Forget the Shift, Matt Carpenter Must Sell-Out to Pull

An ongoing theme this season has been Matt Carpenter and his battle with the shift. It’s in everyone’s heads. From fans, to the team, to Carpenter. It’s a mental plague.

But here’s the thing.

Everyone needs to ignore it, because it doesn’t really matter as much as folks want to believe.

Carpenter needs to forget about the shift — not let a couple lost singles bother him — and sell-out to being the pull hitter that has been a barreled-ball machine over recent seasons.

All year, fans have gone on and on about how ‘other teams are giving him a free hit, if he would just hit a ground ball to the left side.’ Sure, that is true. The issue is that Carpenter’s swing is not designed to hit ground balls to the left side. His swing is designed to lift the ball, specifically to right field.

Unfortunately, Carpenter became one of the most shifted-on players in baseball, and it got in his head. So this season, we see a conscious effort to push the ball to the opposite field, with a swing that is only going to produce medium-hit fly balls by doing so. Fly balls to left don’t beat the shift, they are just outs.

And this isn’t just anecdotal nonsense, there are numbers to back this up.

Let’s play a little game. I’ll give you two stat lines and you try to determine which one is Carpenter pulling the ball into the shift, and which one is him going opposite (or middle) to beat the shift.

Situation A: 106 PA, .231 average, .317 SLG, 36 wRC+

Situation B: 86 PA, .337 average, .407 SLG, 96 wRC+

Which is better? Situation B, right?

Well, Situation B is Carpenter pulling the ball into the shift.

Notice the substantially higher batting average and slugging percentage. Granted, the wRC+ is slightly below league average, but substantially better than the ‘2018 Francisco Pena’-level number that he has when trying to beat the shift. Additionally, homeruns are not included in this, as shift-data is only for balls in play. But a note on his HR’s: he has hit 118 HRs since the beginning of 2015, only 6 have gone to the opposite field. His power isn’t over there, which is another reason to stop swinging for left field. So just to give an idea, overall (shift/no-shift/HR) Carpenter has a 144 wRC+ when pulling the ball this year, 117 to center field, and just 50 to the opposite field. The success trends right.

In trying to beat the shift, he has allowed other teams to beat him. Shifting against Carpenter is as much about baiting him into trying to do something that he is bad at, as it is about trying to take away a few groundball singles. I would surmise that shifting is MORE about baiting him into going to the opposite field, because teams know that the most likely outcome is an easy fly ball. Enticing him to change his approach takes away his strength, which is pulling the ball with authority.

This is how Carpenter profiles when pulling into the shift and when trying to beat it:

STAT Pull w/ Shift Oppo/Cent w/ Shift
PA 86 106
AVG .337 .231
SLG .407 .317
wRC+ 96 36
wOBA .318 .226
LD% 32.6% 19.6%
GB% 54.7% 12.7%
FB% 12.8% 67.6%
Soft% 10.5% 11.3%
Med% 38.4% 54.7%
Hard% 51.2% 34.0%

As the numbers show, he still hits the ball hard on more than half of his balls in play to the right side. When he tries to go the other way, it results in a medium hit ball more than half the time.

The ratios show that he is more likely to get a hit and do damage by pulling the ball, even with a shift in place.

He must sell-out to the pull side. Yes, there will be frustrating moments when a hit is taken away, but consider that had he tried to go to the opposite field, the outcome would have likely been a flyout. So there is only an aesthetic change, not an actual difference in result. Playing the percentages and pulling the ball will lead to better results and better numbers overall. Additionally, being focused on pulling the ball, rather than being mentally in-between, should restore the pull side power that hasn’t manifested this season.

Matt needs to stop worrying about the shift and just start ripping the ball.

Thanks for reading.

Numbers courtesy of FanGraphs.

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