St. Louis Cardinals: Will Matt Carpenter Rebound in 2017?
Despite his hot start, Matt Carpenter struggled down the stretch for the St. Louis Cardinals in 2016. Will he rebound next year?
Matt Carpenter was off to another MVP-caliber season in 2016. Through July 6th, he was hitting .298/.420/.568 with 14 homers, 25 doubles, 53 RBI, and 56 runs in 78 games. He was having arguably his best season at the plate in a St. Louis Cardinals uniform.
Unfortunately, in the third inning of a rivalry game against the Pittsburgh Pirates, Matt Carpenter would be pulled in the middle of his second at-bat. The team would later learn that he strained his right oblique and would be out for an extended period.
Oblique injuries have been noticeably on the rise across the MLB. This increase was noted about five years ago and it continues to make significant impacts. The St. Louis Cardinals saw Tommy Pham also go down with an oblique strain on opening day.
Elsewhere around the MLB, Edwin Encarnacion became an oblique injury victim in Spring Training, while Zack Greinke would hit the DL in July and Jose Altuve would join the injured ranks in September. These are just a few examples of the many players who went down with the nagging injury in 2016.
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The severity of these injuries varied widely. Due to this uncertainty, the St. Louis Cardinals were unable to pin down a timetable for Carpenter’s return. Ultimately, he would return to MLB action just under one month later on August 5th.
His return, however, may have actually hurt the St. Louis Cardinals. After resuming primary leadoff duties for the remainder of the season, Carpenter would hit all of .229/.316/.410, worth only a 93 wRC+. Prior to his injury, Carpenter posted a wRC+ of 162. In effect, post-oblique-injury-Carpenter was almost literally half the hitter that he was pre-injury.
Matt Carpenter’s struggles down the stretch could be a bad sign for things to come. After all, he did turn 31 years old just after the close of this season. In the current day of MLB baseball, it’s fairly common for age 30+ hitters to decline. This was a primary concern in the St. Louis Cardinals pursuit of Dexter Fowler, Justin Turner, and Edwin Encarnacion.
Despite this, I believe Carpenter is likely to bounce back in 2017. Comparing Carpenter’s batted ball profile after the injury to his career and pre-injury profiles shows that it is likely the decline was largely attributable to nagging discomfort (and some bad luck).
The driving force behind Carpenter’s success prior to his injury was his Hard%, which was at 44.5% through July 6th. His previous career high in this category came at 37.0% in 2015, and his career average is 35.5%.
Some regression could be expected, but it is also very possible that Carpenter had improved at generating harder hit balls. A healthy Matt Carpenter, then, could be expected to maintain a Hard% between 37% and 40% over a full season.
Upon returning from the injury (and to my surprise), Carpenter actually maintained a 37.8% Hard%. However, instead of generating more medium-exit-velocity contact, Carpenter generated 6.8% more soft contact. The result was a drop in BABIP from .335 to .265 and in his ISO from .270 to .181.
If Carpenter was fully healthy and simply regressing, we’d expect that he would start to just miss balls he previously was squaring up. The result would be slightly more soft contact, but also more medium contact. Yet, Carpenter’s medium contact essentially remained the same (48.0% vs. 48.3%). This would suggest that he simply could not generate the bat speed required to maintain higher exit velocities.
Additionally, even with the drop in Hard% and rise in Soft%, it seems like Carpenter also hit into bad luck after his return. I filtered to find players with a Hard% between 36.0% and 40.0% and a FB% greater than 40.0% over a full season. The result is an average profile that looks very similar to Carpenter following his return from injury:
Despite having an almost identical batted ball profile to this sample and even being above average in LD% among these players, Matt Carpenter still trailed the sample average BABIP by 29 points. Therefore, Carpenter should expect better batted ball luck moving forward than he received in the second half of 2016. Steamer Projections see his 2017 BABIP rebounding to .320, compared to a .329 career BABIP.
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On defense, Matt Carpenter will be shifting over from the hot corner to first base. Given his defensive decline over the last few years, this is the best move for both the St. Louis Cardinals and Carpenter’s overall value. In 312 innings at first base in 2016, he rated as slightly above average. With a full offseason to focus on his skills defensively at first, we can expect him to rate above average here in the 2017 season.
Overall, Steamer projects Matt Carpenter to hit for a .268/.370/.445 line to be worth 2.8 fWAR in 2017; his overall value is held back by a low projected Defense Rating of -9.9, which should improve when he is moved to first base.
Offensively, I expect Matt Carpenter to make a full rebound as he leads what should be a prolific St. Louis Cardinals offense. His first half of 2016 showed just how potent a hitter he can be, and I expect him to continue having similar success at the plate.
While the .298/.420/.568 line he held before his injury might be a bit high, I could see Carpenter going for a .280/.380/.510 line in 2017. He will continue to show 20+ home run power, and he will have the opportunities to reach 100 RBI for the first time in his career.
On defense, I believe Carpenter’s move to first will pay dividends immediately. He has shown an ability to adapt to different positions throughout his career and is now moving to his best positional fit. I believe he will perform well defensively at first in 2017, with his defense adding slightly to his overall value. Ultimately, I see Carpenter as a 5 WAR player next season, similar to his value in 2015.
Next: Alex Reyes for 2017 NL Rookie of the Year?
And no, I’m not worried about his ability to hit outside of the leadoff spot. Thanks for reading and go Cardinals!