Matt Carpenter is having a weird season. Not a bad season—as some fans may suggest. I’d add that I find the dislike for Carpenter somewhat unwarranted. Sure, he is a frustrating defensive player to watch, but what he does offensively is remarkable.
I won’t spend too much time on his defensive prowess because, well, it doesn't exist. And to quickly give a number to back that claim up, Carpenter has had, by far, the worst defensive season of his career. According to a Fangraphs metric, which measures a player’s defensive value relative to league average, Carpenter is at a value of -11. Additionally, he doesn't pass the eye test either. Suffice it to say, his foot positioning on virtually every play is just weird and he often doesn’t stretch from the right part of the bag.
Defense aside, he is still an incredibly valuable player. He had a wRC+ of 118 through Sunday’s win against the Pirates (Fangraphs). 18% above average may not seem like much, but it puts him in the top 50 of all qualified players. Not elite, but still a very talented player.
What’s interesting is how similar some of his numbers are to last season, yet there are some striking differences too. Below is a table comparing the last two years.
Matt Carpenter 2016 vs. 2017
Through 129 games, coincidentally the number he played all of last year, many of Carpenter’s stats are identical: plate appearances, HRs, runs, RBIs. And although his average is much lower this year, his OBP is still very similar. This is due to a slightly increased BB% (up two and a half points).
His strikeout rate isn’t going to win him any awards. He currently sits at 74th out of 148 qualified batters (Fangraphs). What’s remarkable is his eye, which at least for me, is very fun to watch. The data is pretty cool, too.
Even with two strikes, Carpenter doesn't expand his strike zone. He has a couple weaker spots on the outside pats of the plate, but as the stark color contrast between the red of the strike zone and the blue-purple portion outside of the zone shows, he maintains a very tight zone.
It should come as no surprise, then, to find out that he is second in O-Swing% out of the same 149 qualified hitters (Fangraphs). Interestingly, Tommy Pham is third (Keratoconus and all).
Even with his impressive plate discipline, Carpenter’s average has taken a pretty significant dip. One statistic that might explain it is his BABIP (.270), which has also dropped and is well below his career average of .321.
BABIP, or batting average on balls in play, measures how often non-Home Runs are hits. It is affected by defense, luck, and talent level (you can read more about BABIP at Fangraphs here). League average BABIP is typically around .300, so Carpenter’s .270 mark this year puts him a considerable amount below that.
While it is true that most stats should not be used with small sample sizes, the same logic must be emphasized when using BABIP. Fangraphs states that 800 balls in play are needed for a player’s BABIP to stabilize. While Carpenter isn't there yet, his BABIP probably won't move back to his career average by the time he does reach the 800 threshold.
This brings us to an interesting question: is Matt Carpenter a different player now than he was in years past? Possibly. It is likely that he is simply regressing with age. Although, at 31, the regression probably shouldn’t be this steep. Another option is that he has changed his approach. However, his similar statistics down the line seem to suggest otherwise. Is he being too patient? Has he just been unlucky for a whole season?
These are all fair questions. One thing is for certain, Matt Carpenter is having a weird year.