St. Louis Cardinals: Searching for hope in Matt Carpenter’s 2020

ST LOUIS, MO - SEPTEMBER 26: Matt Carpenter #13 of the St. Louis Cardinals throws to first base for an out against the Milwaukee Brewers in the sixth inning at Busch Stadium on September 26, 2020 in St Louis, Missouri. (Photo by Dilip Vishwanat/Getty Images)
ST LOUIS, MO - SEPTEMBER 26: Matt Carpenter #13 of the St. Louis Cardinals throws to first base for an out against the Milwaukee Brewers in the sixth inning at Busch Stadium on September 26, 2020 in St Louis, Missouri. (Photo by Dilip Vishwanat/Getty Images) /

Matt Carpenter had his second straight bad year for the St. Louis Cardinals in 2020. Was there anything in his batting profile that gives hope?

Most St. Louis Cardinals fans would give a very different answer for what they think of Matt Carpenter now than they would’ve even three years ago. Regardless of how his past two seasons have gone, Carpenter has been one of the best Cardinal batters over the past 10 years.

After being drafted in the 13th round of the 2009 MLB draft, Carpenter debuted just two years later and holds a number of records for the Cardinals in his many good seasons. However, Carpenter hasn’t been the same since 2018.

During that 2018 season, Carpenter had an awful beginning and end of the season, but was the hottest player on the planet from May to August. In April and September, he had an OPS of .579 and .558, but had months of .961, 1.040, 1.222, and .984 OPS in between them. Always a late bloomer in his professional career, Carpenter set career highs in homers (36) and OPS (.897) at the age of 32, finishing in the top 10 of MVP voting.

After this amazing season, the Cardinals awarded Carpenter with his current two-year, $39M extension with a vesting option for 2022. As bad as that deal looks now, I refuse to say that the extension wasn’t deserved at the time it was given.

The reason that contract is viewed so negatively right now is because of the cliff that Matt Carpenter’s production took a dive off of. For the majority of 2019, Carpenter was not a valuable piece of the lineup. On the year as a whole, he had a still-solid .334 OBP, but his .726 OPS in his age-33 season was the lowest he had had to that point.

Carpenter did deal with a foot injury for 2019 that surely hurt his production some, but this was really when the bellyaching from the fanbase began.

Heading into 2020, the Cardinals doubled down on Carpenter as their starting third baseman. He came into spring training before 2020 with a plan to help keep his strength up during the season but quickly was sidelined due to back tightness.

Whether or not the back tightness followed Carpenter into the shortened season, or if it was just his propensity to start slow, he had an even worse 2020. Playing in 50 games, Carpenter set new career-lows in his entire slash line of .186/.325/.314 causing his worst wRC+ of his career (84).

But are there signs for hope moving forward?

In any 50-game sample size, a lot of things can look awry. One of my favorite things about baseball is the ability to look into advanced statistics to try and predict future trends. For a player on the back end of his career like Matt Carpenter, this is a different exercise because, for lack of a better adage, it’s hard to teach an old dog new tricks.

For a player like Carpenter who has 10 years of MLB experience under his belt, we know the kind of player he is. Very rarely can a player, especially a batter, reinvent himself like a power pitcher can become a crafty pitcher later in their career.

However, even if Matt Carpenter can’t reinvent himself as a batter, that doesn’t mean he wasn’t the victim of a small sample size.

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Right off of the bat, it doesn’t look great for Carpenter. He was very poorly ranked in expected batting average and whiff percentage, but the hope comes when looking at some of his other underlying statistics.

In the 63rd percentile of barrel percentage and 58th percentile in xwOBA, there is reason to believe Carpenter was pretty unlucky this season. Looking over at his BABIP, it was the lowest in his career at just .250.

The counter-argument to a bad BABIP is average exit velocity, but Carpenter actually increased his average exit velocity from 2019 to 2020 while his BABIP dropped from .285 in 2019 to .250 in 2020.

A clear difference between the last two years and Carpenter’s years prior is that exit velocity though. It has dropped about 1.5 mph in the past two seasons which is certainly not helping his production. However, his 88.2 mph average exit velo is still right at the league average of 88.3. It is fair to say that Carpenter got unlucky in 2020. However, there are other things to look at than just luck.

One troubling trend in Matt Carpenter’s profile is his continued trend towards groundballs. Back in his peak years of 2016-2018, Carpenter never hit groundballs more than 33% of the time. In 2019 Carp hit groundballs 34.5% of the time and that went even higher to 38% in 2020. Adding to this, Carpenter pulled the ball more than ever in 2020. At 52.2% of the time, Carpenter had never been higher than 47.6% pull rate in his career.

One of the things that Carpenter frequently faces that others don’t is the advanced shift with three defenders on the right side of the infield. When you look at his shift percentage, it sat at 97% in 2020. Shifts don’t matter if you hit the ball in the air, but if he’s hitting more groundballs than ever and pulling the ball more than ever, poor results aren’t surprising.

There is always more to dig into, but I believe there is a clear answer for Carpenter when it comes to why he was unsuccessful in 2020. He was pulling the ball on the ground much too often while facing the shift.

Over the course of a whole season, these inconsistencies could iron themselves out. However, for now, there is nothing I can say other than Carpenter needs to stay healthy coming into 2020. He’s got bat control and I’m sure the team has told him he is pulling the ball too much, but the biggest cause of his dropoff has been health.

Carpenter gets a lot of hate for his $18.5M contract limiting the Cardinals’ payroll flexibility this year, but he needs 550 plate appearances for his 2022 option to vest. If the Cardinals get another utility bat who can platoon with Carpenter, that option shouldn’t vest. At age 35, it is not likely that Carpenter will be able to regain his early-career form, but whether or not fans like it, he’s going to be paid for 2020. We might as well root for his success.

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If Carpenter does regain form, then that option vesting isn’t a problem. If he doesn’t play well, then this will be the final year for Carpenter in a Cardinals uniform. He was unlucky in 2020, but he also wasn’t making any luck for himself.