Matt Carpenter’s Long Con, and the Big Reveal

Matt Carpenter did something special last night, on the final day of baseball’s 2016 regular season. I’ll get the anticlimactic part of this all out of the way right now: it didn’t matter. Of course, none of this actually matters, but through the lens of the St. Louis Cardinals’ year and postseason implications, what Carpenter did wound up not meaning a thing. It could’ve meant a thing; Carpenter and the Cardinals had everything to play for. Their only shot at a playoff berth came through a win, and what Carpenter did helped the Cardinals win one of their biggest game of the year, 10-4, over the Pittsburgh Pirates.

But the Cardinals needed some help alongside their win to potentially clinch that playoff berth, and with a loss to the San Francisco Giants, the Los Angeles Dodgers did not provide the necessary help. The win over the Pirates was for nought; the Cardinals were eliminated from postseason contention. Carpenter, though, did all he could — including pulling a trick out of his bag that he’d been waiting more than six years to use.

Carpenter isn’t quite baseball’s most patient hitter, but he might be the most particular about his swings. For example, by May 26 of this season, Carpenter had led off 42 games for the Cardinals, and he’d taken the first pitch of the game all 42 times. He finally swung at a first pitch to lead off a game on June 3, and promptly smacked a line-drive single to center field against Johnny Cueto, off the bat at 100 mph. Carpenter’s final tally for the season was 114 first pitches, five swings.

Beyond all that making for a plethora of neat fun facts, there’s some real-life application, too. These are the sorts of things on which players, coaches, and front-office types pick up, and so these are the sort of things that are met with adjustments. Like for instance, Carpenter sees even more fastballs to begin games than the average leadoff hitter, and more strikes — and, as a result, he often falls behind in the count in the first inning. It’s the kind of thing pitchers can use to their advantage, but at the same time, if enough pitchers begin using it to their advantage, Carpenter can use that to his advantage. The long con.

The following comment was made on that first-pitch post from May:

screen-shot-2016-10-02-at-10-03-13-pm

Tongue-in-cheek, of course, but also sensible. What better time to capitalize than when the stakes are high?

Back to Game 162 last night. Carpenter took the first pitch to lead off the game. That’s not what this post is about. This post is about the other swing streak Carpenter had been running — the longer streak. While Carpenter rarely swings first pitch to lead off a game, he never swings 3-0. I mean never. Before Sunday night, Carpenter had worked himself into a 3-0 count 158 times, and he’d taken the next pitch. every. single. time.

Since entering the league in 2011, it isn’t quite the most extraordinary swingless 3-0 streak, but it’s damn close:

Most 3-0 Pitches without a Swing, 2011-16
Name Pitches Swings
Jose Reyes 169 0
Adam Lind 160 0
Matt Carpenter 158 0*
Brian Dozier 157 0
Coco Crisp 145 0
Jacoby Ellsbury 138 0
A.J. Ellis 105 0
Ryan Hanigan 104 0
Ben Revere 100 0
Allen Craig 99 0
SOURCE: Baseball Savant
*No longer active, as of 10/2/16

So, Carpenter has this insane, six-year-long stretch of never swinging at a 3-0 pitch, and then, in the final game of the year, with the season on the line, he finds himself in a 3-0 count, down one with two on in the bottom of the sixth inning. The leverage index (LI) of the at-bat was 3.06 — Carpenter’s 19th-highest-leverage plate appearance of the entire season. But then, given the stakes, this was also the fifth-highest leverage game for the Cardinals all year, and so the championship leverage index (cLI) of the at-bat as drastically higher. In fact, by cLI, last night’s faceoff against Bastardo was Carpenter’s third-highest-leverage plate appearance of 2016:

Most Important Matt Carpenter Plate Appearances, by cLI
Date Tm Opp Pitcher Score Inn RoB Out Cnt LI cLI
10/1/16 STL PIT Juan Nicasio down 3-2 b6 1-3 1 0-0 3.32 9.79
8/11/16 STL @CHC Mike Montgomery tied 3-3 t11 123 2 1-2 6.86 7.75
10/2/16 STL PIT Antonio Bastardo down 2-1 b6 12- 2 3-0 3.06 7.59
9/25/16 STL @CHC Jon Lester down 1-0 t6 12- 0 0-0 3.14 7.16
6/29/16 STL KCR Wade Davis down 1-0 b9 12- 1 0-2 7.14 7.14
8/19/16 STL @PHI Frank Herrmann tied 3-3 t10 12- 1 1-2 4.62 5.27
9/10/16 STL MIL Corey Knebel tied 1-1 b8 –3 1 3-0 3.47 4.96
5/4/16 STL PHI Jeanmar Gomez down 4-3 b9 1– 0 0-0- 5.4 4.59
8/31/16 STL @MIL Carlos Torres down 3-1 t8 12- 0 1-2 3.82 4.55
8/23/16 STL NYM Addison Reed down 6-4 b8 12- 2 1-2 3.22 4.09
SOURCE: Baseball-Reference, TheBaseballGauge

So, to recap: Carpenter came to the plate 566 times this year, and only two plate appearances were bigger than this one. And in that plate appearance, Carpenter got to 3-0, having never swung 3-0 in his entire major-league career. And then this happened:

Play-by-play man Dan McLaughlin: “He got the green light and he made the most of it.”

Of course, there’s no way of knowing whether Carpenter actually received the green light. You’ve gotta imagine at this point the third-base coach just sits out Carpenter’s 3-0 pitches. If he’d started out giving Carpenter the green light, he probably gave up some time ago. But this time, finally, after six years and more than 150 opportunities, Carpenter finally swung 3-0, and the result was his biggest hit of the season, both by WPA and by RE24.

The pitch from Bastardo was fat — fastball, 91, mostly middle-middle, a little in. According to PITCHf/x, the offering was less than an inch from the center of the plate, vertically, and five inches from the center of the plate, horizontally. Of Carpenter’s 158 career 3-0 pitches seen, just 21 have been closer to the center of the plate. And, considering Carpenter thrives on the inner-third, he couldn’t have picked a much better pitch to break his 3-0 streak:

carp

By leverage, by result, by context, and by execution, this was Carpenter’s most extraordinary at-bat of the 2016 season. He’d been waiting so long to deploy this weapon, and when he finally did, the result couldn’t have been sweeter. Matt Carpenter played the 3-0 long con to perfection. Just a shame it wound up meaning nothing more than a fun-fact blog post while we wait for the playoff games to start.

Thanks to Dan Hirsch for research assistance.





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 august.fagerstrom@fangraphs.com.

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output gapmember
6 years ago

This is amazing. Talk about picking your spot.