SAN DIEGO — At a favorite breakfast joint in San Diego’s Gaslamp Quarter nearly a year ago, Matt Carpenter mixed some eggs with, yes, salsa and dug in for a conversation that would change his season by not changing much at all.
Armed with advanced metrics from the front office and an open mind, Carpenter invited then-hitting coach John Mabry to join him at The Broken Yolk Café, and over the courses of a 90-minute meal they discussed what the .147-hitting leadoff batter could do to revive his swing. They talked pitch selection, patience, positioning at the plate, and just about everything short of changing his bat model or wearing batting gloves. By the time they left the restaurant for the short walk back to the team hotel, they had reached a consensus that would launch Carpenter into the MVP discussion by August: He didn’t need to alter anything. Those lacking, leaden statistics he carried into every game — eventually that yolk would break. Stay the course. He’d take a few days off, work on his swing, and know he was headed in a good direction, physically and metrically.
He was on the right path.
Back in San Diego this weekend, he’d sure like to find it again.
“I haven’t been consistently getting in that good hitting position,” he said this past week. “I haven’t found it. I mean, it’s the same things I battle every year, and when I find it I can ride it for a long time. Like we saw last year. Like we see every year. Every season has a slow, cold streak and a real, long hot streak. Just going through the cold streak trying to find that swing and haven’t been able to do that. I’m working like crazy to find it.”
Thirteen months after the Cardinals scheduled Carpenter several days off to spend in the batting cages at the Padres’ Petco Park and mostly away from the game, the former All-Star was at the same ballpark in the same spot. Halfway through this season, his average loiters around .220, and his on-base percentage (.325) and slugging percentage (.381) would be career lows, by far. Carpenter did not start all weekend — he pinch-hit on Friday — as rookie Tommy Edman took over at leadoff. In an echo from last season, manager Mike Shildt called it a few days “to reset a little bit; maybe a little bit of a break to kind of find out where he can do it.”
Carpenter is hardly alone in his offensive struggles this season, but as the usual leadoff hitter for the Cardinals’ pedestrian lineup he is atop it.
Going into the weekend, the Cardinals’ .198 average from the leadoff position was the lowest in the majors this season. No team since 2000 has had a sub-.200 average from its leadoff spot for an entire season. The Cardinals’ .640 on-base-plus-slugging (OPS) from the leadoff spot would be the ninth lowest in club history since 1914, according to Stats, Inc. The Cardinals’ least-productive leadoff spot since 2000 was 2010’s .646 OPS. Other than the sparks flying off Edman’s brief look at leadoff, Carpenter, in the muck of his struggles, has still been the most productive leadoff hitter. The others are all hitting .162 (11-for-68), slugging .221, and Carpenter has 40 of the leadoff spot’s 43 walks. The Cardinals’ ignition has blown a fuse, and replacements aren’t exactly obvious.
“If your question is, ‘Why is he in the leadoff spot if he’s struggled?’ then yeah, everyone has kind of struggled,” said general manager Michael Girsch. “If we were scoring five runs a game and really going offensively we probably would have other guys doing well, and we would adjust. When everyone is struggling together, it’s not clear where the adjustment is to flip that switch.”
Carpenter’s search for answers a year ago prompted him to send a text message to Girsch to learn what the advanced metrics had to say about his swing.
Carpenter wanted to know if the numbers revealed any obvious holes, any Kryptonite, anything statistically that would explain why, on May 11, 2018, as he breakfasted with Mabry, his slash line was .140/.286/.272. The numbers offered comfort. His hard-hit rate was steady, even up. Shifts were swallowing hits. His feel for the strike zone was steady. Carpenter has not made the same request this season, he said, and that’s partially because he knows what they’ll say. There isn’t one area that explains his difficult start. Rather, it’s the sum of many, small on-paper cuts.
“It’s like small differences that are adding up to make a big difference in the results,” Girsch said. “It’s not like his strikeout rate has doubled. It’s not like his groundball rate doubled. Everything has crept up in a way that has led to production below expectations.”
Modern baseball is a culprit. The increased use of shifts, the decrease in fastballs, the aggressive use of bullpens — all are common approaches now bent on doing more than challenging hitters like Carpenter. Opponents aim to erase them as threats, to vanquish their game.
In his career, three out of every five pitches Carpenter has seen are fastballs. This season? It’s closer to 50/50 than it ever has been. He’s seen more changeups and doing less with them — or pulling them into a defensive shift.
Carpenter’s strikeout rate has inched up, 23.3 percent to 24.6 percent. His groundball rate is up from 26.4 percent to 30.3 percent. His hard-contact rate has dropped from 49 percent to 41.7 percent, according to FanGraphs, and his “medium” contact rate has seem the corresponding spike, from 41.7 percent last season to 47.7 percent this season. According to Statcast, Carpenter has seen a 42-percent decrease in pitches he barrels — that is squares on the barrel of the bat — from a league-leading 13.7 percent last year to 8.0 percent this year. That number is close to the 8.2 percent he had in 2017.
Either consciously or as part of an adjustment to how he’s being pitched and the shifts he constantly faces, Carpenter is also going to left field more often, pulling the ball slightly less. He has jabbed a bunt double against the shift, and starting about a month ago had flashes of driving the ball to the left-center gap, an avenue for doubles he used to drive frequently.
All these numbers tell him what he already feels in his bare hands.
“For me? I’m looking at the result and there is a result that keeps happening that I’m trying to avoid,” Carpenter said. “I keep taking balls that I should be hitting. And I either swing and miss or I pop them up to left field. I’m trying to iron out that miss. It’s like golf. If you’ve got a high fade you’re on the range everyday trying to straighten it out. That’s similar to what my swing is at this point. Basically, if you’re talking in golf terms, I’ve got a high fade going. I’m trying to straighten it out more to get that backspin toward the middle of the field.”
Heat maps carve up the strike zone into a 3-by-3 grid that shows how a hitter handles pitches up and in, down and away, or straight down the middle. For example, Carpenter is slugging 1.000 on pitches middle-in. It’s over the middle of the plate — the column right over the heart of the plate — where he’s seen a drift, like he described. A year ago, he hit .364 and slugged .861 on pitches in the middle column. This season, he’s just slugging .358 on those pitches.
Given the time at Petco Park a year ago, Carpenter spent it in the batting cages. He described this week that he just did the usual — tee work, flip toss, and more batting practice. He called it “nothing out of the ordinary, nothing exciting to write about.” That came later. During a 79-game stretch that began a week after his break in San Diego, Carpenter hit .332/.433/.721. With 100 hits and 30 homers in that span, he nearly doubled his OPS for the season and went from one of the least productive everyday players in the majors to leading the National League in homers, doubles, and OPS.
He was back in that cage this weekend, back “working on my swing every day,” and back doing nothing worth writing about until it is. A swing he’s been searching for happened this past week. He connected on a pitch up, over the plate, and got the backspin to carry it toward the center field wall — where it was misplayed for a triple.
“Let’s build off of it,” he said the next day.
This year, the answer isn’t going to come over a breakfast plate.
Just over the plate.
“I’m not by any means enjoying playing below my capabilities,” Carpenter said. “It also isn’t new territory, so I’m not wandering around going, ‘What am I going to do.’ There’s light at the end of the tunnel. There always is. It’s reassuring that I’ve always found it at some point. I have that ability. I have the ability in me to at any point …”
He snapped his fingers.
“ … switch over and carry an offense for a few months,” he added. “I’ve shown that I can do that. I know that I can do that. It’s just a matter of doing it.”