An epic turnaround in St. Louis has seen the Cardinals now play like contenders. Matt Carpenter has led this charge by doing what he does best.
It wasn’t that long ago that the St. Louis Cardinals were destined to miss the postseason for the fourth consecutive season. When the Cardinals fired Mike Matheny, the team had a record of 47-46 and were in fourth place in the highly competitive National League Central. They were seven and a half games behind the Chicago Cubs for the division and the season looked to be lost.
Fast forward to Aug. 24. Ever since interim manager Mike Shildt took over, the Cardinals have been on an absolute tear, winning more than two-thirds of their games under his leadership. The team has climbed back into wild card contention and is currently holding one of those spots. As of Aug. 24, the Cardinals have the first wild card spot in the National League and only two and half games behind the Cubs for the division.
Throughout the course of the Cardinals’ ascension back into the playoff chase, several key players have delivered big hits and pitched gems. Miles Mikolas has been one of the best pitchers in baseball, which is remarkable considering he was playing in Japan for the past three years. Jose Martinez has hit nearly .400 since he was plugged into the second spot in Shildt’s lineup. And Jedd Gyorko is beginning to hit again, hitting over .300 since he regained the starting third base job.
But no one has surprised more than Matt Carpenter, a player who was always known for good plate discipline and bat control has become the biggest power threat in the National League in 2018. One of his notable accomplishments in the power department thus far is that he set the Cardinals’ record for homering in six consecutive games.
Matt Carpenter hit his 34th home run against the Los Angeles Dodgers on Monday. This is easily his career-high (his previous career-high was 28 home runs in 2015). Carpenter also leads the National League in wRC+ and wOBA. He earned Player of the Month honors, and if he keeps up his great performance, he could ultimately get consideration for some National League MVP votes.
In order to understand why Carpenter has been ranking as of late, it is important to know how Carpenter’s approach got him here, and has led to him being a consistent bat for the Cardinals since 2012. According to Baseball-Reference, Carpenter, outside of 2017, has consistently batted around .270 and his on-base percentage has consistently hovered around .380. While most major league players have seen a decline in their OBP along with an increase in strikeouts, Carpenter has managed to keep his OBP high based on his good eye at the plate, evidenced by his high walk rate and low chase rate.
Getting on base is Carpenter’s specialty. Since 2016, Carpenter has sported a 16% walk rate. Out of the 130 qualified hitters over this span of time, that ranks third. The league average is 8.4%. Carpenter walks more against righties (16.6%) than lefties (14%) and more against relievers (16.1%) than starters (15.9%).
Carpenter aids his walk rate by not swinging at many pitches out of the zone. Since the start of 2016, Carpenter has chased 19.6% of pitches out of the zone, which is the second-lowest rate among qualified hitters and over 10 percentage points less than the average major leaguer over that period of time (29.8%). The chart below shows that Carpenter’s chase rate between starters and relievers in small as well:
Carpenter is not only controlling the strike zone better. With this new generation of baseball evolving into a shift-centric defensive strategy, hitters have seen their overall numbers decline as evidenced by the league batting average of .248, a figure that has not gotten that low since 1971. What Carpenter is doing is evolving with the times: he has been finding ways to beat the shift.
Teams are well aware of the fact that Carpenter has the second-highest grounder pull rate. It should be unsurprising, therefore, that he regularly sees opposing teams employ a radical defensive shift against him. In order to beat the shift, a hitter can employ one of three strategies:
1) The hitter can put down a successful bunt. In Carpenter’s case, this is likely to be to the left side of the infield since Carpenter is a left-handed batter and the opposing defense will set most of their infielders on the right side of the infield where Carpenter tends to pull ground balls.
2) The hitter can try to become more of an all-fields hitter. It sounds easy in theory but remains difficult in practice. One reason why defensive shifts have hurt hitters’ batting averages so badly is because hitters haven’t adjusted to them.
3) The hitter can also simply hit the ball over the shifted infielders. This requires good contact hitting and the hitter’s ability to keep the ball off the ground and in the air.
What Carpenter has been doing successfully for most of this year is combating the shifts with option three. He has done a very good job of lowering his ground ball rate (his 24% is the lowest in the majors among hitters with at least 250 plate appearances). He has also done a good job not popping up this year. In 2017, Carpenter had a 4.8% infield pop up rate. In 2018, he has lowered it to close to one percent.
At only a one percent pop-up rate, Carpenter has consistently made superior contact while displaying great bat-to-ball skills, driving the ball without getting under it too much. This is something that Joey Votto became famous for and found great success with as evidenced by his insanely low pop-up rate (0.1%).
The scatter plot below has infield flies per fly ball on the y-axis and the ground-ball rate on the x-axis. Carpenter is represented by the yellow dot on the plot, which shows how infrequently he hits grounders:
The chart merely confirms what has already been evident in Carpenter’s performance: He limits the ground balls which also decreases the number of easy outs he creates.
Carpenter’s launch angle also helps us to see how effective he has been at driving the baseball. The ideal launch angle for hitters when it comes to hitting over the shift ranges between +5 and +35 degrees. A fly ball hit in this range is considered an ideal batted ball. Out of all active players, Carpenter has the highest ideal batted ball percentage:
Once again, Carpenter is in the same company as Votto. Although Carpenter strikes out more than Votto, he has perfected the launch angle and is able to drive balls over the inevitable shift, allowing him to blast hits on a routine basis.
Carpenter has come a long way from the beginning of the year when he was hitting .140 through the first 35 games. According to Elias Sports Bureau, if he were to win the NL MVP Award, this would be the lowest batting average mark in the first 35 games for a MVP winner since 1944 when Marty Marion hit .231 for the St. Louis Browns.
Carpenter’s struggles were noticeable. In the beginning of the season, Carpenter was hurting himself in two distinct ways: He was striking out considerably more, and as a result he was not putting many balls in play as evidenced by his extremely low BABIP.
Since May 16, he has played like a MVP candidate. If he manages to win that award, he would become only the 12th player in baseball history to win the MVP Award after not making the All-Star team.
Despite the trending #ItsGottaBeTheSalsa hashtag on Twitter, Carpenter’s success has come from his typical routine: avoid grounders, make solid contact, and do not chase bad pitches. With the Cardinals in the thick of the National League Wild Card race, Carpenter is going to have to continue doing what he does best.
As arguably the most important player on this team, Carpenter’s performance over the last leg of the regular season will not only determine if the Cardinals make the postseason but also decide Mike Shildt’s fate. And Carpenter, along with his secret salsa, is more than up to this challenge.
*All statistics and information originated from ESPN.com, FanGraphs.com, or Baseball-Reference.com, unless otherwise stated.
Edited by Jazmyn Brown.
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