Matt Carpenter: Civil War

A while back, Tara Wellman and I did a little matching up of Cardinal players to Marvel superheroes.  And while we went away from him with this comparison in our initial matchups (as you can see here, someone else took up the shield), in at least one way.  He seems to have spawned a civil war among a lot of the Cardinal faithful.  This isn’t exactly new, of course.  Allegations of “diva” and “selfish” were thrown around by some last year when his production suffered when compared to some prior years.  (Though he still was able to post almost a 3 bWAR season.)

This year, Carp seems to be the fault line between how much you want to trust in some of the new (and, really, even not so new) metrics.  On the one side, you have some of the sabermetricians like Craig Edwards and Zach Gifford who, if they were basketball analysts, might be repeating the “trust the process” mantra for days on end.  They note that Carpenter has a launch profile that resembles Mike Trout and Freddie Freeman, two guys that have had significantly more success this season than the Cardinal batter.  They note that left-handed batters with a similar range of balls coming off the bat are having more success.  They talk about expected weighted on-base average (xwOBA) versus what’s actually happening, how many times he’s barreled the ball with no success, and things of that nature.  What it boils down to is, in their view, Carpenter’s doing the right things and getting unlucky with the results.  Things are going to turn around eventually.

Then there’s the other side of the argument.  To run the risk of mixing franchises, the Obi-Wan Kenobi side:

All this talk of “bad luck”, in their eyes, is just an excuse for those that are fond of Carpenter.  They look at his increasing strikeout rate and his seeming inability to not hit into the shift as more telling of what he is and what he may do.  When you factor in his questionable defense and the people like Jedd Gyorko that don’t play because he’s out there, many of these folks would ship him off for whatever they could get for him.  Playing into this, perhaps, is the subconscious memory of Allen Craig‘s fall from grace.  Granted, Craig had less of a track record than Carpenter did, but when you look at Craig’s .237/.291/.346 line in St. Louis in 2014 and pair it up against what Carpenter is doing this season, it’s enough to get a lot of people a bit worried.

Before we go on, can I point out what feels to me like a pretty interesting irony?  We have the numbers guys, the baseball scientists, the guys that quantify almost everything talking about luck and the gut-followers, the scout-with-your-eyes, the old baseball guard discounting it.  It really feels to me like the situation should be reversed in some way.  (Please don’t get me wrong, I’m not saying that it’s not consistent or anything–I completely understand the scientific way our stat side is talking about luck–but at first glance it seems out of place.)

There’s not much middle ground among these two sides but I think there is a little bit.  For instance, you can see Zach talking about how the shift is impacting Carpenter and how the strikeout rate plays into in while saying that’s not all there is to this.  I think many of the Carpenter detractors would also admit that Carpenter hitting .147 with a .581 OPS isn’t a true indicator of his talent.  While it feels at times on Twitter like it’s black or white, you either think Carp will be great or he’ll continue to be terrible, I don’t think it has to be completely that way.

For me, while I don’t always get into the advanced stats or completely understand them, I do think there’s a lot of merit to it.  I do think that Carpenter has been somewhat unlucky this season and baseball does have a way of evening things out.  But I also know that baseball doesn’t always even them out in a set amount of time.  Look at the 2013 Cardinals, who were crazy good at hitting with runners in scoring position.  Everyone said that would eventually level out, but it really didn’t until the postseason and the next year.  Carpenter could underperform all year long and then be outstanding next year.

Which is the real question: how long do you let Carpenter continue to be out there with his good process when he’s not getting the good results?  How long can you wait for the barreled balls to start dropping?  I thought maybe we were seeing Carpenter come out of it when he doubled and homered against the White Sox.  You’ll remember we got a lot of stories around then about the front office showing him that the deep stats were showing a good process.  My hope was that the confidence that he was on the right track would get him going.  Instead, Carpenter is 1-21 since that game and that one hit was that fluke double over Kyle Schwarber‘s head that a real left fielder catches.  (I also though that getting some good luck for a change might help him out.  Apparently not.)

I don’t have an answer to the question.  It doesn’t look like Carpenter needs to take a couple of days off to make adjustments.  It doesn’t appear mechanically that he’s hurt enough for a stint on the disabled list.  The results aren’t going to get better if he’s on the bench, but if they don’t get better on the field, he’s not helping the team at all.  A lot of times you’d say just play through it but it’s been six weeks now.  Do you wait another six?  What if he’s not getting results then either?  How long is too long?  It’s easier when it’s not this core piece (or, to forestall some arguments, what the club feels like is a core piece) to the puzzle struggling.  We’ve seen minor league trips and some extended time out of the lineup for others, but that doesn’t seem like it’s going to happen here.  I do think Mike Matheny has sat him a little more than he would have in the past, but that’s basically just an extra game or two.  He’s still out there all the time, doing what he can and hoping for different results.

I will say the most concerning thing to me is the strikeout rate.  In the spring, Carp said he was tired of striking out, that he was going to stop trying for homers so he could make better contact.  Currently, his K rate is at 27.4%, which is well above the 19% and 20% of the last couple of years.  It could level out, of course, but the eye test seems to show him being pretty passive at the plate.  I don’t know if that’s a result of having so many things going wrong that he wants to walk and still provide value to the team (and his walk rate is still at 17%, where it was last year), but right now that means about 45% of the time Carpenter doesn’t make contact.  I feel like that indicates he needs to change his mental approach if not his physical mechanics.

I’m writing this before the lineup for Friday night’s game comes out.  Given that Eric Lauer, a left-handed pitcher (whom the Cardinals have never seen, so we know how THAT may go), is going for the Padres, Carpenter should be sitting tonight.  Carp has two hits this year against lefties in 22 AB, so if he’s out there feel free to jump all over Matheny (like anyone needs permission to do that).  It’ll solve the problem temporarily.  The long-term solution, that’s something much harder to figure out.

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Last updated: 10/06/2022