Gio Gonzalez walks into the visiting clubhouse at Busch Stadium. He looks at the lineup card for Tuesday’s matchup against the streaking Cardinals and sees “Matt Carpenter” inked at the top of a white piece of paper. The first pitch Gonzalez throws will be to this man, a leading contender for National League MVP. Gonzalez has been preparing since his last start, the same as any other, but Carpenter’s 33 home runs and miraculous resurgence are on his mind.
I have no idea if this is an accurate sequence of events, but the short film plays in my head for every starting pitcher staring down the Cardinals leadoff man.
Carpenter is riding a 32-game on-base streak heading into Wednesday with seven home runs in the month of August. He’s a focal point in pre-series and pre-game pitcher-catcher meetings. Odds say opposing team is facing Carpenter four times and they’ll be burned by him nearly half of the time.
The content of those meetings will never be available in their entirety. If we try to piece together parts of those conversations from the data we have, I’d like to think we’ll have the general shape of a puzzle with a few missing pieces.
A lefty like Gonzalez usually has a slight advantage versus a left-handed hitter due to natural splits. Unfortunately, Carpenter is special, posting nearly identical wRC+’s between each handedness of pitcher. His exceptional—and rare—ability to square up lefties has actually led to him face right-handed pitchers substantially more, with about three of every four at-bats against right-handers.
But Dave Martinez wasn’t going to pull Gonzalez from the rotation, so how do other left-handers attempt to quiet Carpenter?
It starts with... fastballs?
Forty-six percent of the pitches Carpenter sees are four-seam fastballs according to Baseball Savant, well above the league median of about 36-37 percent. Unsurprisingly, these four-seamers are located middle-up or on the outer third. Carpenter swings through very few of these offerings.
Sliders are the natural secondary offering against Carpenter from lefties. They’re predominantly spotted low and away, but Carpenter magically produces around league average results with most of his damage being base hits.
If you’re a lefty itching to simply avoid damage against Carpenter, sliders may be the key. Add to that good command and an eye for the outer third and you might have a chance (emphasis on the “might”).
The approach to Carpenter for lefties isn’t complex: elevate when necessary on hard stuff and burry breakers away. This motto applies to nearly every hitter, but it’s made exceptionally difficult by how disciplined Carpenter is in the box (more on that later). If you’re not commanding perfectly and sequencing to keep Carpenter off balance, he’ll spit on breakers away and take fastballs off the plate. Command and hope are a pitcher’s most reliable weapon against the salsa man himself.
Do right-handed pitchers attack Carpenter any different?
They throw even more fastballs, but the mix is heavier towards two-seam fastballs. This is one of the only pitches Carpenter struggles with and the only pitch with a negative pitch value on Carpenter’s Fangraphs page.
Right-handers let two-seamers start middle-middle and ride to the outer third against Carpenter. His whiffs come sparingly as well, on pitches up and out of the zone, which is similar to the four-seamers he was missing from left-handers. It seems that with two-seamers, however, Carpenter’s ability to square up the pitch isn’t as consistent compared to four-seamers.
Changeups are the featured offspeed pitch for right-handers. Carpenter, as boring as he is, has decent success against the pitch. Sliders from right-handers, however, are something that he hasn’t produced well against. His wOBA numbers suggest he isn’t too fond of the pitch, yet it doesn’t seem like many right-handers are willing to backdoor him, preferring instead to fade changeups off the plate.
Preferring pitches with natural fade away from Carpenter is logical, especially given the approach against him is similar to the outer-third concentration left-handers employ. Looking at Carpenter’s production below, right-handers may want to continue with sinkers away, but turn to sliders inside, a part of Carpenter’s zone it doesn’t seem like many pitchers are toying with. Changeups have been moderately effective, but that standard doesn’t win games when Carpenter is leading off a lineup.
What makes Carpenter such a good hitter in the first place?
One of his defining features is the extreme patience Carpenter possesses and his inhuman ability to not chase off the plate when he does swing. He sits fifth in baseball among qualified hitters for how little he swings, sandwiched in between Mookie Betts and Mike Trout. His out of zone swing rate sits right next to Mike Trout at 11th overall among qualified hitters. Being next to Mike Trout in anything is rarely bad.
Carpenter’s power comes out against pitches up-and-in and low-and-away. (Yes, this is almost the entirety of the strike zone.) His plate coverage is fantastic when he chooses to swing. Jeff Sullivan of Fangraphs detailed how exceptional the former Horned Frog’s barrel control is, as he has mastered hitting the ball hard and in the perfect window of loft to produce against the shift. Add that to his approach and you can start to see why he has 30-plus homers with a 160 wRC+.
While the approach for pitchers facing Carpenter may be to spin more sliders off the plate, the inherent discipline of the Cardinals leadoff hitter makes this challenging. Pitchers seem to be opting for fastballs because of Carpenter’s discipline, knowing it may be the only way to earn a strike on him and backing their way into two-strike counts.
This leaves southpaws and righties with little ability to improvise against Carpenter and exploit any potential holes. Carpenter has his zone, knows when he’s swinging (which isn’t often) and will do damage even when he finds himself with two strikes.
Carpenter’s MVP case is based off production, but to understand his mastery of the game it’s important to look under the hood and admire the inner workings of his approach.