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Matt Carpenter and the End of Optimism

I’m running out of optimistic things to say about Matt Carpenter, who is now among the worst hitters in the game. Is there any hope for him?

Cleveland Indians v St Louis Cardinals Photo by Dilip Vishwanat/Getty Images

I like to think I’m an optimistic person. Sure, analytics and projections are my things and those types of stats lend themselves to realism. The computers spit out raw numbers devoid of any feeling. I’m the one who surrounds them with 1300 words that I want to write and you want to read.

That’s where optimism comes in. In these articles, I try to provide the relevant numbers for you, while not shying away from the challenges and issues those numbers present for a player so fans can set reasonable expectations and better evaluate the roster. I don’t leave it there, though. I always try to provide some kind of reason for hope: “This is what the projections say (raw numbers), but here’s how the player could beat those (optimism).”

Maybe you like to read about doom and gloom but I don’t particularly enjoy writing it. I certainly don’t enjoy watching it.

When it comes to Matt Carpenter, I have to admit that I’m reaching the end of my optimism. It sure looks like any chance of Carpenter being a productive major league player is over. Oh sure, when the article is all said and done, I’ll leave you with some hope. But that hope will be far below what the club expects and needs.

It was just 2018 – 2 seasons ago – that Carpenter was among the better hitters in the game. That season, Carpenter had a .257/.374/.523 slash line, good for a .375 wOBA, and an (expected) xwOBA of .397. He had 5.0 fWAR (Fangraphs) that season. There were a few issues hiding within that production – from a worrisome slow start to increasing defensive concerns – but production is production. Carpenter produced. Exiting the season, there was reason to believe that Carpenter would continue to be an offensive asset, even if age began to sap his contributions.

That was the key to Carpenter’s extension. The Cardinals knew that Carpenter, then age 32, was going to decline. That’s what happens to players his age. They believed that decline would follow a soft curve over the course of multiple seasons. Matt Holliday is a good example of this. Holliday’s wOBA regressed steadily from a high of .397 when he arrived with the Cardinals to a low of .335 when he left at age 36.

Carpenter, who had elite skills that were projectible even into his 30s, should have followed a comparable track. If Carpenter had a .375 wOBA in ’18, maybe the club penciled him in for .360 in ’19. Then .345 in ’20. That’s still good production. Maybe in his final full season under contract in 2021, Carpenter would slip all the way to average: .330 as a 35-year-old.

Yes, yes, I know. 50th percentile computer projections will spit out lower numbers, but you can almost hear the optimism in the Cardinals’ decisions. This is Matt Carpenter! Considering his elite on-base skills, which tend to be somewhat resistant to age, and the coming DH, surely he can beat those and remain quite productive! (Optimism.)

Things did not go as hoped. Instead of a steady decline, Carpenter immediately collapsed. In 2019, Carpenter’s wOBA slipped from .375 to .315. His hard-hit %, xSLUG%, barrel%, and exit velocity plummeted. He hit less than half as many home runs and doubles. He lost almost 4 points of WAR, despite providing surprisingly solid defense at 3b.

Still, that was just one season. Maybe Carpenter worked too much on agility and not enough on strength training in his return to third base. With some added weight lifting and some focused cage work, Carpenter could get back on track. Sure, we can’t expect 2018 from him again, but isn’t that .345 wOBA for 2020 still a possibility? Surely it is! (Optimism!)

Instead, Carpenter collapsed. Again.

In some ways, Carpenter’s offseason training approach is working. His renewed strength training has given him a little extra exit velocity and some more hard hit balls. That, though, has come with a whole new set of insurmountable issues.

Here’s the emotionless raw data:

K% - down 3% and now at almost 30%
xwOBACON (expected wOBA on contact) - .353, down .040 points from last year and .134 points from ’18.
Barrel % - 5.3 %, down 2% from ’19 and 8.4% from ’18.
Slug% - .278, down .117 points from ’19 and .245 points from ’18.
OPS – .623, down .103 points from ’19 and .274 points from ’18.

What about batted balls?

Line drive % - 21.1%, down from 26.7% in ’18 and career avg. of 25.5%
Fly ball % - 40.4% down from 46.9% in ’18 and 43.1% last season.
Ground ball % - 38.6% up from 31.6% last year and 26.4% in ’18.
HR/FB % - 8.7% down from 19.1% in ’18 and 11.5% career.

Pitch types and swing rates also paint a disturbing picture. Carpenter’s overall contact rate is down significantly. While his walk rate is up, his K rate is also up. That’s because he’s currently whiffing 36.6% of the time. This is a rare case where I believe an elevated walk rate is a bad sign. When viewed in light of his whiff%, it’s just further evidence that Carpenter just can’t get the bat on the ball.

Simply put, Carpenter is one of the least productive players in the game. Considering his current salary, the amount of time he is seeing the field, and the place the club hoped he would fit in the lineup, there is no way to put a positive spin on this.

Sorry to ruin your day, folks, but at 34 years of age – and turning 35 just after the end of the season – the Matt Holliday slow-and-steady decline model is gone. Carpenter fits too neatly into the dreaded “age-related collapse” category.

One day he’s good. The next day he’s done. The following graphs illustrate this collapse well.

Usually, injury plays a significant role in a great player suddenly falling into obscurity. That does not seem to be the case with Carpenter. He’s both healthy and bad and that’s the worst possible scenario.

I think that’s enough data. If you want further pain, peruse his Fangraphs and Baseball Savant pages to your heart’s content.

So, is that it? Is this the end of any optimism for Matt Carpenter?

Yes, I think that Carpenter is done being a productive player in the major leagues. However, I do think there’s a chance that Carpenter could provide something this season, if we can re-calibrate our expectations.

ZiPS projects that Carpenter will have a .224/.353/.396 line for the rest of the season, with a .324 wOBA. Is that good? No, that’s not very good at all.

However, I’ll admit that I would be downright giddy about a .324 wOBA from Matt Carpenter for the rest of the season. To put that in perspective, Tommy Edman is probably Carpenter’s primary competition at 3b. He’s currently sporting a .303 wOBA.

There is your ray of sunshine. Carpenter just has to rise to “pretty bad” levels and he’ll do enough to earn the playing time he’s receiving at 3rd and DH.

The club needs him to just get hot for a few weeks, which is why Shildt keeps getting him into the lineup.

Looking forward, the Cardinals have a mess on their hands. Carpenter is under contract for next season with an option for 2022 if he reaches 1100 plate appearances in ’20-’21. If those PA’s are prorated, he would need 753 PA’s combined for his option to vest. If that doesn’t happen, it becomes a team option with a $2M buyout.

So, Carpenter is under contract for 2020 and possibly 2021. Tommy Edman is under control for awhile. Nolan Gorman has been working out in with the Alternate Site squad all season, facing AA/AAA caliber arms. The young slugging third baseman was set to see AA and AAA this season anyway. If the club continues his previous timeline, he could be ready for some MLB action sometime next season. (Optimism!)

In other words, don’t expect an offseason upgrade at 3b. The frugal-minded Cardinals, who just lost a huge amount of revenue to COVID, are likely to throw Carpenter and Edman at third again next season while watching Gorman closely.

For now, we’ll save the offseason for the offseason. As the Cardinals enter the stretch run, let’s just hope that Carpenter can climb up to “pretty bad” levels of production. The club needs it.