The name Roman Quinn was mostly unknown to Cardinal fans before yesterday’s game. For about half a heartbeat during that game, Mr. Quinn almost became the face of Matt Carpenter’s spring of discontent.
With only three hits on the season, and relegated to coming off the bench, Matt was tapped to take a fifth-inning at bat against Philadelphia’s Aaron Nola. The Cards trailed 1-0, with two runners on and two out.
Carp took Nola’s first-pitch fastball for strike one. Matt was sitting on Aaron’s infamous knuckle-curve – which he got on Nola’s second pitch. Carpenter uncoiled, launching Aaron’s pitch deep into the centerfield power alley. Quinn – the Phillies’ right fielder that afternoon – sprinted to the wall, and leapt for the ball.
The moment can only be truly appreciated in re-play, where Roman was seen to leap, and, at the height of his jump, closed his glove completely around Carpenter’s long fly. Frozen right there – with Matt’s game-changing home run clasped firmly (or so it seemed) in Roman’s glove – no image better told the story of the embattled Mr. Carpenter’s season.
Forty-two at bats into Carpenter’s 2021 season, he is hitting the ball with an average exit velocity of 92.96 mph – one of the best averages in the league. Adopting the accepted standard of 95 mph as a “hard hit,” then Carp has achieved that on 15 of the 25 baseball’s that he has put into play – a very impressive 60%. Seven of those have left the bat at 100 mph or better.
And still, as Quinn hung above the wall in right-center field, with Matt’s latest effort in his glove, Carpenter was just 3-for-41 (.073) for the season.
For one afternoon, at least, the frustration abated. As Roman’s wrist contacted the top of the wall, the ball slid free and Carpenter and the Cardinals had a three-run home run – a blow that was instrumental in a 10-inning, 4-3 victory (box score).
Examining the Narrative
Just below the many stories, articles, etc., discussing the inconsistencies of the Cardinal offense, the struggles of Matt Carpenter are the second-most discussed narrative of the early season. As the story is told, Carpenter has spent the early spring tearing the cover off the ball and has been the victim of appalling bad luck. The spin – driven by an incomplete consideration of the data – is actually more fiction than fact.
It is true that, following the expected batting average for each ball put in play, Carpenter – statistically – has lost about 6 hits (6.04, if you want to get all digital about it). Even with the extra hits added back in, Matt’s expected batting average is still just a modest .238. While this is a far sight better than the .095 that Matt is hitting, it’s still not an earth-shattering number.
For one thing, the exit-velocity numbers never take into consideration the strikeouts – 18 already in Carpenter’s case – that will suppress his batting average regardless of the outcomes of his contact events.
Even that, though, doesn’t completely tell the story of what is happening. Last week, I gave an explanation for the Carpenter phenomenon that has nothing to do with bad luck. Here, to add clarity, I will do a little documenting of the situation.
To date, Matt has hit ten baseball’s that carried an expected batting average of .500 or better. Statistically, these should have accounted for 7 hits (6.903 for the uber-digital among us). Only 2 of them actually resulted in hits – a two-run homer hit against Washington and Stephen Strasburg on April 13 (during a 14-3 Cardinal win), and an RBI single against Joe Ross in Washington the next week (April 19) that was part of a 12-5 win over the Nats. The home run carried an expected batting average of .597. The single was higher, at .720.
And the other eight? What about the other eight bullets off of Carpenter’s bat that had at least a 50/50 statistical chance of being a hit? Well, let’s take a look at them and see if we can notice a pattern.
Shoulda-been-hit # 1.
Seventh-inning of that same April 13 game. Carpenter facing Washington’s Austin Voth. The pitch is a 93 mph fastball that Matt hits 102.6 mph with a launch angle of 11 degrees. Expected batting average .931.
Carpenter’s hot ground ball was scorched slightly to the first-base side of the second base bag. Instead of being a hit, though, there was third baseman Starlin Castro waiting right there to make the play.
Two innings earlier in that same game, while Strasburg was still on the mound. Pitch was a 90.7 mph fastball that was hit at 105.3 mph with that same 11 degree launch angle. Expected batting average .929.
This time Matt hits a line drive instead of the groundball, but it’s hit to almost exactly the same spot – just to the defensive left of the second base bag. And, again, there was the third baseman standing right in front of it. Carpenter actually reached base this time, as the line drive was too hot for Castro to handle (charged as an error).
It’s the sixth inning of the home opener against Corbin Burnes and the Milwaukee Brewers. Burnes throws him a 95 mph cutter. Carpenter returns the pitch at 106.6 mph with a 38 degree launch angle. Expected batting average .723.
Matt’s long fly (at 400 feet, the farthest Carp has hit the ball so far this year) is into the deepest part of the park. The launch angle just a bit too high. Right fielder Jackie Bradley settled under it and made the catch. It certainly would have gone out of some parks – but not Busch.
