Don’t Forget That Matt Carpenter Was David Ortiz

As the person in charge of the FanGraphs Community blog, I read over every submission that isn’t curiously-worded spam about industrial milling machinery or picking up girls. This week, a post about Matt Carpenter was submitted and published, and here is a link. I’ve been meaning to review Carpenter’s 2016 for a while, and the Community post beat me to the punch. Go ahead and read that, and if you want, stop there. I’m just going to talk more about Carpenter in the following paragraphs. His most recent year, you see, was something extraordinary.

In the first half last season, Michael Saunders was one of the best hitters in the game. He stood out, even within what was supposed to be a stacked Blue Jays lineup. After the year, Saunders hit free agency and settled for a one-year contract with the Phillies, demonstrating that the market didn’t value him as one of the best hitters in the game. In support of that position, there was the second half last season, when Saunders was one of the worst hitters in the game. He had a hot streak, and then he had a slump. Most seasons, when examined, are alternating sequences of hot streaks and slumps.

There’s nothing that unusual about what happened with Saunders, even if he took it to the extreme. We all get how numbers work, and we all get how certain players can over-achieve. Sometimes, however, there are mitigating circumstances. In the first half last season, Matt Carpenter was one of the best hitters in the game. In the second half last season, Carpenter was much much worse. He finished with basically the same numbers he had before, which is not weird! If you just glance at Carpenter’s page, there’s nothing that screams for further attention.

It’s something hidden that does it. Carpenter didn’t just finish in a relative slump. On July 6, he suffered an oblique injury that sent him to the DL. With many DL stints, you assume when a player is back, said player is healthy. I’m going to pull from a Derrick Goold article from last October.

On July 6, against Pittsburgh, Carpenter took a swing and his oblique muscle gave way. He missed the next month, but was never the same.

In his final 51 games of the season, many of which were at first base, Carpenter hit .229 with a .410 slugging percentage and a .726 OPS. He acknowledged Sunday that the oblique never felt comfortable and he modified his swing to avoid aggravating the injury.

Maybe I’m just the resident optimist. Generally I do try to see the best in players. And I’m not Matt Carpenter; I don’t know exactly how bad he felt down the stretch. But when I think about the season he had, I think about how the last two months dragged his numbers down. That Carpenter wasn’t normal Carpenter. And when Carpenter was healthy for the first three months — that most recent healthy version of Matt Carpenter was completely absurd.

Carpenter has gone through a few profile changes in the majors. He never hit for power until 2015. This post includes three tables, and here comes the first. This is a comparison of 2015 Carpenter to pre-injury 2016 Carpenter.

Matt Carpenter Year-to-Year
Year Split PA K-BB% Pull% Hard% Fastball% Contact% wRC+
2015 Full season 665 11% 39% 37% 64% 80% 139
2016 Pre-injury 351 1% 48% 45% 58% 85% 162

Two years ago, he learned to hit for power. Last year, he continued to hit for power, but he actually made more contact while simultaneously pulling the ball more and hitting it hard more consistently. In the Fastball% column, you can tell that opposing pitchers realized something was up. In this table, you can see where Carpenter stood in various statistical categories when he got hurt.

Matt Carpenter in 2016
Through 7/6 wRC+ ISO BB% K% GB% IFFB% Pull% Soft% Hard%
Performance 162 0.270 17% 17% 30% 3% 48% 7% 45%
MLB Rank (n=183) 5 14 4 71 6 18 19 1 1

He was producing like the game’s fifth-best hitter. He hit for power, he walked a bunch, and he struck out less than the league average. Carpenter was constantly hitting the ball in the air, but he was seldom popping up, which speaks to his terrific bat control. At the time, no regular or semi-regular hitter had a low soft-hit rate. No regular or semi-regular hitter had a higher hard-hit rate. Carpenter wasn’t the league leader in average exit velocity. But exit velocity needs to be only so high in order to help. There are, in other words, diminishing returns, and Carpenter was maximizing his own profile.

These spray charts come from Baseball Savant. Carpenter started to pull the ball more in 2015. He bumped that up again last year.

I don’t think that Carpenter made meaningful and significant swing changes. Rather, I think he was just getting more comfortable with the adjusted approach. He better understood what he could do, and he better understood which pitches he could drive. Earlier in his career, Carpenter was pretty effective when it came to finding hits the other way. The newest version of Carpenter has tried to ignore left field entirely. In 2013, Carpenter had 44 hits to the opposite field. Last year, he had 11, and a sub-zero wRC+. Carpenter became right-center oriented, and he made it work like few others could.

As a quick examination, I gathered full-season numbers for 2016. I also included Carpenter’s numbers from before he got injured. I focused on five particular statistics: walk rate, strikeout rate, ground-ball rate, pull rate, and hard-hit rate. All those numbers have to do with a given hitter’s batting approach, and, long story short, I ran some math to figure out which hitters from last year were most similar to how early Carpenter looked. Here is what I wound up with — the five closest comps.

Most Similar 2016 Hitters
Player Split BB% K% GB% Pull% Hard% wRC+
Matt Carpenter Pre-injury 17% 17% 30% 48% 45% 162
David Ortiz Full season 13% 14% 33% 48% 46% 163
Josh Donaldson Full season 16% 17% 38% 46% 40% 155
Jose Bautista Full season 17% 20% 40% 53% 41% 122
Kris Bryant Full season 11% 22% 31% 47% 40% 149
Mike Trout Full season 17% 20% 41% 41% 42% 171

I mean, you can’t look at a hitter with a 162 wRC+ and find unflattering comps very easily. But look at the company that Carpenter deserved, by the numbers. MVPs, All-Stars, maybe more than one Hall-of-Famer. Matt Carpenter was only himself into the first week of July, but based on that player, and leaving out what happened afterward, the most similar hitter in baseball was David Ortiz. Josh Donaldson was also a near-perfect match. Last summer, in a quick InstaGraphs post, I noted how Carpenter was going all Jose Bautista, so it’s fitting to see that name in there too. It’s just crazy, is what it is. Carpenter was that good before his own swing caused him so much distress.

The question, as always, is: Now what? What do we make of Matt Carpenter going forward? I don’t think there’s anyone out there who doesn’t think Carpenter is good. He’s been good for a long time. It just seems like that oblique injury might’ve caused a series of events that served to cover up what could’ve been an improvement. You never know, right? Maybe that really was just Carpenter on a hot streak. But as we consider the season that’s right around the corner, don’t undersell Matt Carpenter’s chances of being one of the most productive bats in the game. That is, after all, what he was, the last time he could swing without pain.

We hoped you liked reading Don’t Forget That Matt Carpenter Was David Ortiz by Jeff Sullivan!

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Jeff made Lookout Landing a thing, but he does not still write there about the Mariners. He does write here, sometimes about the Mariners, but usually not.

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Bud Smith
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Bud Smith

This is all well and good but I think there’s still an elephant in the room: is his current back injury going to lead to us seeing more of 2nd half Matt Carpenter than 1st half Matt Carpenter?