The Issue of Matt Carpenter

The old SportsCenter catchphrase was “a good carpenter never blames his tools”.  However, a good carpenter still has to have tools.  Right now, it’s hard to know what tools Matt Carpenter is bringing to the table.

Let’s look at some numbers.  As you know, I’m not the most stat-savvy guy out there (so, so far from it) but even I can see that statistically, there’s no basis for the idea that Carpenter should be out there every day.  The first place to start is his overall line for the year.

400 PA, 14 2B, 2 3B, 11 HR, .212/.321/.363, 51 BB, 105 K

A full season line doesn’t always tell the story, but here it gives us quite a reasonable feel about how Carpenter’s season has gone.  All of the slash line numbers are career-lows and by a significant margin.  The flashes of power have been nice, but more often than not, things haven’t been good for the long-time Cardinal.

However, he’s been injured some this year.  How has he done since he returned from his last IL stint?

57 PA, 2 2B, 1 HR, .196/.321/.304, 7 BB, 17 K

Those numbers include last night, when he went 0-3 and struck out with runners on second and third and one out in a situation where the Cardinals really needed at least one run.  In fact, Carpenter struck out all three times he came to bat last night.  It was the eighth time this season that he’s struck out three or more times.  That equals the amount he had all season last year.  Of course, these numbers probably shouldn’t be as much of a surprise since Carpenter started his rehab assignment 0-21 in Memphis and Springfield before finally getting a couple of hits.

Of course–and this is now probably more of a curse than a hope–Carpenter started off legendarily slow last season and went on a tear that got him MVP votes for most of the rest of the season.  (Basically, the first six weeks were bad, the last six weeks were meh, and the middle 14 weeks were off the charts.)  The difference is, last year when the numbers weren’t looking good, the underlying approach was solid.  We heard the story about how the analytics department met with Carpenter and showed him that things like his exit velocity and hard hit percentage were fine, so eventually things would come around.  Which they did, of course, in ways nobody would have ever imagined.

If I’m reading Baseball Savant right, last year in the first six weeks (from the beginning of the season to May 15), these were some of Carpenter’s Statcast metrics:

140 PA, 11 barrels, 39% hard hit percentage, 88.5 mph exit velocity, 18 degree launch angle

Here’s where we are this year:

400 PA, 13 barrels, 33% hard hit percentage, 87.4 mph exit velocity, 19 degree launch angle

And since his return from the IL:

57 PA, 1 barrel, 23% hard hit percentage, 86.3 mph exit velocity, 16 degree launch angle

The Cardinals seem to think that Carpenter just needs more time to get his feet under him, but this has been the case for the last 365 days.  Since last August 21:

550 PA, 22 2B, 2 3B, 13 HR, .210/.323/.350, 81 wRC+

The basic numbers aren’t in Carpenter’s favor.  The Statcast numbers aren’t in Carpenter’s favor.  This isn’t just a short-term slump.  So what’s the argument for running Carpenter out there day in and day out right now besides the fact that “he’s done it before”.  Hey, Scott Rolen‘s in town this weekend and he’s done it before as well, but I don’t see the Cards suiting him up.  There comes a point where you have to look at the now and not the then.

When I put this out on Twitter last night, a number of folks drew the comparison of this season to Dexter Fowler‘s lost 2018.  There’s some truth in that and, honestly, it wouldn’t bother me terribly much if they started Carpenter at 3B on Opening Day 2020 and gave him some run to see if he can recapture what he’s had.  Right now, he needs to be a bench bat that occasionally starts.  If Mike Shildt thinks that Tommy Edman should be a starter (and, let’s be fair, Edman’s had a pretty good hitting run the last week or two), then let Edman be the starter at third.  There’s 20% of the season left and the Cards are now 1/2 game out of first because the Giants couldn’t hold multiple leads last night.  You can’t be hoping right now, thinking that things are going to get better.  You have to go with what is working and right now, that’s not Carpenter.

I would also say I would hope there would be a shorter leash on Carpenter in 2020 if he did start the season at third.  There’s reason to think that he could bounce back to a 2-3 WAR player, but there’s just as much reason to believe age has caught up with him.  Kyle Reis noted on a recent Prospects After Dark that Carpenter’s swing is slower than it used to be.  That would seem to be something that heralds the downside of a career.

