About Matt Carpenter … and yes, here we go again.
The best I can determine, after fiddling with the sortable search miracle machine at Stathead, Carpenter’s .081 batting average is the lowest by a Cardinal through the team’s first 18 games of a season since the post-expansion era (1962-2021.) That’s based on a minimum 44 plate appearances.
Look, I know all about M-Carp’s impressive exit velocity, healthy barrel percentage, and robust hard-hit rate. I’ve written about these things a couple of times already this season. I have the numbers. And about these numbers, as Mike Shildt might say: I don’t rule them out, but I don’t rule them in.
OK, so what about making contact? How do we explain Carpenter’s futility against non-fastballs? Carpenter has struck out in 36.4% of his plate appearances; that’s the ninth-worst rate in the majors among hitters with at least 44 PA. According to Statcast, Carpenter is 0 for 16 with 12 strikeouts against breaking and offspeed pitches.
What in the world does that have to do with bad batted-ball luck?
Carpenter is chasing pitches out of the strike zone at a career-high rate (26.4%) so far. That’s led to the highest swing and miss rate of his career. That’s a factor in the lowest walk rate of his career (9%) so far.
And when pitchers tantalize Carpenter with a breaking pitch, he has a staggeringly high whiff rate of 55%. See, we talk a lot about Carpenter’s hard-contact percentage.We haven’t talked enough about his no-contact percentage. If he hits a few balls hard, great. But the problem is, he doesn’t hit enough of them because of his extremely low volume of batted balls in play. Too many pitcher-hitter engagements leave Carpenter ripping and fishing and swishing his bat through nothing but air.
And one other thing: sometimes a “hard hit” ball is nothing more than a routine fly ball. What, we’re supposed to celebrate ordinary fly-ball outs now. And in a related point, what about helping your cause by trying to go to the opposite field more often to beat the dreaded defensive shifts? What’s the point of barreling pitches if the opponent has defenders perfectly set up to turn those barrels into easy outs?
If the other side has scouted the easily accessible charts and knows where you’ll be sending an overwhelming percentage of batted balls, they have the hot-spot areas covered with fielders, the fielders have gloves, and the fielders make simple catches or automatic plays. Keep hitting the ball into the anti-missile defense, and your hard-hit rate will likely lead to sad walks back to the dugout.
According to FanGraphs, Carpenter is 0 for 8 against the defensive over shifts this season. But when he hits the ball in play to the opposite side or the middle, he’s 2 for 12. Obviously that isn’t good, but at least there’s a little crack in the defense.
Here’s another aspect that shouldn’t be overlooked: Carpenter has 22 plate appearances in the No. 5 spot in Shildt’s lineup, the most there by a Cardinal. And not counting Carpenter’s pinch-hitting assignments, he has only 14 plate appearances elsewhere in the lineup. Three PA batting second, four batting sixth, and seven batting seventh.
When Carpenter is slotted at 5th in the lineup, he’s 1 for 19 (.053) with the hit resulting in a three-run homer. The home run was sweet, but it’s only one swing for a drive that clanked the foul pole in right. Carpenter has also struck out 32% of the time when batting fifth. Should we ignore that?
I get it; Shildt and the front office are determined to play Carpenter. But why must he bat fifth? That’s a potentially important spot on every turn of the lineup. Perhaps Shildt is having a change of heart; Dylan Carlson has batted fifth in the last three games. He’s reached base six times, ripped two triples, scored three runs and driven in one.
We’re barreling out of control with this obsession on hard-hit percentage and the expected batting average and expected slugging rate that comes with it. And on occasion I’m guilty of this very thing.
Yes, I’m a proponent of advanced stats, but I never forget that the actual results determine the number of actual total of runs scored. There’s nothing on the scoreboard that counts expected runs. You don’t use expected run stats to beat an opponent for an official victory that’s posted in the standings.
I believe these competitions are deemed successful if your side outscores the other side, even if it means cashing in on a few bloopers, jam shots, soft but well-placed doubles, skipping ground-ball singles, bad-hop singles, or nudging a pitch off the end of the bat and winning a prize. Do you think your adoring fans are upset with a lucky-charm 5-2 victory because the rival team had more barrels? Do you think the doting fans will be delighted because you won the battle of hard-hit rate but lost the game?
The pitcher has all but sawed your bat in half — but hey, a hit is a hit. Yes! True! Now we’re talking. Real hits can lead to real runs that really count. If the Cardinals had scored a few more real runs, actual runs, scoreboard runs, they’d have more real wins and wouldn’t be 8-10.
The Cardinals and we media types have to reduce this incessant chatter about “expected” this, or “expected” that, and stop ginning up theoretical scenarios to justify Carpenter’s regular presence in the lineup.
“Those expected numbers always make me laugh a little bit,” Cubs manager David Ross said before his team walloped the Mets for 16 runs in a win on Wednesday night. Ten of the Cubs’ 13 hits were singles. The Cubs struck out eight times — but also drew eight walks from Mets pitchers. The Cubs’ adept situational hitting produced 8 hits in 15 at-bats with runners in scoring position.
“I don’t know what the expected run production was today, but it was nice,” Ross added. “Quality at-bats; I was happy with guys staying up the middle. A lot of singles, a couple off the end that fell, jam shots that told me they’re staying up the middle with the right approach. I don’t know if we’ve had that many singles in quite some time. Feels like the things we’ve seen over the last four, five days have been really good and paid off there as the game went on.”
Cubs outfielder Ian Happ made a couple of points after the game: positive advanced metrics provide hope during a slump, a dry spell. Those metrics tell you what you want to hear: It’s All Bad Luck, You Poor Dude! It Will Change!
But Happ understands something else: if you raise your batting average with dinks and seeing-eye singles, and win a game on a soft-contact lucky-landing RBI — well, no one will ask you to subtract the hits and RBIs because of your “good luck” and unfair spike in batting average. Hitters can find comfort in the metrics. They can find base hits with a magical batted ball that defies Statcast models.
“Whatever makes you feel good,” Happ said. “That’s part of the game. It’s all confidence.”
Yes. He’s right. The Cardinals want to make Carpenter feel better by spinning his troubling numbers into a hard-luck story. They conveniently forget to mention the biggest issue of all: the alarming, deteriorating contact skill. His swings and misses have the Cardinals swinging and missing on the message, and whiffing on reality.
Thanks for reading…
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