On Rubber Games and Matt Carpenter

With yesterday’s shutout loss to Washington (box score), St Louis heads home licking its wounds after a 2-4 road trip drops the early season record to 8-10 and a share of last place in its division.

To this point in the season, the Cards have played in six series.  They have won one – they ended their season opening road trip with a sweep over the struggling Miami team.  That has been the anomaly.  Every other series has followed the same outline so closely that they have almost seemed like baseball’s version of Groundhog Day.

In each of the other series, there is one game – either the first or second – where the offense shows up and batters the opposing pitching staff in the manner that we have spent the offseason anticipating.

In Cincinnati, it happened on opening day.  The Cards slashed 2 doubles and 2 home runs to highlight an 11-run, 10-hit attack in an 11-6 victory.  As a team, they slugged .486 and OPS’d .828. 

Against Milwaukee in the home opening series, it happened in the second game.  The Cards only scored 5 runs on the day, but slapped out 11 hits, hit .306 as a team with a collective OPS of .821.

When Washington followed Milwaukee into town, they got the show in the second game of that series.  On April 13, St Louis crushed the Nationals 14-3, their 15-hit attack including 3 home runs.  St Louis hit .405, slugged .649 and OPS’d 1.127 that evening.

On the just ended road trip, Philadelphia was pushed around 9-4 in the second game.  The Cards received 8 walks and drilled 6 extra-base hits – including 4 home runs.  They had a .422 on base percentage to go with a .676 slugging percentage that day – an OPS of 1.098.

Finally, St Louis opened their most recent series against Washington with a 12-5 trouncing.  Eight of their 12 hits went for extra-bases – including 5 home runs.  They batted .333 and slugged .861 for the game, finishing with a 1.276 OPS.

For five games this season (once per series), the St Louis offense has been as frightening as any team in recent memory.  They have hit 15 home runs and scored 51 runs in those five games with a .322/.414/.617 batting line.

In all of the other 13 games played this season, that offense has been nowhere to be seen.  Over the rest of the young season combined, the Cards have hit 10 home runs, scored 34 runs (2.6 per game), struck out 128 times (9.8 per game) and slashed .181/.256/.296.

Each of those series went to a rubber game – and each time the Cardinal offense vanished.  After losing 12-1 in Cincinnati on April 4, and 9-3 against Milwaukee on April 11, St Louis has been shut out in each of their last three rubber games: 6-0 to Washington on the fourteenth, 2-0 against Philly on the eighteenth, and 1-0 in Washington last night.

In 154 at bats in these five rubber games, the Cardinals have managed 17 singles, 8 doubles and no home runs.  They have scored 4 runs with a .162/.246/.214 batting line.  At .460 their collective OPS in their five rubber games fails to crack the .500 mark.

Matt Carpenter is 0-for-12 with 7 strikeouts.  Paul Goldschmidt is 0-for-21 with 6 strikeouts and a double-play grounder.

With early season numbers it’s easy to get bent out of shape.  Five cherry picked games – whether it’s the five excellent games or the five rubber games – are too small a sample size to draw any conclusions from.  The Cards will win a rubber game at some point of the season, and Goldschmidt will get a hit in one of them eventually – nothing in baseball is absolute.

And that’s what makes this early season pattern so compelling – just knowing that baseball doesn’t work this way makes it all the more surprising the longer this pattern holds.

Opening up the upcoming home stand is the Cincinnati team that started this whole sequence three weeks ago.  They haven’t been as hot in recent days as they were when the season opened.  They would be an apt team for the Cards to break this spell against.

Carp and Shildt

The definitive moments of Wednesday’s shutout came on three bases-loaded at bats.  Washington starter Max Scherzer wriggled out of a first-inning bases loaded jam with strikeouts of Dylan Carlson and Matt Carpenter.

Carpenter would have one more chance with the bases loaded and two outs in the eighth.  Ahead in the count, 1-0, Matt jumped all over a 95.9 mph fastball from Daniel Hudson and ripped a 101 mph laser into right – where right-fielder Andrew Stevenson drifted back two steps to make the catch.  It completed another 0-for-4 evening for Carp, who is now an astonishing 3-for-37 on the season (on the heels – by the way – of a 2-for-37 spring).  Based on exit velocity and launch angle, Statscast estimates that that ball should be a hit 70.3% of the time.

