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What was different for Matt Carpenter at the plate in 2014?

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Matt Carpenter maintained success on balls hit to center and right in 2014 but saw a significant drop in production on balls hit the other way. In 2015, will he be able to return to his 2013 performance on balls hit to left?

Robert Deutsch-USA TODAY Sports

It is no secret that 2013 was a breakout season (146 wRC+) at the plate for St. Louis Cardinals then second baseman Matt Carpenter, and he has a 4th-place finish in National League MVP voting and a long-term contract extension to show for it. While he was still one of the team's better hitters, Carpenter came back to reality (117 wRC+) at the plate in 2014. His 117 wRC+ ranked eighth among MLB third basemen. While being eighth best at his respective position is not necessarily a bad thing, his 146 wRC+ in 2013 was the 13th best in all of baseball, regardless of position, so that helps put his performance in perspective.

So, what was different? Did Carpenter make less overall contact in 2014? Did he make weaker contact (i.e. fewer line drives)? Was he pitched to differently? If he was indeed pitched to differently, did he detrimentally expand his strike zone? Well, while I was sifting through Carpenter's Fangraphs page, his results based on outfield hit location stood out in particular. Before digging into that, though, let's take a look at his overall statistics from the last two seasons:

Year PA BB% K% AVG OBP SLG wRC+ Swing% O-Swing% Contact% LD%
2013 717 10.0% 13.7% .318 .392 .481 146 37.1% 22.8% 88.9% 27.3%
2014 709 13.4% 15.7% .272 .375 .375 117 32.8% 17.4% 89.9% 23.8%

While he walked more (a good thing), he struck out more as well (not a good thing). Then, in the following four columns, there's the already-addressed drop in hitting performance. Next, you'll see that, overall, Carpenter swung the bat less in 2014—a 4.3% drop from 2013. That being said, a good portion of his lower swing rate could be due to the fact that he laid off more pitches out of the strike zone, as shown by his 5.4% drop in O-Swing%. His team-leading contact percentage somehow climbed yet another percentage point, but this contact was less fruitful as he experienced a 3.5% decline in line drives.

On balls hit to right field

Year PA AVG OBP SLG ISO wRC+
2013 197 .404 .400 .725 .321 214
2014 158 .351 .344 .565 .214 153

While we do see a pretty significant drop-off across the board in 2014, no one could have reasonably expected Carpenter to keep up a Barry Bonds-ian pace on balls hit to right field for an extended period of time. And that should not be taken as a knock against Carpenter. Regardless, there should be no real complaints about an ISO of .214 and a wRC+ of 153 coming from the lead-off spot.

On balls hit to center field

Year PA AVG OBP SLG ISO wRC+
2013 201 .387 .383 .523 .136 153
2014 215 .387 .383 .505 .118 151

Nope, that is not a typo. With a pretty healthy (and similar) sample size, Carpenter had an identical batting average and on-base percentage on balls hit to center field in 2013 and 2014. He hit for less power, but given the state of the Cardinals offense, complaining about a slugging percentage over .500 seems counterproductive.

On balls hit to left field

Year PA AVG OBP SLG ISO wRC+
2013 140 .324 .317 .419 .096 101
2014 122 .220 .213 .246 .025 22

As Ben stated ever so eloquently when I shared this information with him via text message last night, "Quite the falloff." Quite the falloff, indeed. Normally, I would try to ignore something like this or chalk it up as being "unlucky," but given that Carpenter had a .100+ drop in each component of his slash line, I felt it needed to be addressed to see if there was an inherent issue. While one would not necessarily expect a lot of power the other way (for players not named Jim Edmonds, who had a career .455 ISO on balls hit to LF), an ISO of .025 is alarming. He had only three extra base hits (all doubles) to left field in all of 2014, as compared to 13 doubles in 2013.

Pitch location

Ben followed by asking if there was a "difference in how pitchers pitched to [Carpenter]?" Pitchers attacked Carpenter outside 52.93% of the time during the 2013 season, and this increased to 61.22% in 2014 (If you chose to click on either of the BrooksBaseball graphs, I define "outside" as the left two columns). To answer Ben's question, yes, it appears pitchers had an increased focus of staying outside when facing Carpenter.

As you can see from the batting average graph below, Carpenter had some trouble on outside pitches in 2014, something he did not experience in 2013:

Carpenter2014

An area of particular concern is the zone boxed in yellow because that seems like an ideal pitch location for Carpenter to drive one of those patented doubles into the left-center field gap. Instead, it was a zone that led to a high number of ground balls (30.23%), generally weak fly balls (44.19%), and an atypically high percentage of whiffs per swing (13.59%). His line drive percentage on outside pitches also dipped in 2014—to 27.2% from 31.6% in 2013.

Bottom line

While it is unfair to expect Carpenter to return to his 2013 near-MVP form, there is nothing that suggests he cannot get closer to that type of production in 2015. While Matt Holliday wants Carpenter to be more aggressive with his approach, his performance on balls hit the other way will be something to keep a close eye on, especially if pitchers continue to pound the outside corner against him. Ideally, line drives splitting the left- and center-fielder will be ever present this season—starting the evening of April 5th at Wrigley Field against Jon Lester and the Chicago Cubs.

Credit to Fangraphs and Brooks Baseball for the data used in this post.