It’s been a bit of a strange year for Matt Carpenter. For example, he drew a walk from Bartolo Colon just a few days ago, and that’s basically been an impossible thing for anyone to do. But he’s actually walking a little less than we’re used to seeing from him — he currently has a 9.0 percent walk rate on the year, compared to an 11.3 percent mark for his career. So, still quite good, but a little lower than normal. And he’s striking out more often than he ever previously has in his time in the MLB, walking back to the dugout with a giant ‘K’ hanging over his head in 19.3 percent of his plate appearances compared to 15.8 percent for his career. Again, it’s a small difference, but it’s a difference.
And I should mention, before I forget, that he’s been hitting a bit like Jose Abreu did last year. Behold:
|2014 Jose Abreu||.264||.356||.317||.383||.581||.411||165|
|2015 Matt Carpenter||.264||.351||.311||.373||.574||.403||157|
There are some differences, of course. Though it's not shown here, Abreu walks less and strikes out more, but we’ve certainly got some similarities to this point. The power that Carpenter has displayed has been the real change. That's taken him from a really good hitter with a lot of doubles to a really, really good hitter turning those doubles into dingers. And I don't mean to say that he'll stay this way, because 1) I can't see into the future, and 2) he probably won't still be hitting like Jose Abreu in a few months.
I mean, Carpenter hit for a good bit of power in 340 PAs in 2013 and in a full 2014. Last year he didn’t, which makes this power surge a little more interesting. But the power he showed in '13 and '14 was pretty doubles-driven. What sticks out most right now is Carpenter’s seven home runs, which puts him in the top 15 percent or so in baseball. Seven homers. Matt Carpenter could announce tomorrow that he's decided to stop playing baseball for the rest of the year and still end up with about a season's worth of home runs for him. And it’s just May. The Matt Carpenter we know doesn’t hit seven home runs in roughly a month-and-a-half.
Look at that! He's 13th in ISO! Sure, Stephen Vogt might not really fit up there, but Matt Carpenter most definitely doesn't fit up there. So naturally, I want to see if it’s a fluke. I want to find out if Matt Carpenter is tricking us, or just me, into thinking he has some legitimate power.
Of the seven home runs he’s hit, four have come at Busch Stadium, which, judging by park factors on Fangraphs, isn’t a terribly easy place to hit home runs. One came in Nationals Park, and one came at Progressive Field in Cleveland. Both of those places are a little easier to hit dingers in. And then one came at the Great American Ballpark, which is essentially a home run factory. And while it may indeed be a home run factory, Carpenter hit that one 416 feet to dead center. So he pretty much got all of it is what I’m saying.
Carpenter has also continued to just hit a bunch of doubles, tallying 16 on the year, which is second-best in the bigs. Carpenter’s always been a doubles hitter, though, so it doesn’t come as such a surprise. That’s what led to his above average ISO before, and it’s helping his cause again. He was born a doubles man, he came into the league a doubles man, and he’ll leave the game a doubles man, I’m guessing.
So, is this all a fluke? Maybe, yeah. But also, maybe not. A notable change from Carpenter is how often he's putting the ball in the air. Actually, I’ve changed my mind about what sticks out most for Carpenter. It’s not his seven home runs anymore. It's the following table that I’m probably making too much of:
That’s two-and-a-half seasons of Matt Carpenter basically being Matt Carpenter. Then, this year, he just changes it all, somehow. I’m not smart enough to know how to notice any changes in his swing or anything by looking at video, but I looked at some video anyway, and there weren’t any changes from what I could tell. Does that mean anything? Maybe not, but I truly can’t be sure. What I could find is that he’s raised his hard hit percentage this year — up to 41.4 from a career 33.9 mark. That probably isn’t hurting him.
Carpenter's hitting the ball harder more often, and, unsurprisingly, he's hitting it farther. In Carpenter's first two-and-a-half seasons with the Cardinals, his average batted ball distance didn't quite crack 200 feet. In 2013, his first full season, Carpenter's average distance was 195.5 feet, good for 60th in the league. That's not bad, and we know that Carpenter was quite a good hitter in 2013. He dropped a bit last year, falling to 191.8 feet and finishing 87th in MLB in that category. But he's changed this year. Carpenter is up to 209 feet this year, good enough to be sitting in the top 15 in baseball.
The final thing to look at is Carpenter's spray chart. It's not changed very much overall, but when compared to his career numbers, we can see some differences in the fly balls he's hitting now. He's pulling just more than 19 percent of the fly balls he's hitting in 2015 and hitting about half of his fly balls (48.1 percent) right back up the middle, both of which are a handful of percentage points higher than his career marks. In short, Carpenter's hitting more fly balls, pulling more of the fly balls he's hitting, and he's hitting them — on average — harder and farther than he has before.
So Matt Carpenter's power could be for real, I think. He likely won't keep this pace up, exactly, but there are some things about Carpenter this year that have been interesting, potentially sustainable changes. He's not hit more than 11 home runs before, but he's already most of the way there. Despite being a premier doubles hitter a couple of years ago, he's hitting even more than before. He's not previously gone a season hitting more fly balls than grounders, but he's doing it now. He's never hit as many hard-hit balls as he's had this year, and he's never hit the ball as far as he's hitting it this season. If we put all that together, we might be seeing a brand new Matt Carpenter.
. . .
Murphy Powell is a contributor at Beyond the Box Score. You can follow him on Twitter at @murphypowell.