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A Tale of Two Streaks

Looking at Tommy Pham and Matt Carpenter’s recent performance

MLB: St. Louis Cardinals at Philadelphia Phillies Eric Hartline-USA TODAY Sports

Over the course of any baseball season, most players will go through hot streaks and cold streaks. The vast majority will go under the radar. I thought I’d talk about two players whose streaks HAVE been noticed because they’ve been so pronounced. I want to caution however that streaks have been shown to not be predictive. I’m simply looking at past streaks in this post, without trying to hint hint towards the future.

Matt Carpenter and Tommy Pham have had near identical seasons, but in reverse. In Pham’s first 34 starts (and five pinch-hit appearances), he had a 168 wRC+ on the season. Over Carpenter’s first 35 games, he had a 59 wRC+ on the season. Carpenter’s been a little better than Pham was on his hot streak and I think that explains the disparity in their season lines. But otherwise, we haven’t gotten to see both Pham and Carpenter at their best together.

For the purposes of this post, I will be looking at the last 100 plate appearances from both Pham and Carpenter, not counting last night’s game. It looks like Carpenter went 1-3 with a 2B and BB, which produces a somewhat similar wRC+ to his last 100 PAs, so it won’t affect his numbers all that much. Pham went 0-4 with three soft groundouts and a lineout so his numbers would be affected, but it wouldn’t really make a big difference.

Pham (5/29-6/26): 101 PAs, .206/.228/.299, 41 wRC+

Carpenter (6/2-6/26): 100 PAs, .333/.420/.690, 197 wRC+

For what it’s worth, Carpenter’s streak has not only been better than Pham’s, it’s lasted longer too. Because if you go back to May 16, Carpenter has a 199 wRC+. The MLB leader in wRC+ last year was Aaron Judge, who had a measly 173, so needless to say 197 and 199 are pretty good. So what’s to blame for these streaks? Believe it or not, the answer is not strikeouts. The difference between the two hitters lies in walks, power, and BABIP.

Pham: 3.0 BB%, 25.7 K%, .093 ISO, .246 BABIP

Carpenter: 13.0 BB%, 23.0 K%, .356 ISO, .375 BABIP

As you can see, Carpenter and Pham’s strikeout rates aren’t that different. Plus Pham has a career 25.9 K% and projected 24.4 K%. He’s not striking out all that differently than you’d expect. It’s everything else about his game. I’m mostly personally shocked by the walks. That’s usually something that sticks with you even through cold streaks. Carpenter’s BB% through May 15 when he had the 59 wRC+ was 16.8% for example.

Okay, so Pham isn’t walking. That’s pretty straightforward. You either walk or you don’t. You don’t need to go digging any deeper into why (except maybe Pham’s eye condition, but I do not have near enough information to make any conclusions about that). But you can sort of see why the BABIP and ISO is low based off the batted ball profile.

Pham’s last 100 PAs: 15.5 LD%, 57.7 GB%, 26.8 FB%, 5.3 IFFB%, 15.8 HR/FB%

Pham’s career: 22 LD%, 50.9 GB%, 27.1 FB%, 5.2 IFFB%, 25.3 HR/FB%

So basically, he’s replacing line drives with groundballs and that explains the BABIP. I was surprised to find that he’s actually hitting flyballs at a similar rate, but his HR/FB% is lower. Now in this small of a sample, this could mean that he’s been unlucky or it could mean his flyballs just haven’t gone that far. But you could probably explain his power from less line drives and lower HR/FB than expected. Pham has ZERO doubles in his last 100 PAs and I guarantee less line drives have played a part. Pham just isn’t hitting the ball as hard. Or is he? Interestingly it looks like he isn’t actually hitting the ball less hard than normal, but that the hard hit balls are just going on the ground instead of staying in the air for a line drive.

Pham’s last 100 PAs: 8.3% Soft, 45.8% Medium, 45.8% Hard Contact

Pham career: 15.2% Soft, 45.6% Medium, 44.7% Hard Contact

Okay so if you want to take a generous reading to Pham’s slump, here’s your narrative. Pham is just going through a stretch where a few hard hit balls are staying on the ground that would usually stay in the air, and because they are finding gloves and not finding holes, he’s pressing and not walking, trying to get out of the slump. The problem of course is that when you’re in a slump, you need to stick to your approach and deal with the hard times. Let’s compare Carpenter through May 15 to Pham’s last 100 PAs.

