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Matt Carpenter’s simple shift solution

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Faced with a sudden spike in shifts, Carpenter found a new way to hit ‘em where they ain’t

MLB: St. Louis Cardinals at Pittsburgh Pirates Charles LeClaire-USA TODAY Sports

If I may dip my hand hand briefly into the red baron bag of tricks... before I start, here’s an aside: Matt Carpenter has caught a lot of grief this year in certain corners of Cardinals fandom (some of which I’ve seen in dumb-opinion-amplifying spaces like Twitter, but some out in the real world as well). And it doesn’t make any sense to me at all. He’s been the team’s third-best hitter this year by wRC+, and we recently learned that he’s been playing much (all?) of the year with a sore right shoulder. Now during the stretch run, as his shoulder pain has become a public and more obvious issue, Carpenter has put together his best month of the season: a 167 wRC+ in September with a .267 isolated power and more walks than strikeouts.

This guy is trying his damnedest to put the team on his back and carry them to the playoffs while hurt. To the extent this is a word you’re comfortable applying to baseball players, he’s been heroic. If you’ve been on his case, give serious consideration to shutting up.

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In the 2014 regular season, Matt Carpenter was thrown 1,977 pitches. Prior to just 167 of them -- 8.4% -- he looked out on the infield pre-pitch and saw a defensive shift.

Carpenter isn’t a guy who hits a lot of ground balls the other way. In fact, he almost never does, and almost never has. In his career, just 8.2% of his his grounders have been hit to the opposite field (versus 31.2% up the middle, and 60.6% to the right side). Considering he bats lefty, that’s a guy crying out for a defensive shift.

And the league picked up on it, finally. 2014 wasn’t that long ago, but since then there’s been a revolution in how Matt Carpenter is defended. In 2015, the percentage of pitches he was thrown with shifts in effect nearly doubled, to almost 15%. In 2016, that proportion more than quadrupled, to 63%. And this year it sits at 83%, which is one of the highest rates in the league.

On its face, that seems like a big problem. Casting about for column ideas, having noticed this massive spike in shifts, and trying hard to ignore the cold mathematical realities the last two Cardinals losses have created, I decided to write about this problem. But as I dug into it, I noticed something weird:

180, 214, 152, 224, 238, 189.

That’s Carpenter’s annual wRC+ on pulled balls, via FanGraphs (leaving out 2011, during which he barely appeared in MLB). If you’re not really seeing a downturn in overall production when hitting to the right side, that’s because there isn’t really one. Carpenter still is, as he always has been, a highly productive hitter when he pulls the ball.

But here’s another set of annual wRC+ figures: 73, 29, 11, -27, -41, 2. That’s Carpenter on pulled grounders. As you’d expect, his pulled-grounder BABIPs track those numbers: .278, .205, .198, .141, .115, .175. We’re not dealing with large enough sample sizes here (only about 100 balls a year, on average), so we shouldn’t make too much of precise year-over-year variation, but the long-term trend is worrisome. No batters are very productive on grounders of any sort, pulled or not, but it looks clear that shifts have eaten into Carpenter’s ability to get ground balls through the infield for hits.

The seeming contradiction here -- steadily high production on pulled balls generally, despite lower production on a specific bucket of pulled balls -- has a pretty simple explanation. Over the last (nearly) three seasons, as he’s increasingly looked out to see three infielders on the right side of second base, Matt Carpenter has increasingly done one thing: hit the ball over their heads. The rate of his pulled balls that have gone on the ground has steadily decreased from 67.9%, in 2014, to just 41.7% this year.

In exchange, he’s beefed up his pulled-liner rate and pulled-flies rate (both of which sit at or near career highs this year). Those are the very best kinds of batted balls; within those combined splits, Carpenter’s career wRC+ is over 400 and he’s slugging 1.314. Thus, while Carpenter has suffered some losses on pulled grounders due to better defensive strategy, he’s made back his losses by trading some of those pulled grounders for doubles and home runs.

Sometimes changes we’ve seen unfold before our eyes over long periods of time seem unremarkable simply because we’ve seen them, and they happen so slowly that we never stop being more or less accustomed to what we’re seeing. But Matt Carpenter’s shift-beating evolution has been, in its quiet way, remarkable. The league noticed a tendency he had -- rarely hitting grounders the other way -- and reacted rationally by shifting him a ton. And instead of countering by letting the league force him to try to be something he’s not (an all-fields hitter), Carpenter solved the problem by taking a big chunk of his batted balls out of the reach of those extra infielders and making them the responsibilities of outfielders and fans in the bleachers.

There’s a good lesson here for pull hitters in the age of Big Shifts: there’s more than one way to, as Wee Willie Keeler said, hit ‘em where they ain’t. Sure, a shifted third baseman is now no longer standing by third base. But he’s not up in the air, either. Maybe pull-heavy hitters shouldn’t worry much about where the infielders are standing. Just hit it over their heads.