Matt Carpenter has been on a tear lately, looking more like his typically productive self. But two weeks ago, many were concerned about numbers we should forget about.
Batting average is the most annoying thing in baseball. The statistic adds nothing new to the conversation after on-base percentage, yet it’s everywhere.
If you’re at a game, everyone’s batting average is on the scoreboard. If you’re watching a game on television, you see the batting average of every hitter at the plate. You won’t find a box score that doesn’t list every player’s batting average. Perhaps that’s why it still influences our judgment in ways that it shouldn’t.
Through June 6, Matt Carpenter was “struggling.” Or at least that’s what everyone said. After all, he was batting just .209. Of course, to believe Carpenter was struggling, you also had to put some stock in that .209 batting average. When looked at from a slightly different angle, Carpenter was actually doing exactly what we expected from him.
is should be king
This season, the major league on-base percentage is .324. On April 11, Carpenter raised his on-base percentage to .333 with a pinch-hit walk. Carpenter’s OBP has remained at least ten points above average since that date, but it didn’t matter. Batting average is listed first, and Carpenter’s was below the major league average.
Carpenter’s on-base percentage was still low by his standards, but it wasn’t abysmal. On June 6, his OBP was .341, which would have been his lowest mark since playing a full season in the majors. On the other hand, the Cardinals had much bigger problems, and Carpenter wasn’t really a concern.
Walk rate and strikeout rate are good predictors of future performance because they stabilize quickly. On June 6, Carpenter owned a 15.7 percent walk rate, the best of his career by a wide margin. He was 13th in the major leagues in walk rate, ahead of reigning MVP Kris Bryant. On the same date, Carpenter’s strikeout rate was 22.4 percent, slightly better than he did in 2015.
The problem fans run into is that walk and strikeout rates are not as easily accessible as batting average. Each morning, .209 was staring everyone in the face, while it took a few more clicks to get to 15.7 percent. Eventually we will get to a point where OBP is more commonly cited than batting average, but until then we are bound to fall into the same trap that we did with Carpenter.
Strong batted ball profile
Carpenter also looked like he was underperforming by some advanced stats. He was 2 percent below average according to weighted runs created plus after June 6, and he had a pedestrian weighted on-base average. There is no doubt that his total production was down, but that doesn’t necessarily mean he was struggling. Carpenter was making hard contact and hitting the ball in the air at his usually good rates.
If Carpenter were really struggling, he would have been hitting the ball softly, on the ground, or both. He was doing neither. Carpenter’s hard hit rate sat at 40.7 percent on June 6, well above his career rate of 36.1 percent.
Carpenter was having no problem making hard contact, he just couldn’t get hits on hard contact. MLB players usually hit between .540 and .550 on hard hit balls. Carpenter’s batting average on such balls was just .436. The below chart from Baseball Savant shows Carpenter’s results on balls hit at least 90 miles per hour off the bat:
There are a lot of outs on the warning track of Busch Stadium in that chart, and Carpenter isn’t doing anything wrong. He’s crushing the ball in the air, but the park is just a little too deep. As for the ground ball/fly ball numbers, Carpenter had his highest career fly ball rate through June 6 at 49.6 percent. Carpenter has worked hard his entire career to hit more fly balls. His power spiked when his fly ball rate did, and fly balls certainly aren’t the cause of his low productivity this season.
What does struggling mean?
There is still a way where you can agree with everything I just said and still say he is struggling. If you think getting unlucky implies struggling, then you still would argue that Carpenter struggled. His batted ball profile was the best it ever was and he was walking more than he ever was. However, his batting average suffered. Long, hard fly outs had a lot to do with that, and I don’t think a player is struggling if he is hitting a lot of long, hard fly balls.
The real point is that whether or not Carpenter was “struggling” is much less important than that we know what was going on. Carpenter wasn’t any worse, he was just hitting the ball into gloves more often than his contact quality suggested he would.
I couldn’t find anything wrong with Carpenter, even when his production was down. As it turned out, it was only a mattered of time before Carpenter’s production caught up to his contact quality.
Two weeks is a long time
It’s only been two weeks since that June 6 date that I keep referencing, but Carpenter’s production is back where it usually is. Carpenter has played better in the past two weeks, but the difference in slash line is more pronounced than the difference in quality of play. Carpenter’s hard hit rate is up to 54.3 percent since June 6, and his strikeout rate is a measly 13.2 percent. He has been playing incredibly well, but he isn’t that much better than where he was.
Carpenter has been playing at a high level all year, it was just that darn batting average that made many think otherwise. Carpenter’s .528 OBP over the past two weeks raises his slash line to .246/.377/.482 with a wRC+ of 128. His hard hit rate suggests that Carpenter might actually be even better than that, but nobody would suggest his current numbers represent an underperformance.
In just two weeks, Carpenter put to rest all of the “struggling” talk. The only question that remains is whether or not he was ever struggling at all.
Photo Credit: David Kohl – USA TODAY Sports