The St. Louis Cardinals played their first Spring Training game on Sunday, and Mike Shildt’s first lineup looked very much like a possible regular season lineup. In this lineup, Matt Carpenter batted 2nd while playing as the DH (which will not be a role in the regular season). With Carpenter hitting 2nd, it seems that the Cardinals still have faith in him, or they are at least giving him the benefit of the doubt. Additionally, Carpenter has already said that he feels that he can compete for the starting job at second base. While it seems unlikely that he will win the job, it shows how Carpenter thinks he can still have success. Additionally, with Shildt’s aggressive placement of Carpenter in the Cardinals lineup on Sunday, it seems that the organization may also think that he can still have success.
However regardless of how the organization and Carpenter feel, should the Cardinals have faith in him any more? This is a question that will need to be answered, and will continue to be answered as the regular season approaches. However, after the 35-year-old’s last two seasons, it certainly appears that his best days are behind him.
Projections systems think he will be a near-average hitter, which would be an upgrade from 2020. ZIPS has Carpenter projected for 96 wRC+ while Steamer sees similar results from Carpenter this season (97 wRC+). These projections certainly are not great, but they are much better than his 2020 season, when he posted an 84 wRC+ and just 0.3 fWAR.
While it seems unlikely that Carpenter will regain his status as an above average hitter, it is certainly possible, albeit not likely, that he could approach a league average level of production at the plate.
Overall, Carpenter appears to have regressed in just about every area of his offensive game since posting a 140 wRC+ in 2018. However, there is still some cause for optimism, and it comes from Carpenter’s batted ball profile.
The left-handed hitter has typically been more successful against the shift than he has been against a traditional defense. The only year since 2016 that Carpenter produced a higher wOBA when not facing a shift was in 2018, when he posted a .412 wOBA against non-shifts and a still solid .368 wOBA against the shift. However, in every other year, Carpenter has fared better at the plate when he is shifted against. This includes 2019 (.315 wOBA against the shifts, .294 wOBA against non-shifts) and 2020 (.292 wOBA against shifts, .174 wOBA against non-shifts). However, team began shifting almost exclusively against Carpenter begining in 2018, and since then, his wOBA against the shift has dropped every year.
However, Carpenter’s overall production has also dropped every year since 2018. Thus, it is possible that the constant shifting has limited his production. However, since he still performed well against the shift in 2017 (when teams shifted against him 60.6% of the time) and in 2018, it seems more likely that age has simply caught up with Carpenter.
However, this does not mean that he cannot return to having success against the shift. In 2017 and 2018, when Carpenter had the most success against the shift since Statcast began tracking, Carpenter posted the two lowest groundball percentages of his career (26.9% in 2017, 26.4% in 2018). Additionally, Carpenter also pulled the ball between 47% and 48% of the time in those years. Thus, it is clear that Carpenter’s strategy was to hit the ball over the shift, instead of trying to hit the ball around the shift, and with his results in those years, it is pretty clear that his strategy worked.
However, after 2018, Carpenter began hitting the ball on the ground more while teams shifted against him in 88.5% of his plate appearances in 2019 and in 97% of his plate appearances in 2020. In 2019, Carpenter posted a grounball rate of 31.6%, while in 2020, he posted a groundball rate of 38.5% (his highest GB% since 2014). Additionally, Carpenter continued to pull the ball in the last two seasons (pull% of 46.4% in 2019, 55.4% in 2020).
It seems that Carpenter has recently fallen away from the strategy that had been so successful for him in previous years. Instead of hitting the ball over the shift, he is now hitting the ball into it. By pulling the ball on the ground, he is playing into the hands of the defense. He certainly has other problems as well, such as a declining exit velocity and an increasing strikeout rate, but he will need to adapt to the shift if he wants to have success at the plate again. This means, that he will need to go back to hitting the ball over the shift, or he will need to hit the ball around the shift and to the opposite field.
One of the problems with hitting the ball over the shift is that his exit velocity has declined, so now he may not be able to hit the ball over the outfielders as much. However, his average exit velocity of 88.2 miles per hour in 2020 was almost exactly league average, so it is likely still possible for him to have success with such a strategy. However, if he is going to continue hitting the ball on the ground, then he must use the opposite field more than he does. The problem with this strategy is that it will limit his power output as opposite field groundballs are almost exclusively singles.
However, if Carpenter can stop hitting balls into the shift, and can return to his strategy of hitting them over the shift (or hitting them around it), then he could see his offensive production increase in 2021. This would allow him to have a useful role as a bench bat and occasional starter who can be an important piece to the lineup.
It appears that the Cardinals are giving Carpenter the benefit of the doubt for now, and Shildt will likely continue having an optimistic view of the 35-year-old. However, unless he adapts to the shift, he will keep struggling at the plate, and he may find his playing time limited as a result.