Something interesting caught my eye this morning while doing the research for my post on Alcides Escobar’s first-pitch swing tendencies: Matt Carpenter has led off 42 times for the Cardinals this year, and in those 42 leadoff starts, he has not yet swung at a single first pitch to begin the game. Forty-two first pitches, forty-two takes.
In the interest of full disclosure, Matt Carpenter is not the only regular leadoff hitter without a first-inning, first-pitch swing. Charlie Blackmon and Nori Aoki are also swingless to lead off the first, but neither has started as many games atop his team’s lineup as Carpenter, plus Aoki hasn’t led off in more than a week and Blackmon’s aversion to first-pitch swings is well-known. And Carpenter didn’t used to be this way. His first-inning, first-pitch swing rate last year was low (15%), but not too far below the league average (21%). This year, it’s disappeared completely.
What’s interesting is that last year, Carpenter received a first-pitch fastball in the leadoff spot 93% of the time, well above the league-average. This year, it’s at 95%, again one of the highest in the league. It doesn’t seem like Carpenter is reacting to anything in particular that happened last year, at least in the way he was pitched; if anything, one might’ve expected him to swing more often on the first pitch this year, given his propensity for being thrown first-pitch fastballs to begin a game.
Without any swings, Carpenter’s fallen behind in the count 26 times in 42 leadoff plate appearances (62%). In his other 162 plate appearances, he’s only fallen behind 74 times (46%). Despite falling behind in the count in his leadoff plate appearances more often than he’s gotten ahead, though, his .817 OPS in leadoff at-bats is still above-average relative to the league, though it’s below his overall 2016 production (.884 OPS), and well below last year’s production in first-inning leadoff at-bats (.961).
Carpenter is a great hitter, and he has been a great hitter, and this is clearly a conscious choice — you don’t take 42 consecutive first pitches, most of them fastballs, on accident — so I’d like to give him the benefit of the doubt. But it certainly is curious, and it seems like something that could eventually be exploited the longer it goes on, if it hasn’t started already.
August used to cover the Indians for MLB and ohio.com, but now he's here and thinks writing these in the third person is weird. So you can reach me on Twitter @AugustFG_ or e-mail at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Just about the time one chooses to exploit the taking he goes boom. Albert Pujols was also notorious for taking the first pitch, (I dunno about now cause I rarely watch Angels games) but when he did swing at the first offering the damage was intense.
Another thing to remember is that Carpenter sports a 1.078 when he is ahead in the count. So perhaps there is a method to his madness.