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Matt Carpenter, God of Line Drives

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Sometimes, it’s nice to just sit back and appreciate great hitting.

Photo by Mitchell Layton/Getty Images

Sometimes I like my baseball analysis complex. I want to dig down into the very core of the data and extract something previously unknown. If that’s too much to ask, sometimes I like to at least find something under-appreciated, point out some gem of a statistic that can give me a new understanding of the game. Sometimes, though, I just want some line drives. Bullets into the gap. Frozen ropes. Liney D’s. No analysis, no deep thinking, is necessary. Just smashed baseballs. Luckily, the Cardinals employ Matt Carpenter, so it’s pretty easy for me to get my fill.

You might not appreciate just how good Carpenter is at hitting line drives. I noticed in a general way that he seemed to hit a lot of them, just by watching a lot of games. When I wrote about his extreme avoidance of double plays, I looked at a spray graph of his balls in play in double play situations, and it was absolutely glorious. Here’s a slightly modified one, a launch angle chart of all the balls Carpenter has put in play in 2018:

It reminded me of a Fangraphs piece about Carpenter that I’d seen earlier this year, which I highly suggest you read. The upshot is that Carpenter is one of the best in the game at hitting the ball in a hitter’s happy zone. Actually, I misspoke. He’s not one of the best. He’s the best. Another way you could look at it would be to look at this chart of line drive rate leaders in 2018:

2018 Line Drive Leaders

Rank Player Line Drive %
Rank Player Line Drive %
1 Joey Votto 31.7
2 Freddie Freeman 31.2
3 Whit Merrifield 28.6
4 Nicholas Castellanos 28.6
5 Matt Carpenter 27.5
6 Nick Markakis 27
7 Billy Hamilton 27
8 Chris Taylor 27
9 Matt Kemp 26.8
10 Corey Dickerson 26.4

Pretty nice. Matt Carpenter hits a lot of line drives this year. I’m not exactly breaking new ground by letting you know that. A quick perusal of the WAR leaderboards probably would have clued you in that he’s making some quality contact. We all know that Carpenter is having a great year, so some statistics that show he’s doing good things this year are, eh, just not that exciting. That’s fine, though. You, dear reader, seem discerning. You want the really good stuff. What if we looked at what Carpenter has done since entering the league? He hasn’t always been an elevate-and-celebrate kind of guy, and he certainly hasn’t always been this good. Maybe he’s a little further down the list. Here’s a list of players with 2500 PA since 2012, essentially guys who have been regular-ish during Carpenter’s career:

2012-2018 Line Drive Leaders

Rank Player Line Drive %
Rank Player Line Drive %
1 Freddie Freeman 28.2
2 Joey Votto 27
3 Nicholas Castellanos 25.9
4 Brandon Belt 25.9
5 Matt Carpenter 25.8
6 Joe Mauer 25.7
7 Jon Jay 25.4
8 Austin Jackson 25.1
9 Adrian Gonzalez 24.4
10 Daniel Murphy 24.2

For a rate that is in theory quite volatile, it looks like four batters have more or less cracked the code. There’s a reason that Joey Votto is a frequent comparison for Matt Carpenter, and it’s not because of his excellent trolling skills (though Votto has extremely good trolling skills). They both have great control of the strike zone. That’s an easy one. You could make a pretty good argument that Votto and Carpenter have the best batting eyes in baseball. You could make a pretty good argument that they have the best bat control in baseball. I will say, at this point you seem like the argumentative type. Still, though, you’d have a point. Carpenter and Votto share a skillset that most in baseball simply don’t have.

There’s one small divergence in the ways Votto and Carpenter work, though. Votto famously never hits an infield fly ball. That’s obviously a very useful skill. He hasn’t yet figured out how to avoid hitting grounders though. He’s recorded a 37.5% ground ball rate thus far this year- not bad, but not among the 30 lowest GB% among qualified hitters. For his career, he’s hit 41% grounders. Carpenter, on the other hand, simply doesn’t hit the ball on the ground anymore. An infield fly ball might be a sure out, but a grounder isn’t so different from that in the shift, and Carpenter has more or less eliminated them from his game this year. He has quite literally the lowest ground ball rate among qualified hitters at 25.6%, more than three percent below Rhys Hoskins in second. Despite the high launch angles, Carpenter has recorded only three infield fly balls this year. Hoskins, by comparison, has 21. Joey Gallo, third-lowest in GB%, has 17. It doesn’t make a ton of sense to hit the ball with such a high launch angle without succumbing to the pop fly bug.

Let’s put it one last way. Carpenter has the 5th-highest average launch angle this year among batters with 250 balls in play. 1.7% of Carpenter’s fly balls become infield flyouts. The average of the other nine players with the ten highest launch angles? 9.7%. Figure these guys are hitting 200 fly balls a year, and that’s 16 balls turned from automatic outs into productive balls in play. Leaguewide wOBA on fly balls this year is .447, against .019 for popups. Just by avoiding popups, Carpenter adds something like 13 points of wOBA. To put that in context, that’s pretty close to the difference between hitting like Kolten Wong and hitting like Marcell Ozuna.

I’ve said it a lot of ways. I can’t think of any more good ones. Matt Carpenter is just a great hitter, and he’s a great hitter in the most visually appealing way I can imagine. Everything is on a rope. Popups and grounders, two of my least favorite things to see my team do, never happen. All I can do at this point is show you some pictures. These are 16fps, so at a thousand words a picture and say 50 frames a gif, here’s 150,000 words of pure baseball ecstacy: