A Broken Foot Has Stalled the Matt Carpenter Revival

© Joe Nicholson-USA TODAY Sports

Perhaps nobody in baseball has had a rollercoaster week quite like the one Matt Carpenter just experienced. On Friday, the 36-year-old veteran returned to St. Louis for the first time as a visiting player and received a lengthy ovation from fans grateful for his contributions over the course of an 11-season run, and the warm reception continued throughout the weekend despite his now wearing Yankee pinstripes. On Monday in Seattle, however, Carpenter fouled a pitch off his left foot and suffered a fracture, sidelining him in the midst of an impressive comeback.

The injury happened during Carpenter’s first-inning plate appearance, when he fouled an 0-1 pitch from Logan Gilbert off the top of his left foot. “I knew it was broke. I knew something was wrong when I did it.” he said after the game, speaking to reporters while on crutches. He completed his plate appearance nonetheless, striking out with DJ LeMahieu on third base and Aaron Judge at second. “I thought that I could finish the at-bat and get that run in,” he added.

By the time Carpenter spoke to the media, x-rays had confirmed the fracture. He will meet with a foot specialist upon returning to New York, at which point a timetable for his return should become more apparent. “I’m holding out hope that it’ll be a situation where I could come back in the middle of September and can contribute towards the stretch run,” said Carpenter. “I’m not going to let my mind go anywhere else that I don’t want. I’m not even going to accept the fact that this will be it for me.”

The injury was quite a comedown after Carpenter’s reception in St. Louis three days earlier.

Despite that series-opening single, Carpenter went just 2-for-12 while the Yankees were swept in Busch Stadium. His return nonetheless served as a reminder of just how far he had come since the Cardinals declined his $18.5 million option at the end of last season.

Carpenter had spent his entire professional career with St. Louis to that point. Drafted out of Texas Christian University in the 13th round in 2009, he had a cup of coffee with the Cardinals’ championship-winning team two years later and then spent a full decade bouncing around their infield as a versatile regular. He made three All-Star teams, received MVP votes in three seasons, outproduced every Cardinals position player this side of Yadier Molina, and helped the team to four NL Central titles, six playoff appearances, and the 2013 NL pennant. But after hitting a combined .176/.313/.291 (76 wRC+) with 0.2 WAR in 180 games and 418 plate appearances in 2020-21, the Cardinals declined his option and let him walk as a free agent.

Carpenter wasn’t ready to hang up his spikes. Last October, he reached out to longtime NL Central rival Joey Votto for advice on how to reverse his mid-30s decline; Votto, who struggled from 2018-20, was fresh off a 36-homer, 140 wRC+ season that helped to cement his Hall of Fame credentials. In a conversation that Carpenter recalled lasting 3 1/2 hours, Votto gave him a combination pep talk and roadmap to fixing his swing, one that centered around a data-driven approach. While working with hitting gurus Tim Laker and Craig Wallenbrock as well as former teammate Matt Holliday over the winter, Carpenter switched to a new bat and underwent a full mechanical overhaul to improve his swing path and refine his body movement.

After the lockout ended, Carpenter signed a minor league deal with the Rangers, one that guaranteed him a salary of $2 million in the majors. After missing the cut for Opening Day, he accepted an assignment to Triple-A Round Rock, where he hit .275/.379/.613 with six homers in 95 PA, but the team didn’t see him as being worth a big league roster spot. By mutual decision, he was released by the Rangers on May 19, and signed with the Yankees a week later, after they placed Giancarlo Stanton on the injured list with a right calf strain. Carpenter debuted that day by going 0-for-2 with a walk and a hit-by-pitch against the Rays at Tropicana Field.

Carpenter homered off the Rays’ Jeffrey Springs the next day, and he just kept slugging. His first three hits, and eight of his first 12, were homers. Despite playing only sporadically during the periods when Stanton has been healthy, he’s continued to wield an incredibly potent bat, hitting a jaw-dropping .305/.412/.727 with 15 homers in 154 PA while making 16 starts at DH, 11 in right field, three apiece in left field and at first base, and two at third base; he has also pinch-hit 12 times. On a team where he’s 12th in plate appearances, his 2.4 WAR is tied for fourth.

Carpenter’s 216 wRC+ is the highest by a player with a minimum of 150 PA in a season since 2005 (a cutoff I intentionally made in order to avoid peak Barry Bonds, who topped the mark three times from 2001-04):

Highest wRC+ Since 2008 (Minimum 150 PA)
Rk Player Team Season PA HR AVG OBP SLG wRC+
1 Matt Carpenter NYY 2022 154 15 .305 .412 .727 216
2 Juan Soto WSN 2020 196 13 .351 .490 .695 201
3 Bryce Harper WSN 2015 654 42 .330 .460 .649 197
4 Aaron Judge NYY 2022 470 44 .303 .391 .677 196
5 Miguel Cabrera DET 2013 652 44 .348 .442 .636 193
6 Yordan Alvarez HOU 2022 388 30 .300 .407 .638 192
7 Hanley Ramirez LAD 2013 336 20 .345 .402 .638 191
8 Paul Goldschmidt STL 2022 443 26 .332 .415 .614 189
9T Mike Trout LAA 2018 608 39 .312 .460 .628 188
Luke Voit STL/NYY 2018 161 15 .322 .398 .671 188
All statistics through August 8.

