Is something nagging St. Louis Cardinals everyman Matt Carpenter this season?
Baseball players hate talking about injuries, and for good reason. The minute they admit a past injury is hindering their current ability, the media can lock and load a bullet into their chamber for future reference. Getting a player to admit they are playing at less than capacity is about as hard as asking Shia Laboeuf to act normal for 24 hours.
I haven't come here to talk about Carpenter's defense or baserunning; that's like making sense out of a Michael Bay Transformers movie. I am here to discuss his approach at the plate-along with some results that differ between 2016 and 2017. A little over a year ago, Carpenter pulled an oblique muscle and left a game against the Pittsburgh Pirates after a strikeout. Carpenter's slash line at that time sat right next to unreal: .298/.420/.568. You read that right; Carpenter was reaching base 42 percent of the time and slugging the baseball 57 percent of the time.
He returned nearly a month later on August 5-and in 188 at bats, Carpenter's slash line was .229/.316/.410. What happened?
Before we dive deep into the analytics of Carpenter's past year, let's take a look at extra base hits. Throughout his career, Carpenter is best known for two things: working deep counts and driving the baseball to the gaps. Before the oblique injury, he smacked 44 extra base hits in just 78 games. In the 134 games since returning last August, he has 50 extra base hits. Doesn't that sound strange to you? He can collect six less extra base hits in a little less than half the amount of games?
This spring, Carpenter had issues with his back. Now look, I'm not anatomy and physiology major, but I can tell you from past experience that a bad oblique can affect the back muscles, especially if you have to swing a bat at a high speed. Carpenter's bat speed has always been his ace in the hole, so what if that bat speed was hindered by a lingering injury?
It's not weird science to think Carpenter rushed back from his injury last season; returning four weeks after that kind of injury isn't exactly common-and with an injury that can be easily tweaked with an awkward swing. We've seen baseball players deal with all kinds of injuries. By this time of the season, you've got aches and pains all over.
And Carpenter has 31 extra base hits this season, so there isn't a lot of room to complain. The 31 year old is on pace for 26 home runs and an on base percentage near .370. But what about the batting average?
A career mark of .271 has dropped to .237 this morning, which is in the same neighborhood as his .229 mark during the second half last season. Perhaps it's bad luck with balls put in play. Carpenter's BABIP has hovered at a high altitude in the .330 range for his career. In 2017, it's sitting closer to the ground at .256. Some luck going his way in the second half could help.
Is Carpenter still hitting the baseball hard though? His line drive rate has dropped only slightly in 2017, from 28 percent last year to 22 percent this year. The latter is a career low mark for Carpenter. He's still stinging the baseball. It's just the rate has dropped in the opponent's favor. He's taking more pitches this year, with his eye sharpness staying intact with a career high walk rate of 17.5 percent. However, he's hitting more balls in the air, with a fly ball rate of 50 percent, which tromps a previous career high of 43.2 percent.
The drop in batting average may not sit as close to the need to hit conundrum, but it's still begs the question: is Carpenter hiding pain or merely adjusting as he ages in the game? Is he going to draw more walks, hit for less average, but still collect doubles and hit home runs?
This isn't a warning about a declining Carpenter. The wRC+(which adjusts to parks and leagues average outputs of other players) is still a solid 117, which is below his prominent seasons, but still pretty good.
That could also be the issue. Did people fall so in love with Carpenter's 2013 and 2015 seasons that everything else will fall short and raise questions? Or is it the below average defense and terrible baserunning weighing down his overall appeal? I've never heard more "trade Carpenter" chants than I have this year.
My verdict: Matt Carpenter is still producing a high OPS at .827, so one can't complain about the result, but I can't overlook the rush back from an oblique injury taking away some of his power this season. He's hitting more flyballs and less line drives. I don't think he is playing hurt, but I don't think he will ever be as sharp as he was in 2015 and the first half of 2016. How else do you explain the drop in extra base hits from last year to now?
As is usually the case with Matt Carpenter, nothing is simple. Ever. As long as he hits leadoff and draws walks with the fair dose of power, it's hard to complain. He may be getting to that power a different way, but it's still there. Is he evolving, or just relying on different tools?
Now pardon me, I need a couple Ibuprofen.