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Adjust or Rust: Only Matt Carpenter Can Beat the Shift and Save His Season.

The numbers … sickly … mystifying … disturbing …

And hell, yeah. I’m being dramatic.

But only because I care.

From 2012 through 2017 Matt Carpenter batted .278, reached base on 37.8 percent of his plate appearances, and did enough damage to amass a .462 slugging percentage.

As the Cardinals and Carpenter set up in San Diego to play four games against the Padres, he’s batting .152, gotten on base 30.5 percent of the time, and slugged .295.

Compared to the levels established over his past six seasons, Carpenter’s average has dropped 126 points, his onbase percentage is down 72 points, his slugging has cratered 167 points, and the OPS has crashed 239 points,to .601.

Using park-adjusted runs created (wRC+), Carpenter was 32 percent above the league average offensively from 2012 through 2017, and he’s off to a poor start that puts him 27 percent below league average in ’18.

To Cardinals manager Mike Matheny, this is just a matter of bad luck. Carpenter hits the ball hard.  But Carpenter’s shots are finding gloves. Rotten luck. Poor Matt. The luck will change and Carpenter will be fine.

Team president of baseball operations John Mozeliak also cited unfortunate batted-ball luck.

“I think for him you look at how hard he’s hit the ball and just at people,” Mozeliak said. “You know my father used to always say to me when I played — and I was never any good — but he always would say ‘Hit it where they ain’t. ”

Mozeliak didn’t stop there. He went on to make an important point.

“Unfortunately (Carpenter)  hits them where they are, and until that adjustment happens I think it’s going to be tough for him,” Mozeliak said.

Key word in there:  adjustment. 

Carpenter’s statistics are being chewed up by defensive shifts used by opponents. Carpenter has to take ownership of this. The shifts are here to stay until Carpenter proves he can (A) beat them by attacking them straight on;  (B) conquer it by shooting the ball over the shift; or (C) defeat the shift by adjusting his left-handed, pull-heavy swing to hit more balls up the middle, or to the left side. If Carpenter continues to slap ground balls into the trap set for him on the right side of the infield, his torment will continue.  It’s really that simple.

  • When the shift is on, Carpenter is 2 for 20 on ground balls, a .100 average.
  • When Carpenter pulls ground balls into the shift deployment, he’s 0 for 14.
  • But when Carpenter hits a grounder up the middle, or goes the opposite way and punches a grounder to the left side in defiance of the shift, he’s 2 for 6.

I admire Carpenter too much to fib about this. He deserves more respect than that. Actually, people who truly have his best interests at heart — like Mozeliak — will tell him the truth.  Carpenter will only benefit by hearing the truth, and respond to that truth by making changes to get his season on track.

(It might help Carpenter and other struggling hitters if the Cardinals had a more capable batting coach, but that’s another farce to explore on another day.)

Yeah,  some  of this is lousy luck. His .182 average in balls in play is well below the MLB average of .294. Then again, when a left-handed batter hits a lot of grounders and fly balls to the right side — with many with medium-level contact — a low batting average is inevitable, and I don’t know how much it has to do with luck. Some, yes. But not as much as others will have you believe. And yes, you can go to other advanced metric sites and work the numbers and discover that Carpenter’s “expected” slugging percentage should be over .500 …

Yeah, well, sorry … but no sale. Not this time. I’m devoted to advanced metrics, but I can’t accept the premise that Carpenter is being cheated out of a higher slugging percentage. His medium-contact percentage (52%) is up over the past two seasons. His hard-contact rate is down is down by three points or so. And Carpenter has lost length from his average distance on fly balls and line drives. According to Baseball Savant, Carpenter’s average fly ball traveled 327 feet between 2015-2017, with a high of 329 feet in 2016. This year, his fly ball average is 322 feet. His three-year (2015-17) average for line drives was 263 feet; this season it’s 251.

Moreover, Carpenter has experienced a significant slip in swing-and-miss rate, and, by extension, contact rate. I’ve gone through this before, but let’s run through it again. His career swing-miss rate (according to STATS LLC) is 17 percent; that was one of the 50 lowest among MLB hitters between 2012 and 2017. This season, that swing-miss rate is 28.5 percent, and that puts Carpenter 138th among 173 qualifying hitters.

According to FanGraphs, Carpenter’s overall contact rate is 71.5%, which ties him for 150th among the 173 qualifying hitters. And it’s way down for his career contact rate of 84.2 percent. Accordingly, Carpenter’s strikeout rate has jumped to 26 percent, a big increase from his career standard (18.4%.)

Because of the erosion of contact skills, Carpenter has steadily declined as a two-strike hitter. From 2012 through 2016, he was among the top 10 MLB hitters in two-strike counts, batting .235 (which is excellent) with a .695 OPS. But those numbers went down some in 2017.

Early on in 2018 Carpenter is batting .071 with a .275 OPS in two-strike counts. In the last two weeks, Carpenter has gone 0 for 21 when a pitcher gets two strikes on him.

According to inside edge, Carpenter has swung and missed on 53.8% of the breaking-ball pitches thrown to him this season; that’s the second-worst rate in the majors and way worse than the league average of 33.3 percent.

As recently as last season, Carpenter was crushing four-seam fastballs and sinkers. But according to Inside Edge, he’s batting just .105 on all fastballs this season, second worst among MLB hitters. (League average, .272.) When pitchers throw Carpenter fastballs away, he’s 1 for 22.  When he’s thrown low fastballs, he’s 1 for 16.

Carpenter is batting .167 against RH pitchers, .095 against lefties, and .134 against starting pitchers.

So do you see why I’m rejecting the Carpenter-as-victim premise?

And Carpenter’s struggle to make contact is a real issue. No, it’s a real problem. And this is a major factor in his spiral at the plate.

“I do think he’s been one of those type players that continue to evolve or change,” Mozeliak said. “And I think for him when he looked at where he was in 2013 he really felt like he needed to come up with more power. And over the years we’ve seen that happen but sometimes there’s a trade off when you’re looking for more power, there’s less contact, or in this particular case there’s overall less hits. So I think for him he’s trying to find that balance and search for really who he is and what his identity is.”

Carpenter can help himself by making corrections. I’m pulling for him.  Well, come to think of it, I’m pulling for him not to pull the ball so much.

Thanks for reading …

–Bernie