Matt Carpenter’s Passive-Aggressive Approach Paying Off

Two weeks into the season, a narrative developed around Matt Carpenter and his aggressive behavior at the plate. In 2013, Carpenter had a breakout season, hitting 55 doubles on his way to a seven-win season. After a solid — but not quite as good — 2014 that was marked by incredible patience and a high walk rate, Carpenter flipped the script in the playoffs. He got more aggressive early in the count and took advantage of his scouting report against Clayton Kershaw and the Dodgers. That aggressive approach  carried over into 2015 with Carpenter seeing about half a pitch less per plate appearance through the first two weeks of the season. Buster Olney mentioned it on Sunday Night Baseball, and I bought in.

Two weeks later, the initial data supporting that narrative has already eroded. Carpenter is now seeing just about the same amount of pitches he has throughout his career. However, that does not mean the aggressive Carpenter narrative is dead, nor does it deserve to be. In some ways, Carpenter has reverted back to 2013 Carpenter — the patient, but slightly more swing-happy player that was missing last season. On pitches in the strike zone, Carpenter has done more than just go back to 2013 levels. He is swinging at pitches in the strike zone more often than any time since he was a role player on the Cardinals 2012 team.

Carpenter’s original career narrative where he was a fifth-year senior receiving a $10,000 signing bonus and morphed into one of the best players in baseball under the tutelage of #Cardinaldevilmagic is still around, but he has moved past the novelty portion of his backstory. His production is the key element to his story and the Cardinals’ offense so far this season. Since the beginning of 2013, Carpenter has been one of the most valuable players in Major League Baseball.

Mike Trout 1531 69 .306 .406 .560 172 20.1
Josh Donaldson 1482 59 .280 .365 .483 139 15.3
Andrew McCutchen 1425 48 .307 .399 .509 155 15.0
Miguel Cabrera 1448 75 .332 .410 .581 171 13.8
Carlos Gomez 1281 48 .283 .345 .489 129 13.5
Matt Carpenter 1540 23 .300 .386 .444 136 12.5
Paul Goldschmidt 1294 61 .306 .403 .554 159 12.1
Adam Jones 1467 67 .290 .322 .493 123 11.4
Buster Posey 1306 41 .300 .365 .466 137 11.1
Jose Bautista 1296 68 .269 .380 .510 146 11.0

While much of the damage for Carpenter was done in 2013, his four-win season in 2014 was solid, but an increased walk rate at 13.4% coupled with a major drop in power seen in his .103 ISO brought up questions as to whether his patience was costing him production. Carpenter saw fewer pitches the first few weeks of the season, confirming some theories. He is now seeing just as many pitches per plate appearances as he always has (4.3), but his production has continued to lead the Cardinals. He has recently moved to the second spot in the lineup, although the Cardinals have put less than ideal hitters ahead of him. Regardless of the spot in the lineup, Carpenter continues to hit. Here are the leaders in wRC+ to start the season.

Nelson Cruz 110 14 .340 .382 .796 223
Stephen Vogt 93 7 .372 .462 .718 222
Adrian Gonzalez 105 8 .362 .429 .723 219
Adam Jones 96 5 .402 .438 .667 200
Paul Goldschmidt 105 6 .356 .448 .622 193
Miguel Cabrera 111 6 .366 .459 .624 192
Matt Carpenter 114 4 .347 .412 .624 186
Joey Votto 110 7 .323 .427 .613 185
Joc Pederson 96 7 .270 .421 .622 184
Mike Trout 110 6 .315 .418 .576 176

Carpenter’s four home runs are the lowest on that list, but with an MLB-leading 14 doubles as well as a triple, he leads MLB in extra-base hits with 19. He will not stay at that pace forever, nor will his .383 BABIP, but it does appear that 2013-level Carpenter has returned. As Neil Weinberg noted before the season, Carpenter is not a player who swings often, and that has not changed so far this season. He has swung at just 37.6% of pitches, which is ninth-lowest in MLB, but some of his plate discipline numbers do show a return to 2013 levels of aggression. Last season, Carpenter swung at under 33% of pitches, making this year’s numbers much closer to his 37.1% figure from 2013. Where Carpenter has departed from 2014 in terms of swinging, he has perhaps overcorrected in terms of swinging at pitches in the strike zone. In 2014, he swung at around 50% of pitches in the zone before falling off a bit to 47% last year. He is up to 54% so far this year, and his assertiveness in the zone can be seen in the maps from Brooks Baseball.

In 2013:


In 2014:


In 2015:


While the red does not get redder in 2015, it certainly could as the percentages on pitches swung at in the zone, especially middle-in have increased this season. We are still dealing with a small amount of plate appearances this season, but he has so far been more aggressive on pitches inside.

Carpenter has not been attacking due to his attempts to fool the pitcher early in the count. Carpenter’s home runs have come on counts of 2-1, 2-2, 3-2, and 3-2. He is still waiting for his pitch, and when the pitch enters a zone where he can do some damage, he is taking advantage. Carpenter knows the strike zone so well, it could make him a difficult hitter for pitchers to make adjustments on. Here is his last home run off of Vance Worley of the Pittsburgh Pirates. It is a 3-2 count, and Worley serves one up. After his signature lean, Carpenter has no choice but to swing, and he hit to dead center just over the glove of Andrew McCutchen.

Before the season started the FanGraphs Depth Charts pegged Carpenter for a 3.2-win season. The projections still have him at a three-win season, but the new numbers are for the rest of the season. One month of great baseball has turned Carpenter from a three-win player into a potential five-win player for 2015. As soon as it happened, his 2013 looked like a career year, and 2014 provided more evidence he was on a slight decline, but the early part of this season has brought hope that at 29 years old, Carpenter can have another year somewhat close to his breakout 2013 campaign. The Cardinals pitching staff has received most of the attention on their way to an MLB-leading 19-6 start. This is certainly deserving, but the Cardinals offense looks much improved from last season. Their 114 wRC+ among non-pitchers is a big improvement from last season’s 101, and the 97 from last April. Even if he continues to get most of his plate appearances from the second spot, Matt Carpenter is still leading the way for the Cardinals.

Craig Edwards can be found on twitter @craigjedwards.

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7 years ago

Dosh Jonaldson is so grood.