We are back in Washington. It’s the 1-0 shutout that Max Scherzer authored on April 21. Carpenter faces Daniel Hudson in the eighth with the bases loaded and two outs. The pitch is a fastball at 95.4 mph that leaves Carpenter’s bat at 101 mph with a 26 degree launch angle. Expected batting average .703.
Carp’s line shot was toward (although not exactly on) the right-field line – right where right fielder Andrew Stevenson was playing him. If Andrew is playing him at all straight-away, this is a base-clearing double.
April 6 in Miami. Cards are ahead 3-2 in the eighth, and Carp is facing Yimi Garcia with one on and one out. Garcia’s fastball comes in at 95.1 mph and goes out at 101.4 with a 30 degree launch angle. Expected batting average .683.
Matt launches the flyball 384 feet – but to dead center field – where it was caught by left fielder Corey Dickerson, who was playing him in almost straight-away centerfield.
April 11 against Milwaukee. Sixth inning, Matt is facing Eric Yardley. Eric fires a sinker at 87.5 mph that Carp juices at 98.5 mph with a 26 degree launch angle. Expected batting average .600.
At 368 feet, the fly was nowhere near deep enough to make it out of Busch. Avisail Garcia (the Brewer right fielder) jogged back and made the easy catch.
Last Wednesday (April 28) against Philadelphia. It’s the seventh inning, and Connor Brogdon is on to pitch. Brogdon’s pitch is a 96.7 mph fastball. Carp only hits this one at 89.6 mph, but with a sharp 8 degree launch angle. Expected batting average .517.
Matt smashes this groundball past first base into right field. But second-baseman Nick Maton is playing in short right. Nick has to lay out for this one, and makes a very good play on it. Of every batted ball on this list, this is the only one that required an above average defensive play.
Second inning, April 16 in Philadelphia. Zach Eflin brings the sinker in at 92.9 mph. Matt’s swing produces a 99.8 exit velocity at a 33 degree launch angle. Expected batting average .500.
This was that very windy evening in Philly, and this hit probably goes on most any other night. But the wind knocks this one down well before it could reach the fence in left-center (where Andrew McCutchen makes the catch.
So what is the takeaway from all of this? Should be a little obvious. Of all of these rocket shots, only one of them required an above average play to record the out. The shift against Carpenter has the left fielder playing center, the center fielder almost playing straight away right, and the right fielder about 20 feet off the line. Meanwhile, the second baseman is in short right, and the third baseman is in the sliding path at second.
The only way any of these are hits is if they get over the wall. Of the 7 gloved infielders and outfielders, the only one on the left side of the diamond is the shortstop who is responsible for all of the territory from the left-field line to the second base bag. There is certainly open area for Carpenter to exploit – even if he is only dropping bunts down the third base line. But Matt is adamantly hitting the ball into the teeth of the defense. As I pointed out before, even should he hit the ball 200 mph, little would come of it as the right side of the field is as densely packed with defenders as possible.
Yesterday it worked out for Matt and the Cards. The ball slithered out of Quinn’s glove. But Carpenter’s problem hasn’t truly been bad luck. His approach is unsustainable, and nothing will get appreciably better until he makes some changes.
Tommy Edman hit a couple of balls hard yesterday (exit velocities of 101 and 97) but had only an 0-for-4 to show for it. This snapped his baby hitting streak at five games. Tommy hit .350 (7-for-20) during the streak.
All of the top five hitters in the lineup went hitless in a game the Cards were more than a little lucky to pull out. For Paul Goldschmidt, this was his fourth hitless game in his last 9. He has one hit in the other five – a .147 batting average (5 for 34) during those games. He has also drawn just 2 walks.
Wrapped in between his strikeouts – and he had three yesterday – Tyler O’Neill sizzled a ground ball up the middle that carried an expected batting average of .740. In a kind of right-handed version of Carpenter, O’Neill has been stung a bit by the shift – even though it’s harder to do against righthanders. Here, both middle infielders were waiting for this ball, with O’Neill reaching on the error.
Tyler carries a .200 batting average, but even with the strikeouts his expected batting average is a “good enough” .256.
As expected, the return of Harrison Bader has pushed Justin Williams to the bench. Justin was hitless in 3 at bats yesterday and is 2 for his last 26 (.077). Justin has struck out 14 times in those at bats.
Although the final game of the series checked in at only 66 degrees, the just ended series with the Phillies was the warmest by average temperature at home so far this year. The three games averaged 72.5 degrees. The Washington series had been the warmest, those three games averaging 62.0 degrees.
The three-game series played in Miami (averaging 72.7 degrees) is still the warmest overall.
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.