There was no baseball last night. There will be no baseball tonight. This is the fault of a great many people, too many to list here. The cynical might say some blame falls at the feet of Don Mattingly and Matt Williams. Others insist the entirety of the blame belongs there.
Mattingly tried his best and Clayton Kershaw turned in two starts (or parts of two starts) unbecoming of a presumptive MVP and Cy Young winner. But if you’re looking for the true catalyst of the Dodgers’ demise and the author of a short series win, look no further than Matt Carpenter.
The Cardinals’ third baseman was unconscious during the division series, clubbing a home run and double apiece in the first three games of the series. In the deciding Game Four, he went 0-4 but his mark on this series remains indelible.
All that extra base pop is slightly out of character for Carpenter, who claimed the same high-OBP as his 7 WAR campaign of 2013 only without the extra base power. He hit just eight home runs during the regular season, only one player hit for less power while still producing more than 10% better than league average.
None of this makes Dodgers fans feel any better. How could L.A. let off-brand Joe Mauer beat them so soundly during the Division Series? Carpenter bested the Dodgers in three key ways.
Flipping the script
Carpenter is a selective hitter. He’s a very selective hitter, all told. Only two qualified hitters saw more pitches per plate appearance than the Cardinals lead-off hitter in 2014. Only one qualified hitter swung at the first pitch less frequently than Carpenter. Only one hitter swung-and-missed more rarely than Carpenter this season. None of this is news. He’s patient and precise. We get it.
These established facts regarding Carpenter’s plate discipline make his performance in the NLDS a very “man bites dog” baseball event. Of his three home runs, he parked two of them on the first pitch, as well as one of his doubles. Swinging at the first pitch is something Carpenter simply doesn’t do, but against Clayton Kershaw of all people, he pulled the trigger to great effect.
Those four extra base hits represent all his first-pitch swings this postseason. After a mere 17 plate appearances, it hardly suggests a turn towards the reckless. If anything, it is further proof of his discipline. Carpenter went to the plate with a plan – swing first pitch if I see a fastball middle-in – and pulled the trigger when he saw what he liked.
It’s the difference between selective and passive. Carpenter knew the likelihood of a fastball from Kershaw was high, just as the odds of J.P. Howell throwing a first pitch sinker. He combined this information with his keen pitch recognition skills and made very good things happen for the Cardinals when he found pitches to his liking.
Staying the course
It wasn’t all first pitch glory and ambush swings from the Cards’ third baseman. Matt Carpenter can grind out at bats like few other hitters in baseball, staying back on breaking balls while fighting off good fastballs from top pitchers. This Game One battle against Kershaw s one of the best at bats we’ll see this postseason.
Many watching this game wondered aloud if the Cardinals had something on Kershaw, if perhaps he was tipping his pitches or the base runners were stealing signs. The swings Carpenter put on some of these pitches are comfortable enough to suggest some sort of prior knowledge, though our own Mike Petriello debunked that line of thinking over at Dodgers Digest
If we track back one year, we find a nearly identical battle between Kershaw and Carpenter from Game Six of the 2013 NLCS. The batting-gloveless one fights off fastball after fastball, staying alive and on the sliders and curves that Kershaw offers before banging the 11th pitch he sees, a slider, into the right-field corner for a double. He’s a great hitter who, in these situations, hung tough against the game’s best.
In earlier at bats, Kershaw dispensed with Carpenter easily, striking him out on four pitches and coaxing a tame infield popup. But in these huge at bats, the motor of the Cards offense earned himself some hittable pitches, not to mention more fastballs from a quickly-tiring Kershaw, by simply keeping the at bat alive.
Gift Horse Rodeo
We often hear about good pitching beating good hitting, but even great pitching isn’t immune to mistakes. Great hitting is all about taking advantage of those mistakes and turning them into opportunities for your club. Against Matt Carpenter in the NLDS, the Dodgers made more than their share of mistakes.
A quick look at the strike zone plot of his extra base hits shows just how generous L.A.’s pitching staff was with the Cardinals lead-off man. Fastballs over the heart of the plate, change ups that caught far too much of the strike zone and two cookies in the typical lefty wheelhouse, down and in.
via Baseball Savant
The pitch plot tells some of the story, but the locations appear worse when contrasted with the targets set by Dodgers’ catcher A.J. Ellis. We see Ellis reaching back across the plate on the bomb Carpenter hit off Howell and groping for an even bigger miss when the two met again in St. Louis. His first homer off Kershaw came on a fastball that stayed up, and the worst offender of all, the bases-clearing double, which missed its spot by the full width of the plate.
It takes a great hitter to capitalize on these mistakes and Carpenter is just that. As noted above, he “earned” these pitches by making the opposition work and staying alive through some long at bats. After a season in which he admits to fighting his swing, it all came together in time for another Cardinals run to the league championship series.
What can and will the Giants do to combat the relentless Carpenter? Game One starter Madison Bumgarner will try keeping his fastball on the outside part of the plate, perhaps trying looking to flip in a first pitch breaking ball to jump ahead in the count? It isn’t something he’s done in their matchups in the past and it isn’t a pitch he typically throws to lefties to open at bats (around 7% of the time this year), but Carpenter surely earned the full attention of all coaches and scouts in SF.
We know Matt Carpenter isn’t going to beat himself too often at the plate. In the NLDS, he showed he can a very good team. He’ll continue making himself a tough out and while he might not earn many more Stan Musial comps, the Giants must avoid the same mistakes made by their bitter rivals to the south lest Carpenter become The Man once again.