A little over a week ago, Matt Carpenter thrilled St. Louis Cardinals fans at Busch Stadium first by bunting for a hit, then lofting a flyball off of the foul pole for a homerun against Stephen Strasburg the next day. It earned him an emotional standing ovation from fans cognizant of both his long-term contributions to the franchise and his 2021 (and 2019 and 2020) struggles. A narrative was starting to grow. Matt Carpenter was finally hitting more like himself this season, hitting the ball hard, but consarnit... he just couldn’t find a hole. He simply needed more karma eggs in his karma basket for his hard work to pay off. That narrative was everywhere, including mentioned by yours truly last Friday. Here’s what I wrote at the time:
I have yet to mention Matt Carpenter because he’s the biggest mystery of all. His true hard hit percentile is 83rd- upper quartile. His barrels/PA percentile is 96th(!). Even if we want to revert to classic HH%, he’s 98th (!) percentile. Half of his plate appearances this season have ended either in a walk or a hard hit ball, which is 24th best in the league. My goodness, he’s doing all of the right things. But his wRC+ is 35, propped up by four walks, a bunt single, and one extra base hit. There’s probably a much larger article to be written here about Carpenter alone. My instinct is that, like Goldschmidt, he should explode soon if he can repeat this process. But I’m not convinced there isn’t something else going on that explains his underperformance.
It’s that last part I want to talk about because I’ve had a little more time to dig into it, along with a great conversation via Twitter DM with Birds on the Black contributor Zach Gifford. First, let’s establish some context. All hard hit balls are not created equally. Saying that a batted ball event is a hard hit ball simply means it has an exit velocity of 95 or more. I’ve collected the league-wide wOBA for hard hit balls, from 2019 to 2021, using several categories: exit velocity buckets (95-97 EV, 97-99, 99-101, etc.), launch angle buckets (-10 to -8, -8 to -6, -6 to -4, etc.), and each of those based on spray direction (pull, straightaway, opposite field).
Here’s how that looks. First, here’s the exit velocity graph. I’ve placed Carpenter’s hard hits on the graph, as well- each bubble is a batted ball, and the color coordinates with the spray direction.
There are 13 hard hit balls here for Carpenter through Tuesday’s games. We can see that some of these had a lower probability of being productive purely on the basis of the combination of spray direction and exit velocity. Those three 97-99 mph EV balls that he hit straightaway, for instance, jump out. The fact that seven of his 13 hard hit balls have gone straightaway is another tipoff that something’s up here, though it doesn’t tell the whole story. In the very least, we can see two things. First, unless you’re smashing the ball at 111+ EV, hitting it straight away will yield a worse outcome than anywhere else. And second, more than half of Matt Carpenter’s hard hit balls are of that variety. If you want to know why his actual wOBA lags so far behind his xwOBA, that’s a good start.
Now let’s add in the launch angle graph:
It’s a little more complicated here, but we can see that four of his batted balls- all three over 42° and the straightaway knock between 38 and 40°- were dead on arrival, almost no chance of being productive. Had he pulled them, it might have been a different story, but he didn’t do that.
This helps explain some of the reason Carpenter’s hitting the ball hard (95+ EV) without the results, but not all of it. Let’s look at one more piece of this puzzle- the distance on these batted balls. We’ll exclude the two grounders out of his 13 hard hit balls, which means we’re omitting his seeing eye single through the shift from Monday night. Nobody cares how far a groundball travels. What you’ll see here is each hard hit ball from Carpenter with the EV, LA, and distance traveled, along with the league average for batted balls in the same bucket and direction from 2019-2021.
Matt Carpenter, Hard Hit Balls
It’s worth noting that the reached-on-error at-bat was the half flare/half line drive that glanced off of Starlin Castro’s glove. Maybe it shouldn’t have been included here. I digress. On average, his straightaway flyballs and line drives (omitting the Castro gaffe) are landing 12 feet shorter than similar contact by the league average player. Here’s his spray chart on hard hit balls:
Do you think an extra 12 feet would have come in handy here?
Side note- I wrote all of this before Wednesday’s game in DC. His 8th inning at-bat with the bases loaded yielded another hard hit ball- 101 mph EV, 26° launch angle, this one pulled. That’s exactly what you would want a hitter to do in a spot like that. After all, the average hitter from 2019-2021 with a 100-102 EV and 26° LA hits the ball 385 feet. Matt Carpenter hit it 325 feet right into Andrew Stevenson’s glove to end the threat. Needless to say, that would have adjusted the 12 foot shorter than average figure quoted above.
You get the point. Carpenter’s doing all of the right things- he’s hitting the ball hard, he’s hitting it at optimal launch angles, he’s swinging at the right pitches and taking his walks. Using true hard hit percentage and walks, 42.5% of his plate appearances are ending in a hard hit or a walk, which is upper quartile in baseball. The problem here is that Matt Carpenter is hitting a lot of flyballs straightaway, to the deepest parts of ballparks. For a hitter to make that work, they have to absolutely crush the ball to get it past the fence, or at least over the outfielder’s head. While Carpenter’s EV has been respectable, it’s not of the “smash a bunch of homeruns to dead center” variety.
Ideally, he could start turning on some of these, blasting his hardest contact to the pull side. Hit it to the skinnier part of the ballpark and those 360 foot flyballs set off the Busch Stadium fireworks. It’s no surprise that his lone dinger this year boinked off of the foul pole in right field and earned him a cathartic standing ovation. Unfortunately, it’s fair to ask at this point whether or not he has the bat speed to do that. If he did, I’d guess he wouldn’t be lagging behind the league in distance on these flyballs. Even if he can still generate the bat speed, what sort of adjustment would he have to make to feast on the pull side and what would be the ramifications?
The narrative around Carpenter being a victim of bad luck doesn’t totally stand up to scrutiny. I understand why it exists- he is absolutely doing a lot of the right things at the plate, and he has been victimized a little by bad luck. Unfortunately, it doesn’t explain away all of his decline, and it’s not a simple matter of waiting for hard hit balls to start falling. Better approach or not, if he keeps doing what he’s doing, he’s going to leave a lot of production in the outfield desert.