - also on April 6th
384 foot opposite field fly out caught by Dickerson. 101.4 mph and 30 degrees off of the bat.
6 innings later in the same game than the fly out above, Dickerson had to make a bit harder play on a Matt Carpenter fly ball to left. This one might come down to a simple fact. Marlins park plays big - that left-center wall is off in the distance a bit despite it being 384 in the gap. That just sucks. Carpenter was robbed of extra bases for sure there.
Knowing that was an opposite field fly ball allowed Statcast's numbers to show a 4% increase in hit probability and slugging to go slightly upward as well! That ball actually traveled ~80 feet further than other balls hit similarly and yet still couldn't buy a hit. With a new expected slugging of 2.619, you'd probably expect a double out of that for Carpenter. Robbed count: 1 (1 double)
Batted Ball #4 - also on April 6th
9 foot ground ball into the shift caught by Anderson. 82.4 mph and -12 degrees off of the bat.
So these somehow got screwed up in Statcast by order. This actually occurred in the 4th inning, in between the second batted ball above and the third batted ball above. Oh well. Too late now.
This ground ball goes for a hit 8.3% of the time, per Statcast...except when a shift is on. Then it only goes for a hit, into the shift, 1.8% of the time. This ball, because of launch direction, had much less chance of being a hit. And it wasn't.
Batted Ball #5 - April 7th
17 foot ground ball into the shift caught by Anderson. 77.7 mph and -4 degrees off of the bat.
Again, like the day before's grounder into the shift, this ball had a near-zero chance of being a hit. It was 13.1% prior to Statcast knowing that it was a ground ball into the shift - which dropped the hit percentage to just 3.4%. Because it was chopped into the ground a bit more slowly, the percentage goes up a tiny bit because some people (probably not named Matt Carpenter) can beat that ball out a bit more often.
Batted Ball #6 - April 8th
400 foot pulled fly out caught by Bradley Jr., 106.6 mph and 38 degrees off of the bat.
This ball started out with a 72.3% chance of being a hit and a 2.858 expected slugging percentage (nearly a 100% chance that this was a HR or an out) prior to me telling Statcast it was a pulled fly ball. Once I told it that, the percentages changed greatly to an 87.3% chance of it being a hit and an even closer to 100% chance that it was a HR. To put it another way, there was a 12-13% chance that this ball was not going to end up in the seats. It didn't. Robbed count: 2 (1 double and 1 homer)
Batted Ball #7 - April 11th
368 foot pulled fly out caught by Garcia, 98.5 mph and 26 degrees off of the bat.
Out of all 18 BIP he's gotten out on this year, this is one of the top two in terms of how badly he was robbed of good results. Matt Carpenter hit this ball very well. Before I inputted that it was a pulled BIP to Statcast, it said he already had a 60% chance of a hit and likely for extra bases (averaging 3 bases per hit). Once I inputted the pulled ball, Statcast's numbers jumped incredibly. Carpenter should get a hit on this type of ball 85.7% of the time and average 3.38 bases per hit on those. It had about 3 feet less distance than expected, but Garcia still would have gotten to that in time. I've been saying for quite a while now that Busch III suppresses power numbers. I have to believe that those were suppressed here. This is more likely to be a homer or a double than a triple for a guy like Carpenter, so I inspected further. In the past, this ball has gone for a double 22.1% of the time, a triple 3.2% of the time, and a homer 58.1% of the time. We'll say Carpenter was robbed of another homer. Robbed count: 3 (1 double and 2 homers)
Batted Ball #8 - April 12th
284 foot opposite field fly out caught by Schwarber, 81.2 mph and 32 degrees off of the bat.
This ball had a slim chance (2.3%) of being a hit prior to my adjustment and a 4.3% chance of being a hit after my adjustment. This was a deserved out (nearly) 100% of the time.
Batted Ball #9 - April 13th
312 foot straightaway sacrifice fly caught by Robles, 97.4 mph and 43 degrees off of the bat.
Not going to lie. I almost didn't include this sac fly by Carpenter. With an 11-1 lead and a runner on third, it looked to me like Carpenter was trying to guide this ball to the outfield and get the runner in. I did NOT want to inject my own biases into the research, however, so I included it. The stats say that going to straightaway center here drops the xBA from .031 to .003. Center fielders are typically much better than corner outfielders. Deserved out. (Attempted out?)
Batted Ball #10 - April 13th
150 foot ground ball into the shift caught by Castro, 102.6 mph and 11 degrees off of the bat.
This ball was absolutely robbed of a single by a diving Starlin Castro. That batted ball results in a hit 93.1% of the time on most days, but not into a shift. It results in a hit "only" 84.7% of the time. Robbed Count: 4 (1 single, 1 double, and 2 homers)
Batted Ball #11 - April 14th
361 foot straightaway fly ball caught by Robles, 97 mph and 28 degrees off of the bat.