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We all probably overreacted to Carpenter’s slow start

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Matt Carpenter looked bad to start the year. Now he doesn’t.

St Louis Cardinals v Chicago Cubs Photo by Jonathan Daniel/Getty Images

Four days ago, our very own J.P. Hill wrote an article where he expressed an inability to write optimistic things about Matt Carpenter. He was far from alone. In fact, he was basically saying what everyone was thinking, myself included. It was hard to see a future where Matt Carpenter was even mediocre at baseball, much less good. And now, well, now I must ask Jason to write a similar article about every struggling Cardinal player until the trick stops working.

The main source of pessimism is that Matt Carpenter just looked pretty helpless at the plate. On September 7th, Carpenter had reached a low point of the season, batting .171/.330/.273 for a 76 wRC+ and it actually cost him playing time. He played just one of the doubleheaders on Tuesday and just one of them on Thursday. Which doesn’t sound like losing playing time I suppose, but he played both games of a doubleheader for most of this season actually.

Since that low point of the season, Matt Carpenter is batting .500/.611/.857. Eighteen total plate appearances since then have raised his season wRC+ from 76 to 106. And I have to say, if 18 plate appearances can make that much of a difference, the sample is probably not large enough to give up on a player with a history of success. Prior to today and as of this writing, his rest of season wRC+ is 107 wRC+, and I’m sure it’s higher now, probably pretty close to his preseason wRC+ of 111. He’ll see a slight rise in ISO and slight rise in BABIP.

What has changed? Well, one very obvious change to anybody paying attention is that Matt Carpenter is suddenly able to catch up to high fastballs now. Why was he not able to before? I do not know. What has changed in the meantime? Who knows? The important thing is that things have changed. Let’s compare before and after. There’s no shortage of examples of Carpenter being unable to hit high fastballs, but here are just five samplings, using MLB’s new Film Room.

That’s a good mix of fastballs there. From 88 mph all the way to 96 mph, it didn’t really matter what the speed was, Matt Carpenter was not catching up to any of them. And for some reason, he couldn’t resist swinging at them either, which presented a pretty big problem. That for some reason may have been answered in the past few days when he did most of his damage against high fastballs.

The book on Matt Carpenter was out: throw him high fastballs. These pitchers were doing the right thing, it’s just that by the time they faced him, he could hit that pitch now. Also how cool is Film Room, because man did it make my job easier.

And while I’m here, and what was going to actually be the topic of my post before Carpenter decided to start hitting again: stop fretting about that vesting option. I’m not saying that because Carpenter in 2022 is a good idea, I’m saying that because it’s a lot of worrying over what will probably be nothing. Either Carpenter is good in 2021 and he reaches that option or he’s not and he won’t.

For example, let’s say Carpenter gets plate appearances at the same rate he has, which means he’ll finish the year with 184 plate appearances. I’m not entirely sure if we’re pro-rating his plate appearances for 2020 with a 60 game schedule or what may very well only be 58 games if the Cardinals only play 58 games. Let’s assume 58 games. He’d be on pace for 514 plate appearances in a full season this year.

For his vesting option to vest, he needs at least 1,100 plate appearances in 2021, which means he’d need 586 plate appearances next season. Which is just as well anyway because he needs 550 minimum next year. Carpenter has appeared in 36 of the 40 games the Cards have played, but three of those appearances were of the pinch-hit variety. Carpenter is not reaching 586 plate appearances if he’s no good anymore. And if he’s good enough to reach 586 plate appearances, he’s probably good enough to bring back for 2022 as well. That’s why, as ill-conceived as the extension appears to be, it’s got a team friendly option.

As far as Statcast is concerned, Carpenter’s numbers, believe it or not, do cause much concern there either. Including yesterday’s game, Carpenter’s average exit velocity for the season is 89.2 mph. Yesterday, he hit balls at a speed of 104.2 mph, 101.3 mph, and 95.5 mph, which raised his season average quite a bit. Carpenter’s career average exit velocity is 89.7 mph, so not that far off and in fact, he raised it from 88.7 to 89.2 from one game, so he could be quite literally one game away from being at his career average.

So why did he look so bad in his first 100 or so plate appearances? I said it in a post about Harrison Bader earlier this year, but the fact is that hitters can look genuinely bad for a decent stretch of plate appearances without it necessarily indicating that’s who they are now. Granted, Bader is both younger and had about 70 less plate appearances, but the point is basically the same. Hitters can struggle visibly while being capable of turning it around. Which sounds obvious, but most fans probably will watch 100 PAs of any random player, and if they’re bad, they assume that’s what he is now. This is important to keep in mind for Dylan Carlson by the way.

So what can we expect from Matt Carpenter? My default assumption is now just his preseason projection at this point (111 wRC+). He’s close to that already, albeit in a different way than expected. If his recent streak is any indication, expect his ISO to rise and probably for his BB% to fall. Which would be a positive development, because that’s not a one-to-one transfer. Power is more valuable than walks.

I’m also personally hoping for him to strike out less. It’s not because I’m against strikeouts - although I guess I’m not for them, I just understand it’s part of baseball. But the good version of Matt Carpenter probably has a lower than 25 K%, which is supported by, well, his entire career, seeing as the only time he was a below average hitter was when he had a 25+ K%. He may have too much of a head start at this point, but I think it bodes well for next year if he strikes out few enough times the rest of the year to fall under than 25% mark.

Carpenter has been a streaky hitter the last few years, and let’s just hope we’re hitting a hot streak for the rest of the season and playoffs, which would mean nothing but good things for the Cardinals.