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The Cardinals Have a Matt Carpenter Problem

One of the biggest issues for the Cardinal offense can be found right at the top of the lineup, where a former strength has become a weakness.

Miami Marlins v St Louis Cardinals Photo by Dilip Vishwanat/Getty Images

This is, without a doubt, the most frustrating baseball team to watch right now. For the past several years, actually, the Cardinals have been a frustrating, occasionally maddening club to follow, but each iteration has had its own special little irritant built in.

For most of this last little run of, um, not futility, but a sort of infuriating competence that infuriates due to missing out on glory by such narrow margins, the culprit or culprits have been easy to identify. On multiple occasions the Cardinal bullpen has cost the club a few extra games, just enough to push them out of a playoff spot. The defense and baserunning under the Mike Matheny regime were consistently an issue, seemingly due to a lack of attention to detail and a blanket refusal to understand preventing runs can be just as good as scoring most of the time. And, of course, there was the Case of the Missing Big Bat, which was both the least enjoyable Nancy Drew mystery ever published and an ongoing discussion point amongst the fanbase so prevalent it essentially became the real-world gas station parking lot version of a dank meme.

Through it all, though, there have been a few things the club could count on to help bolster their hopes, even when those hopes ultimately proved a bit too, um, hopeful. The starting rotation has been a bright spot most years. Yadier Molina has been perhaps baseball’s ultimate iron man over these past few seasons, given how unique his stranglehold on the most grueling position on the field has been. And even when times have been tough, virtually every year Cardinal fans can count on some young player to come up from the minors and offer some excitement at what could be, whether that’s a slugging young Paul DeJong finding his way at shortstop, Harrison Bader catching literally everything in center field, Daniel Ponce de Leon making his way back from an horrific injury, or Jordan Hicks throwing harder than anyone ever has. (Pour one out for Hicks’s UCL.)

Most of all, though, the constant for the Redbirds over the past several years has been the man standing at the top of the lineup. Since 2013, the season he established himself as not only a full-time player, but an offensive force, Matt Carpenter has been the guy leading off the game for the Cardinals day in and day out, setting the tone for the rest of the offense. And for the most part, Carpenter has done his job and then some. Despite not being cut from the traditional leadoff hitter cloth, a fact a certain segment of the fanbase will never, ever get over, apparently, the Galveston Grinder has been an astoundingly productive player at the top of the lineup.

It’s hard to really overstate just how good Carpenter has been compared to other leadoff hitters in his career. We can use sOPS+ to give us an idea; sOPS+ is a split tool that gives a player’s performance in a specific split relative to other players in the same situation. In this case, we’re looking at Matt Carpenter hitting in the leadoff spot, and sOPS+ is, like all + stats, formulated on a scale where 100 is average. Just like OPS+ or wRC+, 105 is 5% better than average, 95 is 5% worse.

So here, then, are Matt Carpenter’s numbers as a leadoff hitter from 2013 to 2018, as compared to all other hitters to bat number one.

2013 — 145

2014 — 111

2015 — 175

2016 — 138

2017 — 144

2018 — 143

That, ladies and gentlemen, is top-quality production. Now, admittedly, this compares Carpenter only to one population, that of primary leadoff hitters, and there is still even now some old-school thinking around the game that leads to suboptimal choices in manning that first spot in the lineup. Less so the past couple years, but it hasn’t been all that long since we were still seeing light-hitting middle infielders leading off games just because they were fast. Ergo, Matt Carpenter in this comparison is really being compared to some much lesser hitters, though that still doesn’t change the fact of just how brilliant he has been. His career wRC+ is 129, and from 2012 through ‘18 only once did he fail to break 120 in that stat.

