St. Louis Cardinals: Finding the lost Matt Carpenter

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CHICAGO, IL - SEPTEMBER 16: Matt Carpenter #13 of the St. Louis Cardinals is congratulated by manager Mike Matheny #22 after hitting a home run against the Chicago Cubs during the eighth inning at Wrigley Field on September 16, 2017 in Chicago, Illinois. (Photo by Jon Durr/Getty Images)
CHICAGO, IL - SEPTEMBER 16: Matt Carpenter #13 of the St. Louis Cardinals is congratulated by manager Mike Matheny #22 after hitting a home run against the Chicago Cubs during the eighth inning at Wrigley Field on September 16, 2017 in Chicago, Illinois. (Photo by Jon Durr/Getty Images) /
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With news that the St. Louis Cardinals are pursuing Josh Donaldson, the desire to find an impact power bat outside of the organization, and the willingness to pay up for it are apparent. If they do manage to bring in a top-tier slugger, then they don’t need to trade Matt Carpenter, they need him to return to his former self.

It seems so long ago that Matt Carpenter was a staple hitter on the St. Louis Cardinals. He would hit with excellent discipline and timing, and had a great knack for being patient and extending at-bats. He almost reached a .300 batting average over 300+ plate appearances, then hit .318 in 2013 while leading the league in hits with 199 and recording a solid 13.7% K rate.

After that season, his average took a small dip, but improved his vision at the plate on the way to 95 walks drawn, which was third in the majors, and ahead of sluggers like Giancarlo Stanton, whom pitchers encounter with great care.

Stanton was intentionally walked 24 times that season, while Carpenter was only intentionally walked twice. Clearly, his acumen as a contact hitter was expanding, and he sported one of the best eyes in the league.

But the St. Louis Cardinals had offensive problems that year. They hit only 105 home runs that season, which was the second-lowest total in the majors that year, and the team was struggling to score runs as a result.

Suddenly, we see a deviation in Carpenter’s approach at the plate, as he takes it upon himself to become the power hitter that the Cardinals needed. He starts swinging more and tries to hit for power instead of continuing to develop his elite contact approach.

On paper, there wasn’t a huge drop off in Carpenter’s performance. If anything, there are many who would argue that his 2015 and 2016 seasons were his best production wise. However, the power didn’t particularly do much for the team, nor did it make Carpenter a more threatening hitter, drawing only six intentional walks in his 2016 All-Star campaign. Despite being able to increase his power, he had to turn away from the things that made him unique.

HitsRunsRBI’sK%BB%BABIPSoft Hit%Med Hit%Hard Hit%
20131991267813.7%10.0%.35910.2%56.7%33.1%
2014162995915.7%13.4%.31814.9%51.7%33.3%
20151561018422.7%12.2%.32111.2%51.8%37%
2016128816819.1%14.3%.3079.9%48.1%41.9%
2017120916920.1%17.5%.27412.1%45.6%42.2%

Notably, his total number of hits has steadily declined as his hard hit ball percentage has risen. While this would normally be productive, his added power has only been detrimental to his BABIP for the most part. On top of that, the elite discipline that made Carpenter an excellent lead off hitter slowly deteriorated, despite still drawing walks.

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While his RBI production has risen somewhat as well, it hasn’t made nearly as much of an increase as it should have based on his movement in the lineup and focus toward power.

Carpenter took it upon himself to transform himself as a player in order to try and fit the needs of the team, which is an admirable excursion and a show of loyalty. However, Mike Matheny and John Mabry should have never put Carpenter in that position in the first place because that’s not what Matt Carpenter is built to do. That’s not the Matt Carpenter that we saw budding just four years ago.

The change is no more apparent than in Carpenter’s approach at the plate. Despite drawing walks, Carpenter has become far more swing-happy to acquire only mediocre power (via Fangraphs).

SeasonTeamO-Swing%Z-Swing%Swing%O-Contact%Z-Contact%Contact%
2013Cardinals22.4 %51.0 %37.0 %75.9 %94.4 %88.9 %
2014Cardinals17.4 %46.4 %32.8 %74.5 %95.0 %89.9 %
2015Cardinals22.4 %55.0 %38.6 %65.6 %86.0 %80.0 %
2016Cardinals22.5 %56.3 %38.3 %59.7 %93.1 %82.7 %
2017Cardinals18.6 %51.8 %33.9 %65.5 %89.4 %82.3 %

It is clear that there has been pressure placed on Carpenter that wasn’t present earlier in his career, and that pressure has deviated him away from the things he does best at the plate. Without others around him, Carpenter feels that he must produce on its own instead of getting hits and reaching base while allowing others to drive him in.

In particular, Carpenter’s ability to control where he hits and his ability to hit to all fields on any location. Now, he has become a batter who simply looks to swing as hard as he can and pull every pitch to maximize pop.

SeasonTeamPull%Cent%Oppo%
2013Cardinals36.6 %37.4 %26.0 %
2014Cardinals31.9 %43.4 %24.6 %
2015Cardinals39.3 %36.8 %23.9 %
2016Cardinals48.1 %32.8 %19.1 %
2017Cardinals47.2 %31.4 %21.4 %

This further supports the idea that Carpenter was either tasked with or put the pressure on himself to increase his power output because of how poorly the team is constructed and managed. There is no doubt that Matt Carpenter wants the St. Louis Cardinals to win, and he has made sacrifices to try and help that. At some point, he needs some offense around him.

And that’s were a guy like Josh Donaldson comes in. With an established power bat to anchor together the young slugging core of Paul DeJong and Jose Martinez, Carpenter’s return to his approach in his early days would make for the perfect reliable lead off hitter for this team (that Dexter Fowler will never be), as he should have been this whole time.

To be honest, I would much rather see Carpenter revert to his 2013 approach even if the St. Louis Cardinals do not see any roster changes this off-season. At the end of the day, the numbers that Carpenter puts up as a power hitter are pedestrian, while he can lead the league in hits and walks with the proper approach.

Next: A cardinal perspective of the playoffs

I understand that people want to start over, and that Matt Carpenter serves as an ideal trade piece to many. But for the time he has spent and the things he has done for the organization that have gone unrecognized, I believe allowing him to play the way he excels at is the best thing for the Cardinals and what Matt Carpenter deserves.

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