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Comparing Carpenter’s 2019 to last year’s start

Carpenter started slowly last year, but is this year different?

MLB: St. Louis Cardinals at Atlanta Braves Jason Getz-USA TODAY Sports

At some point, the Cardinals are going to break the trend they’ve set for themselves the past two weeks. It’s simply not sustainable to blow out a team and then lose the next 2-3 games in a close fashion. In the meantime, it’s just about the most frustrating thing as a fan. Sure, being genuinely bad is annoying, but at least it’s deserved. To outscore opponents but lose the series means you just have poor sequencing.

Moving to today’s topic, I wanted to compare Matt Carpenter’s slow start this year with Matt Carpenter’s slow start last year. Last year today, on May 15, was what I consider the official end of Carpenter’s slump. In sort of a hopeful wish that he can duplicate last year, I’m curious how much better or worse he looks right now, in a similar timeframe. It’s not perfect. Carpenter at this time last year had just 140 PAs, while Carpenter now has 186. The easy answer to my question is that yes, Carpenter looks considerably better than last year at this time.

2018 (March 29-May 15): .140/.286/.272, 16.4 BB%, 28.6 K%, .132 ISO, .178 BABIP, 59 wRC+

2019: .199/.323/.333, 15.1 BB%, 23.1 K%, .135 ISO, .245 BABIP, 84 wRC+

So that’s encouraging. If you give both players the same BABIP, 2019 is still the better player. Things do change if you want to go to Carpenter’s first 186 PAs last year, though. I don’t know why Carpenter has so many more plate appearances compared to last year - presumably, the fact that he hasn’t been a complete black hole helps. A .323 OBP isn’t great, but it’s also probably not a whole lot lower than the MLB average at the leadoff spot.

2018 (March 29-May 26): .206/.321/.387, 14.1 BB%, 26.1 K%, .181 ISO, .260 BABIP, 94 wRC+

2019: .199/.323/.333, 15.1 BB%, 23.1 K%, .135 ISO, .245 BABIP, 84 wRC+

Pretty close actually. If you give them equal BABIPs, 2018 will take the slight lead, but it’s pretty negligible. I kind of forget that Carpenter started last year’s hot streak with BABIP and doubles. Because that is a huge jump in BABIP from just 10 games. Obviously, he had more power, but the K/BB ratio is quite a bit worse.

I’ll still operate under the hopeful assumption that Carpenter will turn it around tomorrow (or today!) because baseball totally works like that and compare his batted ball distribution at this time last year to this year. I’ll leave in the relevant numbers and not go through every batted ball.

2018 (March 29-May 15): 25.3 LD%, 45.3 FB%, 39.5 Hard%, 52.6 Medium%, 43.4 Pull%

2019 (Not including yesterday), 24.3 LD%, 50.5 FB%, 41.6 Hard%, 51.3 Medium%, 44.2 Pull%

Clearly Carpenter has been scuffling the past week, but again, nothing too alarming here. Less line drives, more flyballs - which is actually a good thing for Carpenter. More hard hit balls, more balls pulled. Yes, we can want him to hit it the other way, but this is the hitter who he is and trying to force him to become a hitter who hits the ball to all fields would make him a worse hitter. Full stop. Also for whatever it’s worth, Carpenter’s HR/FB% last year was 8.8% at the time, and it’s 7.1% right now (lower now, since he flied out last night).

Things don’t look as rosy when you look at Carpenter’s first 186 PAs last year. Carpenter’s BABIP jumped in 10 games for a reason. His season LD% jumped all the way to 27.9% at the expense of groundballs, not flyballs. He pulled the ball more, and he hit the ball hard more. Last year Carpenter’s first 186 PAs appear to be an indisputably better hitter.

Lastly, I want to look at his swing tendencies. Carpenter at times can be too patient of a hitter, in that he’ll allow hittable balls at the beginning of counts and then later pay for it when the pitcher throws tough pitches that aren’t as hittable. Anecdotally, I don’t think that’s been his issue, but let’s see if the numbers bear that out.

2018 (March 29- May 15) - 20.7 O-Swing%, 50.2 Z-Swing%, 53.3 O-Contact%, 81.6 Z-Contact%, 9.5 SwStr%

2019: 19.8 O-Swing%, 65.8 Z-Swing%, 57.3 O-Contact%, 86 Z-Contact%, 8.8 SwStrk%

WELL, it’s really hard to argue with this one. He’s swinging at less balls outside of the strike zone, swinging at a TON more balls inside the strike zone, and making contact on more balls for both zones. He’s swinging and missing less too. I have to say, his approach looks sound. It looks better than last year in fact, which again, does make a certain amount of sense given he is playing better than he was on May 15. But still, for people who complain Carpenter allows too many hittable pitches (which I admittedly just did above), that’s not really a valid criticism this year.

If you’re wondering how much 10 games changes those numbers, it (obviously) changes the contact% but his approach didn’t actually change much. No change in O-Swing%, and a very slight uptick in Z-Swing%. He just made contact more. Carpenter’s final season numbers last year saw him swing at 57.7% of pitches in the zone. This year, it’s 65.8%. I guess you could argue his problem is he’s swinging too much at pitches in the zone, buuuuut that seems unlikely.

On the downside, there is a stat called xWOBA, which is essentially an estimation of what your wOBA should look like given how you hit the ball and where you hit the ball. Last year at this time, Carpenter’s xWOBA was .350. He was extremely unlucky, specifically in April. I’m not personally much of a fan of this stat, BUT in the interest of full disclosure, I have to share this information. Carpenter’s xWOBA, not including yesterday’s game, is only .327. It’s still quite a bit better than his actual wOBA of .297 though. It is also worth pointing out that Carpenter’s career xWOBA is .385 compared to his career wOBA of .366. So that’s less fun.

I realize comparing Carpenter to last year’s slump is not perhaps the standard I should be looking at, but while discouraged by his start, I see no reason to believe Carpenter is a much different hitter. I expect him to get going soon and it’s going to take much less of a hot streak for him to become a well above average hitter than it did last year, though I will not object if he wants to go on a similar hot streak anyway.