Now, here’s the thing: Matt Carpenter will probably never really get the respect he deserves, at least on a mass scale. Part of that is the fact he’s such an unusual player; we’ve seen Joey Votto pretty regularly derided by the Cincinnati fanbase for not driving in enough runs, despite him being probably the best overall hitter in the National League for almost a decade. Players whose primary skill is amazing plate discipline simply don’t look that impressive much of the time. There is also, however, the fact that Matt Carpenter has been a fantastic leadoff hitter for a club often lacking middle of the order bats. He’s been a super utility player on a team full of ‘tweeners and positionless hitters. He has never been a good defender anywhere, really, has always been slow, and for most of his career was not a 30+ home run threat.

Most of all, Matt Carpenter has always been a very good player, but a limited one. He has usually fallen just short of greatness. Even more than that, he has been one of the faces of the Cardinal franchise during an era of close but no cigar teams, of heartbreaking playoff losses and single-game playoff misses. Most of all, Matt Carpenter has been the best player on a group of teams that needed a slightly better best player. The 2012-’15 era in which Carp emerged as a star will be remembered as both the Post-Pujols Era and a run of great teams which felt like it should have produced another title, but didn’t. The 2016-’18 era in which Carpenter was established as an offensive metronome at the top of the lineup will be remembered as the era in which every front office plan went awry, and the ambition often seemed about 15% too low to begin with. Matt Carpenter will go down with the Lankford/Gilkey/Jordan outfield of the early 90s as special players whose spot in franchise history is complicated by a more general malaise.

However, that’s all in the past. We have to talk about the present. And in the present, Matt Carpenter is finally the problem that a certain percentage of fans have seemingly always believed him to be.

It was a wild ride for Carp and the Cards in 2018. Through the end of April, Carpenter was hitting a dismal .155/.305/.274. That’s a .579 OPS, which is...not good. I’ll give you Carp’s September OPS as well: .558. (.170/.313/.245) If I gave you a random player’s OPS for the first and last months of a given season, and both were sub-.600, in most case you would probably assume said player had a bad year, right? Well, you would usually be right, I imagine, but in the case of Matt Carpenter 2018, you would be dead wrong, because these are Carp’s OPSes for the four months in between April and September: .961, 1.040, 1.222, .984. It’s funny how there’s still this perception that Carp had a bad 2018 with only a brief hot streak to lift his numbers. His ‘hot streak’ was four months long, and he was the best hitter in the NL over that whole period.

Fast forward to 2019, and at the end of April we find Carpenter hitting .202/.328/.356. That’s not good, but it’s not as dire as his April number of a year before, being just sort of regular bad. A .684 OPS is nothing to write home about, but plenty of hitters have months where things just don’t go their way. You’re still talking about an OPS over 100 points better than his 2018 split, and Carp is usually a bit of a slow starter anyway.

Here’s the problem: Carp hasn’t really gotten any better this year. He certainly hasn’t turned into a league MVP-level hitter in May and June. He improved to a .762 OPS in May, but has dropped back down in June to just a .674. That’s the bad news. Now let’s get to the worse news.

The really worrisome thing is that there’s no one thing we can pinpoint as to why Carp has performed so much worse this season than in previous years. Yes, the absolute number one culprit is a seeming total evaporation of his power, as his isolated slugging percentage this year is almost 100 points lower than in 2018 (.266 vs .167), but this isn’t a player who is doing everything else the same with just one glaring issue. Matt Carpenter has just gotten a little bit worse in basically every facet of hitting, and the overall result is a real problem.

In 2018, Carp’s walk rate was 15.1%, and his strikeout rate was 23.3%. This season his BB% is 13.6% and his K% is 24.7%. Neither of those are huge jumps, but they are both worse. Looking at his more granular plate discipline numbers, we find a slightly odd change. Carp is swinging more often at pitches in the zone this year; his z-Swing% is up to 59.1%, compared to 54.7% in 2018. He’s making slightly less contact on those pitches as well, though not so much that it would seem to make much of a difference. And really, swinging at strikes is generally a fine thing to do. What’s interesting is when we look at Carpenter’s numbers on pitches outside the zone.

