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Early Pitch Tracking Concerns: Carpenter & Bader

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Matt Carpenter and Harrison Bader both saw significant shifts in pitch types in 2019 that cut into their production. Have those trends continued in 2020? Yes and more.

MLB: JUL 24 Pirates at Cardinals

Greetings from the middle of Table Rock Lake!

We’re off on a long-overdue family visit/vacation and while I would normally tap out of my Thursday column so I could spend the day on the water, there’s just too much interesting material to cover in week one of the baseball season. This article will be short, to the point, and will give us some trends to keep our eye on as this short season progresses.

Over the winter we took a deep dive into the evolving types of pitches that Cardinals batters faced in 2019. There we found some disturbing trends, particularly related to Matt Carpenter and Harrison Bader, the quantity of breaking and offspeed pitches these two hitters faced, and how they performed against them.

Let’s take a look at both hitters, their current pitch tracking trends, and draw some too-early conclusions about what these two can expect for the rest of the season.

MLB: St. Louis Cardinals at Minnesota Twins Jordan Johnson-USA TODAY Sports

Matt Carpenter

2019 Pitch Tracking Stats
Fastball: 57.6%, .383 wOBA
Breaking: 24.7%, .247 wOBA
Offspeed: 17.7%, .160 wOBA

2020 Pitch Tracking Stats (through 7/28)
Fastball: 34.3%, .223 wOBA
Breaking: 34.3%, .218 wOBA
Offspeed: 31.4%, .381 wOBA

While I believe that Carpenter’s well-documented offensive struggles in 2019 were tied as much to a lack of strength as to shifting and pitch types, Carpenter did see a sharp decrease in his fastball percentage last year compared to the rest of his career. In each season of his career pre-2019, Carpenter saw at least 64.5% fastballs. He crushed those pitches, producing a .400+ wOBA on the hard stuff from ’15-’18.

Last year, Carpenter’s fastball percentage fell by 7%. His production on those pitches also fell. Seeing fewer fastballs cut into his overall production numbers, but it was the lost 35+ points of wOBA against fastballs that changed a cut in production into an offensive collapse.

Simply performing better against fastballs should lead to better production in 2020, even if Carpenter continues to see breaking and offspeed pitches at a higher than expected rate. This offseason Carpenter set out to improve his strength, which he sacrificed heading into 2019 to gain defensive agility, and re-discover some of his up-the-middle and opposite-field drive. Marginal improvements in both categories would go along way to making Carpenter a useful player again, even if he never regains his 4+ WAR form.

The early pitch tracking returns and results, however, are not encouraging. Improved performance against fastballs won’t matter at all if he never sees them. So far, Carpenter is seeing almost twice as breaking and offspeed pitches as fastballs. He is currently seeing 65.7% breaking + offspeed pitches compared to just 34.3% fastballs. His production is poor against both fastballs and breaking balls.

It’s still very early. His extreme ratio likely will not continue. But how much will it change? Carpenter would be in real trouble if his fastball rate drops by another 7% this season and falls under 50%.

MLB: St. Louis Cardinals-Workouts Jeff Curry-USA TODAY Sports

Harrison Bader

2019 Pitch Tracking Stats
Fastball: 52%, .395 wOBA
Breaking: 37.2%, .163 wOBA
Offspeed: 10.8%, .199 wOBA

2020 Pitch Tracking Stats (through 7/28)
Fastball: 37.0%, .484 wOBA
Breaking: 58.7%, .103 wOBA
Offspeed: 4.3% (only 2 pitches, no stats)

Do you think the league is onto Bader’s offensive weakness? Bader is seeing 58.7% breaking pitches this season. That’s a ridiculously high trend. It’s so high that I’m not even sure what to make of it.

Yes, it’s likely to decrease just because the vast majority of pitchers don’t throw breaking pitches at that rate. But, Bader has struggled so much against breaking stuff — .163 wOBA in ’19 and .103 in ’20 – that I can’t help but believe that the extreme trends are no accident. Could Bader end up seeing a higher percentage of breaking pitches than fastballs this season? I’m starting to believe it’s possible.

That brings me to an interesting moment in Tuesday night’s contest against the Twins. In the 9th, with the Cardinals down, Shildt made the decision not to pinch hit for Bader against slider-expert Sergio Romo. Cardinals Twitter, which is particularly volatile in this early season, imploded and Bader, predictably, struck out.

Jeff Jones of the Belleville News-Democrat asked Shildt about the plate appearance after the game.

What Shildt meant is not entirely clear. He could be implying that the club wanted to see Bader against a tough right-hander and that, with a righty-heavy bench, the Cards would not gain a clear advantage by using someone else. I don’t think that’s the whole story, though. I think Shildt is also saying that they want to get a good look at Bader’s swing – “it” – against a pitcher who pretty much only throws breaking pitches. I’m guessing here, but that PA was a multi-faceted opportunity – in a losing effort – to see just how Bader would handle a righty with extreme breaking ball splits.

One plate appearance and one week of games is not a fair indication of Bader’s progress (or Carpenter’s). I also wonder how much time the young defender has. Carpenter’s leash is probably as long as the short season. In Bader’s case, Lane Thomas has already earned a start in center over the weekend, and star prospect Dylan Carlson is chomping at Bader’s heels. The Cardinals can gain a season of service time from him just by waiting until the weekend to call him up. If Bader can’t get going, and if his ridiculous percentage of non-fastballs continues, then younger, more complete batters are right there waiting.

Back to the water. As always, thanks for reading and keep charting those pitches!