Pham’s last 100 PAs: 3.0 BB%, 25.7 K%, .093 ISO, .246 BABIP

Carpenter through May 15: 16.4 BB%, 28.6 K%, .132 ISO, .178 BABIP

With a BABIP as low as .178, it’s kind of inevitable the power will suffer too. It’s worth pointing out that Carpenter had a 25.3 LD% during his slump. People blamed the shift, but it’s pretty clear that line drives will fall eventually no matter how the defense is positioned. So really my only “objection” to Pham’s slump is that he’s turned into a more impatient hitter than Randal Grichuk, at least by BB%. While we’re on the subject of Carpenter’s streak, let’s compare his last 100 plate appearances to his first 140 because I already know what most people think:

Carpenter’s first 140 games: 20.7 0-Swing%, 50.2 Z-Swing%, 81.6 Z-Contact%, 53.3 O-Contact%

Carpenter’s last 100 PAs: 19.4 O-Swing%, 59.6 Z-Swing%, 88.3 Z-Contact%, 60.3 O-Contact%

For a quick glossary, Z means in the zone and O means out of the zone. In terms of approach, Carpenter is swinging at a lot more pitches in the strike zone during his hot streak. There’s a good reason why though. He’s making contact at Carpenter in 2013 levels, the version of Carpenter who hit doubles but otherwise had little power. He’s also making contact on 60% of the pitches he swings at that are out of the zone. That is... pretty far away from his career high of 53.1% and career 49.9%. Carpenter is swinging a lot because he’s pretty sure he’s going to make contact. When he was in his cold streak, he was less sure, so he didn’t swing as much. Pretty simple story there.

Lastly, I want to compare Carpenter and Pham’s swing rates to each other to see if I can notice another difference to mostly explain Pham’s struggles, because I kind of explained Carpenter’s successes.

Carpenter’s last 100 PAs: 19.4 O-Swing%, 59.6 Z-Swing%, 88.3 Z-Contact%, 60.3 O-Contact%, 54.3 F-Strike%

Pham’s last 101 PAs: 23.4 O-Swing%, 64.6 Z-Swing%, 88.7 Z-Contact%, 48.9 O-Contact%, 65.4 F-Strike%

The pitcher tends to fall behind on Carpenter about half the time and that’s pretty deadly with his eye. Against Pham, they get ahead in the count 23 of the time. Now pitchers know Carpenter is doing well when they throw a strike half the time and they know Pham is not doing well when they throw a first pitch strike, but I’m sure both of these facts have helped contribute to their respective streaks. Interestingly besides that, the main difference between the two is that Pham hasn’t been able to make as much contact on outside of the zone pitches as Carpenter, but 48.9% is pretty close to Carpenter’s career so it’s not like you can really blame him for not making contact on pitches outside of the zone. He’s making contact, just not good contact. This is interesting because you wouldn’t think Pham would have such a low BB rate, because none of these plate discipline numbers are too alarming by themselves. He does have a career 54.4 O-Contact%, but I’m not sure making more contact on pitches out of the zone would really help his quality of contact.

So what do these streaks tell us? Well it tells me Carpenter is seeing the ball really well. I’m sure you didn’t need to read an article to tell you that though. It is also tells me that Pham’s struggles may be slightly overstated. Or at least that he’s just going through a typical slump and that for the most part, he seems to be hitting the ball hard still, just not as line drives. The only truly concerning part of his game from these numbers is his BB%. The low BB% may indicate that he’s not seeing the ball well, which always brings up worry about his eye and then you worry that he’s not hitting as many line drives because of his eye and well you fall down the rabbit hole of worry with Pham.

But if it makes you feel better - and it does make me feel better - he’s not actually striking out more, which you’d think would be a stronger indicator of eye problems than lack of walks. His lack of walks could simply be a combination of pitchers challenging him because they know he’s struggling and Pham maybe pressing because he’s trying to get out of his slump. After all, Carpenter walking a lot during his slump doesn’t mean everyone slumps like that. Marcell Ozuna walked very few times during his slump to use one example. The important thing - and I truly want to stress this because this is my fear about writing about streaks - these last 100 PAs are not an indication of how well they will do going forward. Tomorrow Pham could find the magic bullet and start hitting the ball like the beginning of the season and Carpenter could lose his stroke. That’s just baseball. I just wanted to explore how these two men ended up with the streaks they have right now by looking at the numbers.