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Matt Carpenter’s hidden improvements

Reason to believe that Matt Carpenter might break out.

St Louis Cardinals v Atlanta Braves Photo by Mike Zarrilli/Getty Images

Matt Carpenter isn’t having the greatest season so far. He holds a 125 wRC+, meaning he’s been 25% above-average. Well, that’s as of Sunday, before the Cards’ final game against the Rockies. It’ll be Tuesday by the time you read this, and he may be better or worse than that by then. I won’t/didn’t have time to write this on Sunday though, so we’re working with not quite the most updated information.

Anyway though, Carpenter has a 125 wRC+. That’s real good, and not worth complaining about. It’s easy to hope for a little more than that at this point. However, he’s been higher than that in three of the last four seasons, and as Joe pointed out in the offseason, he was running a 162 wRC+ for the first three months of the year - a MVP level rate - before suffering an oblique injury.

Now that we’re about a third of the way through the season, let’s take a look at what’s going on with Carpenter in 2017. First, we’ll look at Carpenter’s radial chart, courtesy of the Statcast data hosted at

The half-disk above represents all batted balls by launch angle and exit velocity. It is then broke up into six regions, representing the six qualities of contact. Each dot represents one of Carpenter’s batted balls, and you can see the totals for each category on the side.

For an explanation of each quality of contact, check out this post on Aledmys Diaz, the first article utilizing this information. I also have used this data to express optimism towards Stephen Piscotty, as well as to pump the brakes regarding Magneuris Sierra.

And the above information broke down into percentage form and compared to league average, as well as Carpenter’s season numbers in the sta

Matt Carpenter Contact Quality Breakdown

Player Barrels% Solid Contact% Flares and Burners% Under% Topped% Weak% xwOBA wOBA
Player Barrels% Solid Contact% Flares and Burners% Under% Topped% Weak% xwOBA wOBA
Avg wOBA 1.433 .692 .630 .095 .206 .460 .317 .321
Lg Avg 6.7% 5.6% 24.6% 24.5% 33.0% 5.7% .317 .321
2015 Matt Carpenter 8.0% 7.2% 26.8% 30.9% 23.8% 3.3% .388 .375
2016 Matt Carpenter 8.6% 6.0% 25.9% 35.0% 21.1% 3.5% .397 .380
2017 Matt Carpenter 12.0% 12.0% 27.8% 30.6% 13.0% 4.6% .408 .366

Carpenter is barreling the ball nearly twice as much as average, with more than twice the average amount of solid contact. He’s regularly enjoyed above-average rates in both stats, but he’s seen a noticeable uptick thus far. He has topped the ball at an extremely low rate, almost just a third of league average. Carpenter has a very clear strategy of trying to hit the ball in the air as often as possible, and he’s executing it.

I added columns for xwOBA and wOBA. xwOBA is calculated by Baseball Savant, and adjusts the on-contact portion of wOBA to how well, on average, Carpenter’s batted balls have performed in the Statcast era. Our own Craig Edwards found that xwOBA is more predictive in the future of wOBA than wOBA itself.

If you notice, the league average xwOBA is lower than league average wOBA, by 4 points. That through me off at first, but it makes sense: for any given player, the defense can position themselves appropriately to take away a few more hits than normal.

It’s not just the contact quality though. Matt Carpenter is going Full Carpenter, with the highest walk rate of his career thus far. That’s because he’s currently sporting the lowest O-Swing% in the game:

lowest O-Swing%, qualified players.txt

# Name Team O-Swing% Z-Swing% Zone%
# Name Team O-Swing% Z-Swing% Zone%
1 Matt Carpenter Cardinals 16.9 % 56.2 % 43.5 %
2 Joey Votto Reds 17.0 % 76.9 % 44.6 %
3 Matt Joyce Athletics 18.8 % 68.1 % 47.0 %
4 Joe Mauer Twins 19.3 % 52.6 % 45.2 %
5 Brett Gardner Yankees 19.9 % 49.2 % 46.9 %
6 Francisco Cervelli Pirates 20.2 % 64.5 % 48.0 %
7 Ryan Schimpf Padres 20.2 % 59.2 % 44.3 %
8 Jayson Werth Nationals 20.3 % 54.1 % 47.7 %
9 Carlos Santana Indians 20.3 % 61.9 % 45.2 %
10 Mookie Betts Red Sox 20.6 % 55.3 % 44.5 %

Carpenter is avoiding out of zone pitches at an elite level. Pitchers are also less likely than ever to give him something in the zone, as evidenced by a career low Zone%. With the clearly low O-Swing%, this indicates that pitchers see him as more threatening. His 56% Z-Swing% is below average, but an optimal Z-Swing% is always a little less clear. Whereas a hitter should generally never prefer to swing at balls out of zone, it makes sense to take a pitch in the zone that the hitter can’t do much with it (at least with less than two strikes).

That appears to be exactly what Matt is doing. Here’s a heat map of called strikes against Carpenter in 2017, from the catcher’s perspective:

A lot of these called strikes against Matt that were technically off the plate, but many of them are actually a called a strike more than 50% of the time to lefties. Many of you are likely aware of this with Matt as it has happened for years.

Past that though, you see Matt’s strategy is to “spit at” the low outside pitch. The reason is that it’s hard to hit he black of the plate, and it’s difficult to hit the ball hard when the pitcher does, so the hitter concentrates on getting a pitch elsewhere where he can do real damage. If the pitcher can hit the black three times, you tip your hat to him, but that’s not often.

Targeting low and inside is part of general strategy among pitchers against Carpenter:

This is a heatmap of all pitches to Carpenter in 2017. This probably isn’t too different than most hitters, generally hitters are less productive on low and away pitches, and pitchers know that.

The interesting thing is, it’s a tough strategy to pull off against Carpenter. Let’s look just at the location of pitches that he either barreled or made solid contact on:

So, pitchers generally work Carpenter low and away, probably mostly aiming for the outside corner. If they put it right at the knees and on the black, they’ll probably get a called strike. If they miss just a little outside though, he’s probably not swinging. If the pitcher misses just a little over the plate and/or higher, it turns into just the type of pitch Carpenter has been crushing.

Results on those barrels and solid contact is what is limiting his batting line. His xwOBA on those batted balls has been 1.024, but the results come to just .871 wOBA. To get a closer look, we’ll look at a spray map of those batted balls:

Two hard hit balls right at the center fielder, and two more right at the right fielder. Of course, hard hit balls hit right at fielders is just part of baseball, but not at this rate. Perhaps more importantly, he’s hit several deep flies that just barely didn’t make it out. Under slightly different conditions, his batting line would look a lot better.

Carpenter probably won’t sustain such high rates of barreling the ball and making solid contact. They’re just too high above his career rates to not expect some regression. However, the high increase probably means there’s some real change in talent level there. Carpenter is hitting the ball hard more often than he ever has before. Pitchers see that, and are being more careful than ever. Matt’s responding by laying off nearly everything out of the zone. Right now, Matt is winning the adjustment game. Really he’s killing it, he’s just been unlucky. Don’t be surprised if he starts to heat up.