After the game, manager Mike Shildt sounded a somewhat defensive note when asked about Matt’s presence in the lineup.   “What do you do?  Do you sit a guy that you know is hitting the ball hard (Carp’s average exit velocity so far this season is 93.2 mph, which would be a career high in the Statcast era)?  We also recognize that people expect results out of this organization, and we expect them as well.  But we also know from the course of our experiences what tends to work over a period of time.  We also know we’re in April.”

Carpenter’s situation and Shildt’s question are such that both deserve a considered answer.  First, to Shildt’s question about what to do.

Being the manager of a major league team is a sacred responsibility.  Fundamental to his position is the necessity of tuning out all outside noise.  Fans will always be quick to over-react.  Every single loss and every single 0-for-4 is evidence enough for some fans to give up on a team or a player.  Mike has to be above all of that.  He can’t let the fans or the press (who are sometimes as short-memoried as the fans) to run his team.  Sometimes that will mean he has to take some heat for sticking with a player who is struggling.   But that is his job.

He owes us his very best judgement.  If he believes in Matt Carpenter, then it is his obligation to write his name in the lineup.  He should understand that fans are quick to over-react, and he should treat our impatience with the understanding of an older, wiser grandparent.  But he should never, never yield to us.

He is supposed to know these players.  He watches them train.  He watches them prepare.  He is there on a daily basis to gage their physical and emotional ups and downs – he has to know all of these players better than we do.  And he has to write his lineup cards based on that knowledge – not on the statistics or the column that someone wrote this morning.  If he believes in Carpenter, then Carpenter must play.

Here is the caveat.  He has to be right.  If he keeps writing Carp’s name in the lineup, and Matt hits .186, then he has hurt the team.  So, Mike, manage to your conscience.  But make sure that you are right.

As to Carpenter

As far as Carpenter goes, what is happening here is no mystery at all.  Yes, Carpenter has hit a lot of balls hard and has little to show for it.  But this isn’t really bad luck, and isn’t likely to change on its own.  If you’ve been watching, you will see that there haven’t been any miracle defensive plays made against Matt this year.  Every time he hits a ball hard, he is hitting it right at someone.

As much as anyone I’m aware of, Carpenter’s career is being de-railed by the intensive use of the shift.  Every time Matt comes to the plate, six of the eight defenders are standing on the right side of the field, and Carp invariably pulls the ball right into that mass of defenders.

Unless Matt can successfully keep the third baseman on the left side of the infield, he will never be any better than he has been the last two seasons.  It doesn’t matter if he hits the ball 200 miles-per-hour, if 75% of the defense is flooding his hitting area, he will be out.  This is not head-scratching stuff.  This is apparent to everyone who has watched the games.

Matt’s first hit of the year was a bunt that he dropped down the vacant third base line.  If Matt Carpenter wants his career back, he needs to make a feature of that.  Every time he sees the third baseman on the right side of the infield, he needs to take the free base that they are giving him.

True, he won’t hit any home runs while dropping down bunts, but his batting average should be close to 1.000 when he does that.  Eventually – especially if some of the hitters around him in the lineup start to hit – teams will realize that they can’t afford to keep giving him a free base, and eventually, that third baseman will have to play his own position.

And when that happens, then Carp can be Carp again.  Until that happens, Matt will be a sub-.200 hitting bench player.

It doesn’t get any simpler than that.

NoteBook

St Louis has now scored the first run of the game just twice in their last 12 games.

At 53 degrees, Wednesday’s game was the second coldest of the season.  Opening day took place in 37 degree temperatures in Cincinnati.

The Cards were 0-for-5 with runners in scoring position yesterday.  They are now 0 for their last 14 with runners in scoring position.

My Designated Hitter Rant

Every year now, baseball purists in the National League are continuously threatened with the permanent infliction of the designated hitter.  Last year, I responded with an extensive rant against the DH.  While trying to update that document, I managed to delete it.  So, I have re-written it here.  The hope is to set forth a reasonable argument for keeping the DH far, far away from National League parks.  I encourage you to read it and pass it along to other like-minded fans of this great old game.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published.

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.