This team, I'm very sorry to say, isn't really all that good at the moment. I know, I know; best record in baseball, tremendous run differential, and all that stuff. But right now, at this exact moment in time, this team is really rather mediocre. To wit, the Cardinals are only 4-6 over their last ten games, and have scored as many as five runs only once in that stretch. The pitching continues to be largely amazing, but at this point the club feels more propped up by the run prevention wing of things, rather than being spearheaded by it.
Part of this current run of mediocrity and downright offensive offense, of course, is the injury bug. The Cardinals have managed to weather a really rather remarkably run of injuries this season, and largely managed to continue winning in spite of it. Nonetheless, being without Matt Holliday, and playing Mark Reynolds more or less everyday, and running Xavier Scruggs (aka Mark Reynolds with a really great tan), out there on the days Mark Reynolds isn't starting at first, seems to be taking a real toll on the Cards' offensive acumen. It's tough when you lose a steady, productive bat like Holliday's, and while Randal Grichuk has given the club a shot in the arm with his speed/power combo, the simple fact is you can't truly replace a guy who gets on base the way Holliday does. Grichuk has hit the skids of late, with a .303 OPS in the month of July. He's also striking out more than 40% of the time. Speaking of strikeouts, first base options that strike out 30+% of the time are a pretty serious problem, as well, particularly if said options aren't putting up home runs totals similar to that percentage. The Redbirds now face a potential future without Kolten Wong for an unknown period of time, which is every bit as dire as it feels. Like, Pete Kozma dire.
So sure, losing players to injury and being forced to try and cobble together a lineup definitely isn't ideal. However, there's another aspect to the Cardinals' recent offensive struggles, and it comes in the form of one of the more unexpected slumps I can recall.
Part of the problem with the Cardinal offense right now is that Matt Carpenter, simply put, seems to have forgotten how to hit. Or at least he's forgotten how to hit like Matt Carpenter.
The season numbers for Carpenter still look fine, obviously; his 126 wRC+ (.812 OPS), is certainly down from the 146 he put up in his MVP-calibre 2013 season, but actually up a tick from his very good if not spectacular 2014 season, in which he posted a 117 wRC+. So it's not as if he's been terrible this year, by any means.
As such, I will attempt to avoid invoking the vengeful ghost of Allen Craig, even if Craig's own sudden fall from grace is probably ingrained in our collective psyche, the trauma serving as shellac, fixing permanently in our minds the possibility that all of this we see could end at any moment, the baseball equivalent of a child learning for the first time the reality of death. I was going to say I won't invoke Craig not only out of fear, but because even at his very best Craig never approached the pure offensive mastery of Matt Carpenter. Then I pulled up Craig's FanGraphs page, and realised I am, in fact, underrating just how productive an offensive force Allen Craig was. Still, I'll just steer clear of that as much as possible, okay?
Here's the thing about Matt Carpenter's numbers for the season, though: almost all of the positives came early on, and he's been steadily trending down for quite some time now.
In April, Matt Carpenter's OPS was 1.089. There were articles written about him having regained his MVP-level form of 2013, rather than his simply very productive form of last year. A good time was had by all.
In May, Matt Carpenter's OPS was .837. That's still pretty damned awesome, really, and it isn't as if we didn't expect to see those April numbers come back to reality a bit, right?
In June, Matt Carpenter's OPS was .577. It certainly felt like he was struggling, particularly considering he struck out in close to a quarter of his trips to the plate, which is completely out of character for the man they call Marp.
In July, Matt Carpenter's OPS is .498. I don't think I need to tell you a sub-.500 OPS is...very dark.
If the picture those numbers paint isn't quite detailed enough, then how about some others?
Carpenter's strikeouts percentage by month:
April -- 11.4%
May -- 24.5%
June -- 22.4%
July -- 18.7%
Now this batch of figures is a bit less worrisome than the linear sinking of his OPS by month. The strikeouts were a huge deal in May, somewhat less in June, and only slightly elevated above his career norm of just over 16% so far in June. So perhaps there's some solace to be taken from the fact Carpenter is swinging and missing less often now than he was for a bit there.