In 2018, Carpenter’s O-Swing% was 20.5%. That was up somewhat from his ultra-patient 2017, but right within the range where he has been his whole career. In 2019 he’s sitting at 21.1%, which again is right around where he has been for his career. Here’s the interesting thing: in 2018, Carp’s O-Contact% was just 52%, which was the lowest number of his career. This season he’s making contact on swings outside the zone 61.8% of the time, which is nearly a 20% jump over last year. Now, that 61.8% number is actually closer to Carp’s O-Contact percentages for most of his career, but for much of his career we were also talking about a slightly different sort of hitter. The 2018 version of Matt Carpenter did his damage by swinging almost exclusively at strikes, and making very little contact outside the zone when he did go fishing. He crushed balls inside the zone and did not put balls outside the zone in play very often at all. This season he’s putting far more of those balls into play, and his results have suffered.

In 2018, Carp’s HR/FB% was 19.1%; this season, even as most of the league has seen fly balls become more dangerous, and leave the park at a higher clip than ever before, Carpenter has seen his HR/FB% drop to 11.2%. He’s hitting fly balls at approximately the same clip as last season, but they are finding fielder’s mitts rather than the bleachers.

To be fair, there is some bad luck baked in to Carpenter’s results this year, but it doesn’t look like a whole lot of it. His actual batting average is .218, while his expected batting average is .226. His actual slugging percentage is .380; his xSLG is .411. Yes, there is some poor fortune going on here, but even if we adjust Carp’s numbers up to his expected values, we’re only talking about a .725-.750 OPS hitter, rather than the .850-.900 OPS guy he has consistently been throughout his career.

Before the season, Dan Szymborski’s ZiPS system projected Carpenter for an .855 OPS this season. That number is down to a rest of season .814 OPS, so even as ZiPS sees Carp coming back from where he is right now, that number has moved down quite a bit already. Carp’s percentage of barreled balls has dropped from 13.7% in 2018 to 8.2% this year. His average exit velocity has dropped by almost two miles per hour, from 89.6 to 87.7. His hard hit percentage has dropped from 44.7% to 35.1%.

Carpenter’s average exit velocity on fly balls and line drives is tied for 216th in baseball this year. His hard hit% is 234th, right above noted slugger Kyle Farmer and just below noted slugger of ten years ago Brian McCann.

Before this season, the Cardinals signed Matt Carpenter to an extension that covered 2019 and 2020, with a vesting option for 2021. There was some hew and cry at the time about not extending players on the wrong side of 30, but the time line really made too much sense to be all that upset about. The Cards have no other legitimate starting third base options right now, and don’t look to have any in the immediate future. Longer term, Nolan Gorman was preparing to debut in full season ball at just 18 years old, and if thing go right for him the Redbirds would probably be looking at him breaking in to the big leagues around, say, midseason of 2021. That’s an optimistic timetable, to be sure, but not crazily so. Elehuris Montero was making waves as well, and should be ready a little sooner than Gorman. There was an intriguing group of third base prospects beginning to coalesce in the low minors this past offseason, but nothing that looked like a pressing matter over the next two seasons. Extending Carpenter potentially into 2021 made a ton of sense as a bridge to hopefully the next generation, and with the universal DH potentially on the way soon Carp wouldn’t even have to exclusively play the field for his entire tenure.

Now, just a few months later, Matt Carpenter is 33 years old, is striking out more, walking less, hitting fewer balls hard, and is posting a 91 wRC+ while still leading off for a club whose offense sputters far too often. He’s on pace for roughly a one WAR season. Maybe he still turns it around. After all, we’ve seen it before. But for now, this is no longer the Matt Carpenter we’ve gotten used to seeing at the top of the Cards’ lineup over the past half decade plus. This is a Matt Carpenter who is third on the club in plate appearances but is a below league average hitter. This is a Matt Carpenter no longer propping up the lineup with his incredible on-base skills, allowing the middle of the order to flourish in terms of run production even without certifiably elite talent.

This Matt Carpenter is a problem.