Matt Carpenter just hit another home run. Here, look at it:
That home run was hit on August 13, and for Carpenter, it was his career-high 33rd. He had set a new career high with his 29th, and so this is all just uncharted territory. Right now, Carpenter leads the National League in wRC+. He also leads the National League in Statcast’s expected wOBA, so it’s not like this is all luck. Carpenter has been absolutely outstanding, and he’s likely to generate support for the league MVP. He’s helped to fuel the Cardinals’ recent run toward a wild-card spot, and heaven only knows where the club would be without him.
I should also point out that, according to Statcast again, Carpenter’s top exit velocity this season ranks in the 35th percentile. We’re mostly accustomed to sluggers who slug the ball. Carpenter would never be confused for another Giancarlo Stanton. So let’s quickly walk through how Carpenter makes this all work. To a certain extent this is all pretty basic, but Carpenter happens to be one of the world leaders in bat control.
First things first. The rest of this article is going to focus on Carpenter’s batted balls, but he wouldn’t be what he is without his eye. You can’t separate the batted balls from the discipline, since it’s the discipline that determines when Carpenter swings, and from the very beginning, Carpenter has proven he knows how to walk. He routinely puts up one of baseball’s lowest chase rates. It’s always been tough to get Matt Carpenter to expand. He has a track record of waiting for his pitch, and then attacking it. Carpenter’s approach is what got him to the bigs.
On to the batted balls, now, because I think this is where Carpenter really shines. He’s a left-handed hitter, and out of everyone this year with at least 50 ground balls, Carpenter has the second-highest grounder pull rate. It’s unsurprising, then, that according to numbers at Baseball Savant, Carpenter has seen a higher rate of defensive shifts than all but six other players. Whenever Carpenter hits a ball on the ground, he yanks it toward the right side. He calls for a shift. He begs for a shift. He’s why the shift was invented in the first place. It wasn’t because of literally Matt Carpenter, but it was because of figuratively Matt Carpenter. When Carpenter’s up, the infield is right to overload.
He has put down some successful bunts. That’s one way to try to beat the shift. Another way is to try to become more of an all-fields hitter. That’s a lot more difficult to do in practice than it is to do in theory. A hitter’s tendencies are not so easy to adjust on the fly. There’s a third way to try to beat the shift. And I’ll insert a funny Mark Saxon excerpt:
Matt? Carpenter? stood? at? his?? locker stall adjacent to the front door of the St. Louis Cardinals’ spring training clubhouse last March for nearly 30 minutes explaining how serious he was about not chasing home runs in the upcoming season.
He would return to his roots, with a level swing that hit the ball hard, low and, often, up the middle. He would get off the track he had gotten on a few seasons earlier, in which he had built a little uppercut into his swing intent on generating fly balls.
Carpenter spoke as if he was going to hit more grounders and liners. That’s not at all what’s happened. The third way to try to beat the shift is to simply hit the ball over the shifted defenders. This year, 255 different hitters have batted at least 250 times. Carpenter owns the very lowest ground-ball rate, at 24%. That proposed swing adjustment hasn’t shown up. Carpenter has stayed in the air, and he’s thrived as a consequence.
That’s not it, however. See, there’s another thing. Staying with that same list of 255 hitters, we can sort by the rate of infield flies per fly ball. Joey Votto is at 0%. Joey Votto pretty much never pops up. It’s one of the reasons he’s famous. Just behind Votto is Carpenter, at 1%. Even though Carpenter has been trying to hit the ball in the air, he’s almost never popped the ball up. He’s made consistently superior contact, which isn’t easy when you think about what a hypothetical batted-ball distribution would look like for a fly-ball hitter. A pop-up wouldn’t require getting under the ball very much more than usual. Carpenter has still stayed away. Here’s a plot with infield flies per fly ball on the y-axis, and ground-ball rate on the x-axis. Carpenter is in yellow.
We know there’s not much available for Carpenter on the ground, and so we know he doesn’t hit many grounders. We also know there’s not much available for anyone when you hit the ball too high in the air, and Carpenter doesn’t appear to do that often, either. I have one more plot for you, showing league-average data for 2018. What you’re seeing is wOBA by launch angle, broken down into 5-degree buckets.
Not every hitter is the same, of course, and some speedier types do better on grounders, but Carpenter doesn’t number among them. For someone more like Carpenter, it looks like the ideal batted-ball angles are roughly between +5 and +35 degrees. Wouldn’t you know it; here’s a leaderboard of the hitters with the highest rates of batted balls hit between those very angles:
Carpenter’s in first. Really, it’s essentially a tie between himself and Votto, and there are abundant similarities between the two hitters. Neither generates especially high peak exit velocities, but you see an elite combination of discipline and bat control. Votto doesn’t strike out as often as Carpenter does, but then, Votto probably has the best eye in the sport. Carpenter sells out for more power, and his contact rate has dropped over the years as a consequence, but he’s not really making that much of a sacrifice. Carpenter will never hit a ball 500 feet, but he manages to avoid bad contact. The quality of his batted balls is enviably consistent.
Statcast might not have even been necessary, here. Carpenter is presently tied for the league-lead in hard-hit rate. He has the third-lowest soft-hit rate, and he has the second-greatest difference between the two rates. Eugenio Suarez is in first — it’s probably time for a standalone article on Eugenio Suarez. But that’s beside the point, for this post. By pretty much whatever measure you choose, Matt Carpenter is performing like the best version of himself. He’s avoiding grounders more than anyone, but he’s also avoiding pop-ups more than almost anyone, concentrating the majority of his batted balls within that band where they can do the most damage. It’s so easy and fundamental a concept, but it’s so difficult to execute. To execute, anyhow, with Carpenter’s frequency.
There are batters who hit the ball harder than Matt Carpenter does. There are an awful lot of them, in fact. When those batters make their perfect contact, you might think they have a leg up. But those batters will also make occasional weak contact, and that contact drags their numbers down. Carpenter effectively shifts some number of weakly-hit balls into the hard-hit category. Understanding Carpenter is a little like understanding jazz: It’s as much about the batted balls he doesn’t hit. He doesn’t hit many of the bad ones. It’s more of the good ones that fill up a season.
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.