Carpenter's walk rate by month:
April -- 11.4%
May -- 13.6%
June -- 17.3%
July -- 15.6%
If the strikeout rates are less concerning than the OPSes, then these numbers are downright encouraging. Carpenter has walked at an elite rate all season, and it's actually gotten better since his ridiculously hot start. Some broadcaster types, if presented with this information in an easy to read fun fact format, might say it's clear Carpenter is being too passive in his approach at the plate. Personally, I think it's encouraging that, whatever else is going on with him and his swing, Matt Carpenter is still finding his way on base via the walk at a very high rate.
Matt Carpenter's ISOs by month:
April -- .279
May -- .204
June -- .051
July -- .000
These numbers....are less encouraging. Ouch.
Carpenter's BABIPs by month:
April -- .403
May -- .317
June -- .259
July -- .238
Here we have a Rorschach test of sorts; a person could certainly conceivably look at those numbers and conclude that Carpenter was lucky in April, pretty much got what he deserved in May, and has been quite badly screwed by the universe since the calendar turned to June. A person could also conceivably look at those numbers and postulate he was simply crushing the ball early on, piling up the hits because he was hitting, if you will, and has dropped off horribly of late.
The thing that concerns me most of all is this chart, measuring the exit velocity of balls off the bat for Carpenter, sorted by pitch type:
That chart is especially scary to me, because it suggests that Matt Carpenter is having a whole lot of trouble hitting fastballs. And that is terrifying. If Carpenter is having difficulty catching up to fastballs, and being forced to cheat to hit velocity, it could also explain the declining production on offspeed pitches, since cheating to hit the hard stuff is going to leave one extra vulnerable to pitchers changing speeds.
Now, as to why Carpenter appears able to hit breaking balls quite well still? Well, that one I have no idea. Leave a thought in the comments if you have one. It doesn't make a ton of sense to me.
I suppose the further question, and the one I began this post with as the title, is this: how concerned should we be about all of this? I can cut apart numbers all day long, but in the end it really just comes down to whether you think this is just a run of struggling at the plate, with a helping of poor fortune ladeled on top of the struggles, or if it's something more ominous.
What we appear to have here is a player who began the season like a house on fire, hitting the ball hard all over the yard, but who has, as the season has worn on, sunk into a deep rut of making markedly worse contact. However, the strikeouts are not hugely up and out of sight. The walk rate has been excellent all along, and in fact was the best during Carpenter's worst month, such that one might imagine him walking along a beach and turning to ask his walk rate why, at the lowest points of his season, did he see only one set of footsteps, and his bases on balls telling him it was at those moments that they carried him down to first.
I began this column as I watched Matt Carpenter take a called third strike (and a somewhat dubious one at that), from Dallas Beeler in the first inning. I have to admit: in that moment I felt like something had gone horribly wrong, and Matt Carpenter just might be busted. Now, finishing up in the more rational light of day, I can say that the strikeout and walk numbers for Carpenter bring me some comfort, that even as badly as he has struggled for much of this season, he's not completely lost, and his approach remains as fundamentally sound and grindy, in the very best sense of the imaginary word, as ever. The struggles against fastballs are worrisome; the refusal to expand the zone too terribly is comforting.
My final thought, or perhaps final worry, though, is this: from the beginning of the season through the 6th of May, Matt Carpenter was a one-man wrecking crew, putting up a .333/.403/.620 line, with five homers and fourteen doubles in just 124 trips to the plate. Why did I choose the 6th of May? Because that was the last game Marp played before being diagnosed with extreme fatigue, an irregular heartbeat, and whatever else was going on there we likely aren't 100 percent privy to. He returned on the 12th of May in Cleveland, after recuperating at home and being admonished to curb his work routine somewhat.
His numbers since that return: .232/.354/.322. Three homers, seven doubles, 212 plate appearances.
Through the 6th of May, Carpenter's strikeout rate was 14.5%. From the 12th of May until now, it's 22.6%.
I don't know if it's coincidence or not. But what I do know is the Matt Carpenter we've seen since he came back from exhaustion has not been the Carpenter we saw the first five weeks of the season.
And I miss that guy.