Since earning a starting job with the Cardinals in 2013, Matt Carpenter has been one of the league’s best run producers, and one of the best OBP lead-off hitters. From 2013-2015, health was a staple for Carpenter, as he had 2109 PA (avg. 703), which ranked third, only behind Nick Markakis (which is a bit surprising) and Mike Trout. In 2016, Carpenter injured his right oblique on July 6th and was never quite the same after returning back from his DL stint. A lot of fans were surprised to see a power outbreak for him in 2015, Carpenter posting a career-high 28 home runs (in 665 PA) when he had only hit 25 homers in his previous 1766 PA. He made some changes to his approach at the plate in 2015 and strove to hit more fly balls, pull the ball more and to sacrifice some contact for some power.
Now let’s jump to 2016. It was a tale of two halves. His offensive production was finally impacted by an injury which directly affected his swing and, more specifically, his new power-enhanced swing path.
In a recent article by Jeff Sullivan from FanGraphs, he references data from Baseball Savant which indicates that the optimal launch angle for slugging percentage is between 20-29 degrees. Carpenter has increased his average launch angle from 17.2 degrees to 18.2 between 2015 and 2016. Continuing to increase his launch angle while playing injured likely contributed to his plummeting batting average in the second half, as he continued to try to hit fly balls and line drives but simply couldn’t create the same bat speed and power to carry the ball into gaps and over the fence.
Below is a 15-Game rolling average of Carpenter’s Weighted On Base Average for the 2016 season. He got injured during game 78 of the season, which can easily be identified on the chart. He clearly never got back to form after hurting his oblique, but he did have the fourth-best wOBA before his injury, getting beat out by only David Ortiz, Josh Donaldson, and Mike Trout.
When playing healthy, his average swing speed was 62.7 MPH, but it dropped to 61.8 MPH after returning from the DL. His hard-hit rate also dropped by 6.7% and his soft-hit rate increased by almost the same amount. He clearly wasn’t the same hitter at the plate, and his numbers down the stretch took a massive hit.
If we focus on his 2015 and the beginning of 2016 production, we are looking at an elite run generator and on-base machine. He ranks ninth in OBP, 12th in BB% and wRC, had the same OPS as Nolan Arenado, had the same wOBA as Edwin Encarnacion (tied for 11th), and lastly he and Joey Votto were the only hitters in that timeframe to have a combined medium+hard-hit rate over 90%. That is some elite company.
Health will be imperative for Carpenter in 2017. If he is able to avoid a major injury this year and show no ill effects in spring training from his oblique injury from last season, we could be looking at someone who could shatter his current projections. His hitting tool and batted-ball profile are quite similar to Joey Votto and Freddie Freeman, with a high walk rate and hard-hit rate, a high line-drive rate, and power in the 25-30 home run territory.
The following stats are from 2015 – July 6th, 2016.
Putting Carpenter in that category of hitter might be a stretch for some; however, since making adjustments to his swing path and approach at the plate, he really isn’t that far off, as Carpenter, for the majority of these metrics, falls below Votto but ahead of Freeman.
He has withdrawn from the World Baseball Classic due to a back injury that his manager has indicated isn’t too serious. Nevertheless, he is definitely worth monitoring in the coming weeks leading up to opening day, to make sure he looks like his hard-hitting normal self.