The list includes three other partial but more substantial showings from this season, two of them by teammates of Carpenter past (Goldschmidt) and present (Judge), two of them by MVPs (Harper and Cabrera), one from the pandemic-shortened 2020 season (Soto) and one that serves as a very apt precedent in the Bronx (Voit). The point here isn’t that Carpenter has outdone the full seasons above so much as that he’s sustained this scorching MVP level for even this long.

In fact, only once has Carpenter’s wRC+ been surpassed by a player with at least 100 PA but fewer than 300 during the expansion era (1961 onward):

Highest wRC+ Since 1961 (100-300 PA)
Rk Player Team Season PA HR AVG OBP SLG wRC+
1 Gates Brown DET 1968 104 6 .370 .442 .685 237
2 Matt Carpenter NYY 2022 154 15 .305 .412 .727 216
3 Mark McGwire OAK 1993 107 9 .333 .467 .726 211
4 Juan Soto WSN 2020 196 13 .351 .490 .695 201
5 Rick Monday LAD 1981 156 11 .315 .423 .608 193
6 Mickey Mantle NYY 1963 213 15 .314 .441 .622 192
7 Mike Trout LAA 2021 146 8 .333 .466 .624 190
8 Luke Voit STL/NYY 2018 161 15 .322 .398 .671 188
9 Freddie Freeman ATL 2020 262 13 .341 .462 .640 186
10 Gregg Jefferies NYM 1988 118 6 .321 .364 .596 180
11 Mike Jacobs NYM 2005 112 11 .310 .375 .710 179
12T Frank Thomas CHW 1990 240 7 .330 .454 .529 178
Marcell Ozuna ATL 2020 267 18 .338 .431 .636 178
Broderick Perkins SDP 1980 111 2 .370 .432 .520 178
15 DJ LeMahieu NYY 2020 216 10 .364 .421 .590 177
16T Dick Allen CHW 1973 288 16 .316 .394 .612 176
Gary Sheffield FLA 1995 274 16 .324 .467 .587 176
18T Phil Plantier BOS 1991 175 11 .331 .420 .615 175
Gene Tenace OAK 1970 128 7 .305 .430 .562 175
Corey Seager LAD 2015 113 4 .337 .425 .561 175
All statistics through August 8.

This captures a grab bag of late-season call-ups, 2020 stars, and sizzling showings shortened by injuries, though the list-topping Brown’s campaign came while he served as an elite pinch-hitter and occasional left fielder; in 48 PA in the pinch during “The Year of the Pitcher,” Brown hit an ungodly .455/.539/.818 with three homers. Had I chosen a higher minimum — say, 150 PA — Brown’s 170 wRC+ in 218 PA in 1971 would have cracked the top 20 instead, and likewise with stathead favorite Tenace’s 168 wRC+ in 165 PA with the 1982 Cardinals.

Here’s one more production from small-sample theater: the most homers by a player with a maximum of 162 PA (one PA per team game for a full season, with an obvious gerrymandering):

Most Home Runs in 162 PA or Fewer
Rk Player Team Season PA HR
1T Matt Carpenter NYY 2022 154 15
Luke Voit STL/NYY 2018 161 15
3T Ted Williams BOS 1953 110 13
Byron Buxton MIN 2020 135 13
Jason Giambi COL 2011 152 13
6T Frank Thomas CHW 2005 124 12
Russell Branyan MIL 2008 152 12
8T Mike Jacobs NYM 2005 112 11
Khris Davis MIL 2013 153 11
Gene Green CLE 1962 153 11
Ian Happ CHC 2019 156 11
Rick Monday LAD 1981 156 11
Salvador Perez KCR 2020 156 11
Ramón Castro NYM 2007 157 11

Again it’s an interesting mix of call-ups, injuries, and interruptions, including Williams’ blazing showing after returning from the Korean War, during which he hit .407/.509/.901 in 37 games.

It is not a tremendous mystery how Carpenter is doing what he’s doing. His 13.7% barrel rate, 42.1% hard-hit rate, and 89.8 mph average exit velocity are good but hardly extreme, though the first of those figures matches his career best, set in 2018. He’s a left-handed hitter who’s pulling the ball in the air with great frequency while playing for a team whose home ballpark rewards that. Carpenter’s 60% pull rate is the highest of any player with at least 100 PA, while his 53.3% fly ball rate is seventh among the 405 hitters meeting that cutoff. While there are 87 players who have pulled more fly balls, only 11 have hit more home runs on such balls, including teammates Judge (20) and Anthony Rizzo (21). Only Judge has a higher wRC+ on such balls:

