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Where is Matt Carpenter and What Have You Done With Him?

A few days ago, I tweeted out some data that I had parsed from Baseball Savant after I decided to see who had seen the most pitches outside of the strike zone get called strikes.  I found the leader of that unfortunate group to be none other than St. Louis Cardinals’ 2B/3B Matt Carpenter. After a sizable amount of interest in that tweet, I decided to look into Carpenter’s numbers a bit further to see if it had anything to do with Carpenter’s decline this year.

As of May 20th, Carpenter has been the victim of 81 pitches out of the zone that have been called strikes — a ratio of about 9.6% of pitches thrown. Next on that list is former Cincinnati Reds outfielder Shin-Soo Choo, hoodwinked 67 times (9.3%). However, two other hitters are seeing a slightly higher ratio of strikes out of the zone — Boston Red Sox outfielder Jackie Bradley, Jr. (9.9%) and Washington Nationals infielder Adam LaRoche (9.8%). Both of the aforementioned hitters have about 150 less plate appearances than Carpenter.

Could this honestly be the explanation as to why Cardinal Nation’s breakout star of 2013 isn’t anywhere near as good as he has been in the previous two seasons? To take it a step further, should we assume that there is a major umpiring conspiracy against Carpenter?

Not exactly.

I looked into this data further and I found that since 2008 (minimum 5000 pitches), there are thirty-eight other hitters within two percentage points of Carpenter’s current rate of 9.6%. The leader of that group is Oakland Athletics catcher John Jaso, who has faced 5731 pitches of which 546 were out of the zone and called strikes (9.5%). The miserable hitter who has fallen prey to the fallible umpire eye 1,324 times — the most in that time span — is Baltimore Orioles outfielder Nick Markakis (8.2%).

So let’s look a little closer at what’s going on with Carpenter in 2014. His BABIP sits at .331, well above the league average but nothing to get excited about because his career average is .348 — which can be considered stabilized after 1,100-plus at-bats. His batting average is currently .265; again, above the league average but well below his career mark of .300. Carpenter still manages to get on base consistently (.371 OBP) and his walk rate is actually three percent higher than his norm of 10.8%. Most importantly, he has yet to hit an infield fly; an indication that he’s making good contact and swinging the bat well.

Are pitchers attacking him differently? The answer again is no because there seems to be no variance in the types of pitches he’s seeing in 2014 compared to previous seasons.

Plate discipline would be the next logical place to go. Here, I’ve spotted something interesting — a Z-Swing rate of just over 50%. Only swinging at half the pitches he sees in the strike zone? Is this indicative of a lack of confidence? That kind of swing rate is bound to get a few extra ‘phantom’ strikes called on you. The league average swings in the zone for 2014 is a much higher 64.9%; Carpenter’s career ratio is 57.3%.

Has he lost his eye? His O-Swing rate is actually lower this year (along with his overall swing rate). He apparently wants to take more pitches and it hasn’t effected his ability to get on base regularly; still sporting a well above-average OBP of .371.

So here’s the biggie — his contact rates. An astounding 95.1% of swings in the zone result in contact and his general contact rate hasn’t varied at all from the past three seasons. You can cancel those requests for an eye doctor visit now. Need more proof? His whiff rate is a minuscule 3.9%.

Obviously when Carpenter sees a pitch he likes, he hits it. The problem seems to be what happens when he does.

I mentioned before that his BABIP is fairly high (currently 39th overall in baseball) and that typically correlates with an elevated batting average. Not the case with Carpenter and here is an example of why. Line drives fall for hits much more than any other type of contact. So far, Carpenter has 23 line-outs this year, highest in the majors. For a guy who is known for his extra-base hits (55 doubles in 2013), he relies on those to fall for hits and they aren’t. His wOBA has taken a major hit for that, down to a pedestrian .319 so far.

I wish I could tell you that this research would involve some sort of diagnosis of Carpenter’s struggle; there is none. His walk rate is up a bit, but he is striking out more (18.8%) than his average ratio of 15.9%. It could simply be that he might not be as good as he’s advertised. It could simply be a down year. But let me leave you with a one last piece of data.

Carpenter is a career .264 hitter in March/April. His average elevates to .321 during the month of May. So far, his average this May has risen slightly but not significantly. Its possible he has a major hot streak simmering on the back burner.

For the sake of Cardinal Nation, I hope that one of the most dynamic players in the game starts to have a shift in hitting abilities sooner rather than later. He’s a fun hitter to watch.