Matt Carpenter Excels at Leadoff. What Happens If He Moves and Changes His Approach?

Is there value in taking a lot of pitches? Does the extra-patient hitting approach wear a pitcher down? Does being picky and selective give the hitter a better read on the spin and movement of a pitch?

It’s debatable. I’ve done some  reading on this subject the last few days, and if I had to lean one way or another I’d say … yeah, it probably helps.

Cubs manager Joe Maddon endorses the theory.

“These pitchers just can’t keep making that many good pitches if you force them to throw so many,” Maddon said, via the Chicago Tribune. “That’s part of the concept people don’t get into enough. It’s not easy to keep dotting corners, getting the breaking balls underneath the bat, elevating when you want to.”

That makes sense.

The SB Nation site Beyond the Box Score had a go at this last season and concluded:

“Seeing more pitches can lead a pitcher to coming into the zone more often. Good hitters will take advantage.”

Special emphasis on the word GOOD hitters.

Which leads us to Matt Carpenter. After being very careful in resting and rehabbing an ailing lower back, Carpenter finally made his exhibition-game debut for the Cardinals on Tuesday.

Carpenter made two plate appearances.

And you will not be stunned to learn that he walked.

Twice.

I don’t think this means he’s ready to roll for the regular season — too early for that — but for folks like me who appreciate the art of the quality at-bat, there is something reassuring about Carpenter stubbornly standing in the box, waiting out the pitcher, at peace with his approach, and refusing to hack at the stinky bait thrown outside the strike zone.

Before I throw down the stats, I wanted to thank my friends at Inside Edge for providing this information for me.  And for this purpose the available data goes back to the start of the 2016 season. And that’s perfectly fine. The sample size is more than adequate.

GET YOUR WALK ON … 

— Carpenter has drawn 190 walks in 1,188 plate appearances (16%)  since the start of 2016,  a rate that ranks third among 130 full-time hitters and is nearly double the the league average 8.4 percent. Carpenter, who bats left, has a 16.6 percent walk rate against RH pitchers over the last two seasons. He’s walked 14 percent of the time against lefties.

— Carpenter has a 15.9% walk rate against starting pitchers (2nd highest) and well above the league average 7.9 percent. What about those nasty relievers that come out of the pen bringing gas to give Carpenter some uncomfortable heat? No problem: His walk rate vs. relievers is 16.1 percent the last two years, No. 5 among hitters.

— The dude is consistent, that’s for sure. Consider these Carpenter digits from the last two seasons: a  14.9% percent walk rate when leading off an inning;  a 16% percent walk rate against NL Central opponents; 20.6% walk rate with runners in scoring position; 14% walk rate in close and late situations.

KNOW THY STRIKE ZONE. AVOID TEMPTATION. 

— Carpenter has chased 19.6% of 2,791 pitches out of the strike zone since the start of 2016; that’s the second-lowest rate among full-time hitters and over 10 percent better than the league average of 29.8 percent.

— Again, consistency: a chase rate of 18.9 percent on pitches out of the zone thrown by LHP (No. 1 ranking) and a chase rate of 19.9 percent vs. RHP (No.  1 ranking.)

— Carpenter ranks 3rd among full-time hitters with a chase rate of 21.7 percent on non-strike pitches when he’s up with runners in scoring position. (League average: 32.1 percent.)

— You won’t get him to jump at a bad pitch on the first pitch of an at-bat very often; he’s chased out of zone pitches only 6 percent of the time on the first pitch. That ranks 6th. League average: 15.2 percent.

— Carpenter has chased 11.9% pitches when the pitcher is behind in the count; that ranks No. 1 among 130 hitters over the last two seasons. League average: 26.2 percent.

— The league average for chasing out of zone pitches thrown 94 mph or greater is 26.5 percent. Carpenter’s chase rate on 94 mph+ pitches the last two seasons was 14.5 percent, which ranked 1st among 130 full-time hitters.

— Carpenter has the lowest chase rate (18.5%) on out of zone pitches against starting pitchers over the last two seasons. (League average 29.5%.) And he has the sixth-lowest chase rate (21.9%) vs. relievers. League average 30.3 percent.

