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Matt Carpenter might still be hurt

After an injury late in the first half, Matt Carpenter hasn’t looked the same.

MLB: Pittsburgh Pirates at St. Louis Cardinals Jeff Curry-USA TODAY Sports

After a player gets injured and struggles, you hear calls that said player is still hurt, that they’re dealing with something lingering or they rushed back. A good example is Derrek Lee in 2006 when he went out with a wrist injury. And sure, that can definitely happen. Some injuries are harder to diagnose than others, and players can definitely lie about how they feel about their condition. But, it can be a hard sell. With Matt Carpenter, there’s enough to connect the dots back to his injury.

After a stellar first half, Matt Carpenter was named to the 2016 All-Star team as a reserve on July 5th, sitting behind now-presumptive National League MVP, Kris Bryant. On July 7th, he was placed on the disabled list with an oblique strain.

Prior to it, he was one of the NL’s best hitters. He even marginally outperformed Bryant, who posted a .403 wOBA and 153 wRC+, in the first half. Carpenter ranked fifth in both stats across all of baseball and second only to Anthony Rizzo in the NL. After returning from injury on August 5th, he has not nearly replicated his performance.

PA AVG OBP SLG OPS wOBA wRC+ BABIP BB% K%
First Half 351 0.298 0.420 0.568 0.988 0.414 162 0.335 16.5% 17.4%
Second Half 202 0.221 0.302 0.387 0.689 0.297 83 0.262 9.4% 22.3%

It’s fair to say — just on the surface — that Carpenter is feeling lingering affects of an injury. After all, Carpenter has been so good for so long. Even though the start to the year was very out of the ordinary for him, the result of his downfall is as well.

With an oblique injury, this makes sense. Swinging a baseball bat thoroughly involves the hips, among other things. To bring your hips through the zone, it takes an effort from your core muscles. Having some of them weakened is no doubt going to compromise your swing in some way. The oblique injury’s manifestation in Carpenter’s swing can be shown through Statcast’s launch angle graphs. Keep in mind when looking at these graphs that the sample for the second half is about two-thirds of the sample of the first half, so the hit totals on the side are not the same.

First Half
Baseball Savant
Second Half
Baseball Savant

You can see that Carpenter has a major depression in his ability to put loft behind the ball. Now, he doesn’t quite hit the ball in the 25 to 30 degree sweet spot that you want to hit home runs, which is also dependent on exit velocity. Moreover, we’ve still seen that putting your batted balls closer to that range is going to help them reach further distance.

Launch Angle plotted against distance and exit velocity
Alan Nathan

That increases the likelihood to end up as home runs and extra base hits just on the sheer nature of those hits. Turning to exit velocity, Carpenter hasn’t lost any. He currently sits at about 89 mph on average for both pre- and post-injury measures. So, we can at least partly assume that the lack of loft in his swing is what’s driving the less than desirable numbers.

More can be found in how Carpenter’s batted balls turn out when separating them by areas of the field. Carpenter has always been a very strong hitter to his pull side, even as much to see 20 of his at bats shifted on with either a Ted Williams Shift or a Partial Ted Williams Shift. He’s also never had much success going the opposite way. These are pretty common things for left-handed hitters. Especially ones with some pop in their bat. Both of those things remained the same in the second half. However, there was a huge break with how Carpenter hit up the middle.

PA AVG SLG wOBA wRC+ ISO BABIP
Pull - First Half 110 0.418 0.891 0.543 248 0.473 0.354
Pull - Second Half 67 0.418 0.776 0.501 220 0.358 0.371
Center - First Half 80 0.434 0.724 0.474 202 0.289 0.400
Center - Second Half 38 0.211 0.316 0.224 34 0.105 0.189
Oppo - First Half 39 0.158 0.237 0.167 -4 0.079 0.167
Oppo - Second Half 31 0.129 0.194 0.136 -25 0.065 0.129

Being a weak hitter to the opposite field, center is where hits from pitches over the outer third of the plate get deposited for Carpenter. Carpenter’s inability to get around those pitches like he did in the first half is a direct siphon of the success he had. Yes, he’s also performed marginally worse pulling the ball and going opposite field. But, it’s not nearly to the magnitude of the drop in balls up in the middle. It’s clear that the oblique injury hindered his ability to get around pitches effectively over the outer third of the plate, where he saw 41.2 percent of his strikes in 2016.

On top of his difficulties with his swing, Carpenter has had difficulties with the strike zone. In a slump, especially a long one like Carpenter’s, the suffering can leak over to other parts of a player’s game. Plate discipline isn’t exactly a separate part from hitting, but it is a different skill than putting the ball in play or power hitting. Carpenter’s split between walk and strikeout rates over the halves of the season have been massive. His walk rate dipping 7.1 percentage points and strikeout rate rising by 4.9 percentage points are enormous changes.

Count - First Half Swings - First Half Whiffs - First Half Count - Second Half Swing - Second Half Whiffs - Second Half Swing ∆ Whiff ∆
Fourseam 559 35.06% 3.76% 274 40.88% 6.20% 5.82% 2.44%
Sinker 288 37.85% 4.17% 210 39.05% 5.71% 1.20% 1.54%
Change 154 48.70% 10.39% 117 45.30% 15.38% -3.40% 4.99%
Slider 196 38.27% 12.76% 92 47.83% 18.48% 9.56% 5.72%
Curve 160 25.00% 5.00% 73 30.14% 2.74% 5.14% -2.26%
Cutter 85 43.53% 8.24% 46 52.17% 19.57% 8.64% 11.33%
Split 32 43.75% 18.75% 11 54.55% 18.18% 10.80% -0.57%

Carpenter has, essentially, swung more and whiffed more, with the exception of three pitches where he’s done one or the other. One can only speculate that the increased aggression is in hopes of sparking a streak of hits. However, you can clearly see that Carpenter’s approach has changed over this time frame. The increase in whiffs do enough to paint a picture of his struggles.

Having a limping Carpenter has not boded well for the Cardinals on their stretch run. Unsurprisingly, Carpenter’s slump coincided with the Cardinals’ slow fall from the Wild Card’s top spot. No one can really say for sure if more time would have helped Carpenter and the Cardinals this season. But, that’s not really the point. The point is that Matt Carpenter is still hurt, and that’s not good for the Cardinals’ playoff hopes.

Now, it’s worth noting that, even with the disastrous second half, Carpenter is still a 2.8 fWAR player. And that’s very good over the course of a season. But it’s not up to the standard that Carpenter has set over these past few years. In fact, it’s his lowest total since his first full-time season in 2012. But, that goes to show how good of a first half he had. Imagine if he hadn’t gotten hurt.

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Anthony Rescan is a contributor to Beyond the Box Score.

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