The St. Louis Cardinals’ Matt Carpenter is going through a rough start to the season. At this point in the season it is cause for concern, so let’s see what the numbers tell us.
It’s May 11th. Matt Carpenter has 123 plate appearances. He’s hitting a stunningly terrible .147/.296/.284. The St. Louis Cardinals third baseman isn’t just playing poorly, he’s playing atrociously. There have been rumors of an injury, some fans are insisting that age has caught up to the 32-year-old, and others think that this is just who Carp has always been. The numbers seem to say that he’s doing just fine; he’s just been the subject of some really bad luck. But what’s really going on?
Matt Carpenter Doesn’t Suck
To start, let’s address the notion that Matt Carpenter just sucks because this is too asinine to ignore. By WAR Matt Carpenter ranks 4th among third basemen since he broke out in 2013, with 22.3 wins above replacement. In terms of wRC+, he ranks 4th with a mark 30% above average.
By wOBA he ranks 6th with a .362 mark. He ranks second in OBP with a mark of .377. It’s hard to find a stat that makes Matt Carpenter a bad offensive third baseman because he isn’t one. He isn’t the best in the league, true, but he’s been an asset for the Cardinals. His start to the 2018 season is an anomaly, not an ongoing trend of mediocrity.
An Aside on Statistics
That definitely doesn’t rule out the possibility of a decline, though, or of an injury. To figure out what’s at the core of Matt Carpenter’s issue, we have to dig into the numbers. Before we do that, however, we have to know what we’re looking for. There are two schools of thought when it comes to stats.
The first involves looking at a player’s production (numbers like batting average, RBIs, and ERA). The second involves looking at a player’s approach (numbers like WAR, wRC+, and FIP). I think it’s pretty clear that I tend to ascribe to the second method, but let me explain why.
We know that baseball distorts results. We know because of plays like this:
Everyone who saw Tulowitzki hit that ball knew it was smoked. By all rights, that pitch should have been a hit. It just wasn’t. Alternately, Zimmerman barely managed to make contact with that pitch, but it was a hit and Wacha lost his no-hitter. In short, we all know that baseball cheats us and that results don’t give us the full picture.
Yes, at the end of the day, the results win and lose ball games, but if we care about what will happen in the future and not what happened in the past, we’re better served by looking at the approach instead of the result. I care more that you hit the ball hard on a line than that you did or didn’t get a hit, because if you hit the ball hard on a line, you will get hits — even if they aren’t coming right now.
Diving into the Numbers
In fact, that seems to be precisely what’s happening to Matt Carpenter. His approach seems solid, with the best walk percentage in his career, a hard hit percentage of 42% (along with a shockingly low soft hit percentage of 5.8%), and an average exit velocity in line with his career numbers.
There’s nothing that stands out as negative, and there are some things that stick out as exceptionally good. For instance, his barrel percentage is at 14.9% (well above his career rate of 9.9%), and he’s averaging 226 feet per ball in play, good for 9th in the league (sandwiched between Mike Trout and Rhys Hoskins). That means that Carpenter is smoking the ball, but not getting any hits.
Thanks to StatCast, we have access to another great stat: expected weighted on-base average (xwOBA). The idea behind wOBA (weight on-base average) is that we ought to give appropriate credit to batters for their production.
In short, we know that a double is more valuable than a single, and we can even figure out roughly how much more valuable that extra base is. By applying an appropriately weighted formula, we come to a number that pretty accurately reflects a player’s contributions.
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The next evolution is xwOBA, where we use launch angle and exit velocity to guess at what sort of result any given batted ball is likely to give us. Basically, it translates a player’s overall approach into an understandable number, crediting players for what they can control (hitting the ball hard in the right direction) and ignore what they can’t (exceptional or horrible defense and dumb luck). It attempts to dive deeper than just results and tell us what should have happened instead of stopping at what did happen.
Matt Carpenter’s xwOBA is .385 (which is very good). His actual wOBA is .264 (which is very bad). That difference of -.121 points is the fifth worst in baseball this season. No player with at least 100 plate appearances last year had a difference worse than -.075. The split here for Carpenter tells us that he’s been exceptionally unlucky. Carpenter’s .186 BABIP (.300 is about average) backs that up. Balls that should go for hits just aren’t going for hits right now.
Digging a Little Deeper
It’s easy to look at the numbers above and decide that Matt Carpenter just needs more time and some good luck. Overall, I think that’s probably true, but there are some interesting — if not really concerning — trends in his approach at the plate that are worth mentioning.
For starters, Carpenter is striking out more than he ever has in the past, posting a K% of 26.8%. That’s not atrociously high, by any means, but it’s interesting to see a disciplined hitter whiffing that much. My first thought was that maybe this slump made him a little more aggressive than normal, but that doesn’t actually appear to be the case.
Although he is swinging at more pitches out of the zone than last year, he’s still below his career average, and his overall swing percentage has actually fallen from 34.1% in 2017 to 33% this year. That seems to tell me that Matt Carpenter is getting a little more disciplined, not less. Which is weird.
On a more interesting note, Carpenter’s making less contact when he swings than he ever has in his career. Over 11% less. His contact on pitches out of the zone has fallen nearly 14% since last year, and his contact on pitches in the zone has fallen almost 6%. Because of that, his swinging strike rate has risen to a substantial career high.
To be frank, I have no idea what to make of that. It would be easy to say that he’s not seeing the ball well and is just missing, but he’s also barrelling up more balls than ever before, which would seem to indicate that he’s seeing the ball better than normal.
Maybe he’s trying to crush the ball and suffering for it, but that still doesn’t explain why so many of the balls he does crush wind up as outs (or how he can draw so many walks while he’s trying to crush everything).
The answer to why Matt Carpenter’s struggling likely lies somewhere between a change in his approach and some really bad luck. The good news is that his luck has to improve sometime soon and that his approach ought to be fine — despite its oddities. Whatever the underlying issues, let’s hope he starts producing soon. As it is, he isn’t doing much to help the Cardinals win games.