Highest wRC+ on Pulled Fly Balls
Name Tm PA HR AVG OBP SLG wRC+
Aaron Judge NYY 36 20 .667 .667 2.444 792
Matt Carpenter NYY 25 15 .625 .600 2.500 758
Austin Riley ATL 31 16 .677 .677 2.387 747
Juan Soto WSN/SDP 20 9 .700 .700 2.200 706
Yordan Alvarez HOU 22 12 .545 .545 2.182 680
Rhys Hoskins PHI 34 18 .588 .588 2.206 672
Anthony Rizzo NYY 44 21 .545 .545 2.045 639
Eugenio Suárez SEA 26 11 .600 .577 2.040 630
Byron Buxton MIN 42 18 .571 .571 1.976 628
Shohei Ohtani LAA 20 9 .550 .550 2.000 627
Rafael Devers BOS 28 13 .536 .536 2.000 618
Kyle Schwarber PHI 33 15 .576 .576 2.000 612
C.J. Cron COL 31 15 .567 .548 2.133 608
Joc Pederson SFG 22 10 .545 .545 2.000 606
Bryan Reynolds PIT 20 9 .579 .550 2.105 605
Cal Raleigh SEA 25 11 .542 .520 2.000 600
Julio Rodríguez SEA 25 11 .520 .520 1.920 600
Christian Walker ARI 40 20 .513 .500 2.051 587
Seth Brown OAK 26 10 .538 .538 1.846 584
Charlie Blackmon COL 29 14 .517 .517 2.000 581
Minimum 20 pulled fly balls.

Nobody with at least 20 pulled fly balls has turned a higher percentage of them into homers than Carpenter (60%); Judge is second at 56%, with Alvarez (55%), Hoskins (53%), and Riley (52%) rounding out the top five.

Here’s a look at Carpenter’s spray chart, via Statcast (you can see the FanGraphs interactive version here):

Carpenter owes some of that to Yankee Stadium, with its inviting short porch in right field, where the distance is 314 feet down the line and 385 feet to right center, and where he’s hit nine homers (along with seven doubles) in 63 PA; meanwhile, he has just three singles at home en route to a .388/.524/1.082 line. At a 60-PA cutoff, his 329 wRC+ at home is 101 points higher than that of the second-ranked Trout, with Goldschmidt (226), Judge (205), and Tyler Stephenson (183) the others feasting most on home cooking. Carpenter’s .253/.333/.506 line in 91 PA on the road obviously isn’t as potent, but it’s still good for a 138 wRC+. While his 387-foot average home run distance places him in the eighth percentile among players with at least 10 homers, his total of 15 is right in line with his Statcast expected total of 14.8; eight of the 15 were no-doubters, out in all 30 parks based upon their specifications, while only one was a doubter, out in seven or fewer parks.

Losing Carpenter is a blow to the Yankees, who beat the Mariners on Monday night but entered Tuesday having lost 16 of their past 26 games, a skid that whittled their AL East lead from 15.5 games to 10.5 (they lost last night’s game on a 13th-inning walk-off RBI single by Luis Torrens). Stanton is back on the IL due to Achilles tendinitis, and was only recently cleared to resume baseball activities; he’s likely at least a week away from returning. To replace Carpenter on the roster, the team recalled Miguel Andújar from Triple-A Scranton/Wilkes-Barre. The 27-year-old Andújar has hit just .245/.269/.286 (56 wRC+) in 52 PA this year, after batting .253/.284/.383 (81 wRC+) with six homers in 162 PA last year. He owns just a 58 wRC+ and seven home runs in 328 PA since his 2018 rookie season, when he hit 27 homers and produced a 129 wRC+ and 3.7 WAR. A torn labrum in his right shoulder in 2019 and a left wrist sprain last year have turned him into an afterthought in the organization. He requested a trade in June, when he was sent down; at Scranton/Wilkes-Barre he’s hit .293/.337/.498 (118 wRC+) with 12 homers in 267 PA.

The loss of Carpenter isn’t likely to cost the Yankees a division title. But as they scramble to recover their early-season momentum and hold off the Astros — who at 70-40 are just one game behind the Yankees — for the AL’s top seed, they could certainly use a few more swings from their 36-year-old comeback kid.





Brooklyn-based Jay Jaffe is a senior writer for FanGraphs, the author of The Cooperstown Casebook (Thomas Dunne Books, 2017) and the creator of the JAWS (Jaffe WAR Score) metric for Hall of Fame analysis. He founded the Futility Infielder website (2001), was a columnist for Baseball Prospectus (2005-2012) and a contributing writer for Sports Illustrated (2012-2018). He has been a recurring guest on MLB Network and a member of the BBWAA since 2011. Follow him on Twitter @jay_jaffe... and Mastodon @jay_jaffe.

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EonADS
3 months ago

I have to admit, I never once expected Carpenter to rebound, especially not as well as he has. Sure, it’s 154 PA, but I expected literally nothing. A bat-first player with no natural position who lost his bat? I thought he’d end up in the Minors and out of the league very quickly.