Which will make the extension that the Cardinals gave him out of the blue this April a misstep, though hopefully not one that will be crippling.  Carpenter went into this season with an option for 2020, but in April the Cards guaranteed 2020 and 2021 with a vesting option meaning he could be around in 2022.  Now, if he doesn’t rebound, he probably doesn’t get enough plate appearances for that option to vest, so let’s take that out of the equation right now.  There was no real reason that the Cardinals should have given that contract to him at the time.  I didn’t write much about it (I imagine we went into it more on the podcasts) but even if Carpenter had another MVP season (and, like we said, the warning signs were there with the slow start/finish that he might not), you pick up that option and negotiate from there.  It might cost you a little more money, but it would also let you see him in his age 33 and 34 season before determining whether you wanted to try to keep him around or not.

We all love career Cardinals, but that doesn’t mean everyone has to be one.  If Carpenter had refused a contract after a good 2019 or 2020, it would have been tough to see him go elsewhere but given his age not a crushing blow, especially since there are folks like Nolan Gorman heading up the system.  All it gave you was some cost certainty but, as we’ve seen with some of these extensions, cost certainty and the ability to plan a budget years in advance seems to be one of the major likes of this organization.

Anyway, I’m not telling you anything you don’t already know.  It felt like last night was the tipping point when it came to Carpenter.  That situation in the sixth, with the Cardinals trying to complete a rally from down 5-0, was just crushing.  We’ll see if Mike Shildt feels the same way but there’s no reason that Carpenter should be starting more than a handful of games the rest of the season.


Monday (3-0 win)

Hero: Dakota Hudson.  6.2 no-hit innings and seven strikeouts.  There was no way that he was going to get to finish this game–he was at almost 100 pitches when he got pulled–but if it had been more than a 3-0 lead they might have let him finish seven.  Hudson has had an up and down season and it’ll be interesting to see how he finishes it out.

Goat: Marcell Ozuna.  0-4 with two left on.

Notes: I guess I could have given Giovanny Gallegos the Goat for allowing the only hit in the game, but that seemed a bit unfair….Paul DeJong had a home run, which as you know by now broke the M in Big Mac Land and has provided some great opportunities for McDonalds and Twitter users….The Cardinals have learned their lesson and walked Christian Yelich three times in this one.

Tuesday (9-4 win)

Hero: Dexter Fowler.  While it might be more appropriate to give it to Ryan Braun for giving up on Fowler’s bases-loaded dying quail, Fowler did get the three RBI there and also drove in another run with a walk.

Goat: John Gant.  I didn’t understand Mike Shildt pulling Ryan Helsley with a runner on and just 1.1 innings pitched, especially since Michael Wacha had only gone four.  The move backfired as Gant allowed the inherited runner and another runner to score before Tyler Webb got them out of the inning.

Notes: Credit to Wacha who had another strong outing as a starter.  Four scoreless innings, though it was wise of Shildt to pinch-hit for him with the bases loaded in the bottom of the fourth in a 1-0 game….Andrew Miller had a good inning, walking one but allowing nothing else.  I still think Shildt goes to him a bit too often though…..Marcell Ozuna went 3-5 with two runs but no RBI while Tommy Edman went 0-4 with an RBI and Fowler had four with one hit.  If that doesn’t prove RBI is a bit of a fluke stat…..10 hits but only two for extra bases.  Thank goodness that Milwaukee helped out with nine walks.

Wednesday (5-3 loss in 7 1/2)

Hero: Yadier Molina.  His double in the sixth drove in the final run and gave a chance for the Cards to tie it up, but Carpenter and Harrison Bader both struck out.

Goat: Adam Wainwright.  Giving up four in the first to a good team isn’t the way to stay in first place.  The defense didn’t help him at times but he also walked four and didn’t seem to have his good stuff.  Which is going to happen time and again with a guy in Wainwright’s position.

Notes: Junior Fernandez had an interesting night, allowing the first two batters he faced to reach, getting the next two out via grounder and lineout, then walking Mike Moustakas to face Ryan Braun with the bases loaded.  Fernandez got Braun to strike out and seemed to have a little bounce in his second inning of work, getting the Brewers 1-2-3….Kolten Wong had a single and a walk hitting second, which should allay fears that he’s only hitting because he’s down in the order (though he’ll probably be back down there tonight).

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