— During the 2016-17 seasons, the league average for chasing pitches on a two-strike count was 42.2 percent. Carpenter’s chase rate with two strikes was 33.3 percent, which ranked 11th out of the 130 full-time hitters.

— Carpenter ranks 2nd among 130 hitters with a chase rate of 17.7 percent since 2016 when when leading off an inning. League average, 28 percent.

WISE TO RESOLVE, AND PATIENT TO PERFORM

That quote was by Homer … no, not Homer Bailey … or even Simpson, for that matter.

Anyway:

— Carpenter is averaging 4.3 pitches per plate appearance since the start of 2016. That ranks 4th among 130 hitters.

— When leading off an inning Carpenter is averaging 4.5 pitches per PA; that ranks 2nd over the last two years. League average 3.9.

— Carpenter averaged 4.4 pitches per PA vs. starting pitchers the past two seasons; that’s 2nd among the 130 full-time hitters.

— Carpenter is averaging 4.2 pitches per plate appearance with runners in scoring position over the last two years; that’s 7th among 130 hitters.

DO NOT SET THE LINEUP CARD ON FIRE 

Carpenter has an OBP of .382 since the start of 2016, which is 13th overall. But really, his onbase skills are more impactful than that. Since Carpenter began hitting leadoff in 2013, he has a .391 OBP and .486 slugging percentage as a No. 1 hitter in the lineup. That’s the best leadoff OBP in the majors, and his leadoff OPS (.877) ranks second.

As a leadoff man, Carpenter’s career park-adjusted runs created (wRC+) is 42 percent above league average. And using the Bill James RC/27 metric, if Carpenter took every at-bat for his team as a No. 1 hitter in the lineup, that team would score 7.16 runs in a nine-inning game. Carpenter’s performance in RC/27 when he bats third in the lineup is 5.19 runs, and when he bats second the RC/27 is only 4.39 runs.

Manager Mike Matheny plans to use Dexter Fowler at leadoff this season and move Carpenter to third in the lineup. It’s puzzling on several levels. Carpenter is the superior leadoff hitter. All you have to do is look at their career numbers when batting 1st in the lineup:

Fowler:  .363 OBP,  .429 SLG, .792 OPS, wRC+ of 10% above league average, and RC/27 of 5.71 runs.

Carpenter: .391 OBP, .487 SLG,  878 OPS,  wRC+ of 42% above league average, and RC/27 of 7.16 runs.

On top of that, there’s Carpenter’s unique hitting approach. I’ve just presented a bunch of data that shows his remarkable patience and discipline as a leadoff hitter. His superb walk rate. His focus that keeps him from flailing at balls out of the strike zone. His ability to make pitchers work. And Carpenter maintains this unique profile in virtually every hitting situation, and against pitchers of every variety.

Carpenter has the fifth-best leadoff OBP among all qualifying major-league hitters since 1974.

That’s pretty good, yes?

So why would any manager mess with that?

Carpenter hasn’t been nearly as effective when he bats elsewhere in the lineup. He’s clearly trained his mind to think like a leadoff man, and to have the incredible patience and discipline of a leadoff man. He’s developed a hardwired mentality that’s ideal for the role.

The Cardinals averaged 5.1 runs per game last season when Carpenter batted leadoff.

When he didn’t bat leadoff the average was about 4.2 runs per game.

I believe the word is “catalyst.”

Carpenter needs to cut down on his strikeouts, and do a better job of salvaging at-bats with two-strike counts — flaws that he discussed in a compelling self-analysis relayed by Derrick Goold. Carpenter’s self-awareness is a virtue, though he’s too hard on himself for batting .241 last season. (Based on his hard contact and poor batted-ball luck, his average should have been around .280.)

I used to think it was foolish to believe Carpenter couldn’t function as effectively outside the No. 1 spot … but I’m not so sure. If Carpenter is located to the 3 spot, he will almost certainly alter his hitting approach … and probably dramatically so. The potential consequence? He is no longer Matt Carpenter.

Carpenter the leadoff man is sui generis … 

So let the artist do his work.

–Bernie

More: Matt Carpenter’s Curious Injury History (and How the Cards Can Manage It)