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Matt Carpenter can really only hit leadoff

Matt Carpenter St. Louis Cardinals

Since the start of 2013, Matt Carpenter has been the St. Louis Cardinals best hitter. His 132 wRC+ through August 2nd is 1% better than Carlos Beltran was in his final year with the Cardinals and 2% better than Matt Holliday from 2013 to 2016. Carpenter ranks in the top 30 among all MLB hitters (min. 200 PA) since 2013.

Matt Carpenter is a very good hitter, even if not an elite hitter. Yet, he’s one of the St. Louis Cardinals most frustrating players. Part of the reason: among the MLB’s top 30 hitters, Matt Carpenter’s RBI per plate appearance is the lowest. While RBI is a poor stat to use when attempting to measure value, it gets at the fan base’s problem regarding Carpenter. That issue is his apparent inability to hit anywhere outside the leadoff spot.

Baseball is a game full of superstitions. Yogi Berra called the game “90 percent mental.” Yet, it seemingly goes against our logic to admit that Matt Carpenter can be a great hitter when he’s hitting in the leadoff spot and a much worse hitter when he’s anywhere else in the batting order. Yet, since he debuted in 2011, Matt Carpenter has been a terrific hitter while leading off, and much less than that when not.

St. Louis Cardinals Matt CarpenterZach Gifford | THE INTREPID STL

However, that comparison does a little apples-to-oranges. In 2015, Matt Carpenter changed his identity as a hitter in an effort to generate more power. He made a further adjustment in 2016, when he began to pull the ball more in another attempt to generate power. That gives us three distinct segments of Matt Carpenter’s hitting career. And he’s been a better hitter when leading off in each one.

St. Louis Cardinals Matt CarpenterZach Gifford | THE INTREPID STL

For the sake of fairness, I excluded Carpenter’s pinch hit plate appearances in all data retrieved from FanGraphs. We expect him to be worse in pinch hit PAs, and we want to make this comparison as fair as possible.

As you can see looking at wRC+, Matt Carpenter has been a worse hitter when he’s not in the leadoff spot. He’s been worse by varying degrees, but he’s been worse in each segment of his career. The smallest of these sample sizes includes more than 270 plate appearances, so it’s not as if we’re dealing with a major sample size caveat. Matt Carpenter is great when he leads off, and he’s average (or worse) when he doesn’t.

From 2011 to 2014, there wasn’t much difference between Matt Carpenter at leadoff and elsewhere. The real divergence came in 2015. So, from this point on, I’ll be focusing on 2015 data unless otherwise noted. Fortunately, that lines up exactly with the availability of Statcast batted ball data.

In any argument about Carpenter’s struggles outside the leadoff spot, his BABIP is cited. After all, he does own a .329 BABIP when leading off and a .292 BABIP otherwise, which suggests luck might be involved. However, BABIP isn’t random; it’s a (high variance) product of contact quality. Using Statcast batted ball data from Baseball Savant, we can compare Carpenter’s contact quality when he hits leadoff versus when he hits anywhere else.

Matt Carpenter St. Louis CardinalsZach Gifford | THE INTREPID STL

BBE stands for batted ball events, EV for average exit velocity, and LA for average launch angle. Hard-hit% is the percentage of batted balls hit harder than 95 mph. xwOBA-con is “expected” weighted on-base average on-contact. Basically, it measures how valuable Carpenter’s batted balls are by stripping luck out of the equation.

So, as you can see, Matt Carpenter has generated hard contact more often when he leads off. His average exit velocity is more than 2 mph harder from the leadoff spot. His average launch angle doesn’t indicate he’s hitting many more line drives, fly balls, or grounders when leading off compared to when he’s hitting 2-9 (more on that shortly). Put it all together, and Carpenter generates about 9.3% more value on his average batted ball when leading off.

You might think that Carpenter’s been healthier when hitting leadoff, which could explain the stronger contact quality. You may remember his bout with fatigue in 2015. Leading up to his week off to deal with that fatigue, Carpenter hit second in nine straight games. In those games, his average exit velocity was 90.5 mph on 26 batted balls. In his nine games after returning while still hitting second, his average exit velocity was 90.0 mph on 26 batted balls. Then last year, after returning from his oblique injury in 2016, he hit leadoff in forty games and not-leadoff in ten. Health isn’t the driver behind his weaker contact when not leading off.

I note the average launch angle above because launch angle is best viewed on a spectrum. FanGraphs hosts batted ball data that breaks down contact into grounders, line drives, fly balls, and infield fly balls (basically pop ups). Line drive rate (LD%) is another high variance metric. So, if Matt Carpenter was succeeding more as a leadoff hitter because of an inflated LD%, we might attribute that to randomness and expect his leadoff vs. non-leadoff batting lines to even out.

St. Louis Cardinals Matt CarpenterZach Gifford | THE INTREPID STL

Yet, again, we don’t see any noteworthy differences between Carpenter’s LD%, GB%, FB%, or IFFB% when hitting leadoff vs. not. The only metric that should catch your eye is Pull%. In 2015, Carpenter pulled the ball about 43% of the time when leading off and 35% of the time when not. Again, in 2016 until present, Carpenter’s leadoff Pull% is about 49% while his non-leadoff Pull% is 44%. This is the one metric I’ll admit may indicate that Carpenter takes a different approach when not leading off, but his similar results on line drives, grounders, and fly balls indicate he’s making very similar contact. He just doesn’t hit is as hard when he’s not leading off.

So, based on his batted ball data, we can say that Matt Carpenter produces similar-but-weaker contact when he doesn’t lead off compared to when he does. That should dispel the notion that batted ball luck is to blame for his leadoff success and not-leadoff struggles.

Batted balls are only part of the equation, though. For his career, about 30% of Carpenter’s plate appearances have ended in non-contact situations, via strikeout or walk. So how do his strikeout and walk rates compare across the three segments discussed above?

St. Louis Cardinals Matt CarpenterZach Gifford | THE INTREPID STL

Honestly, I’m not sure how much there is to see here. Matt Carpenter strikes out a little more on average when he doesn’t lead off, but he also walks a little more when he doesn’t lead off. While these differences are small, they may indicate pitchers attack Carpenter slightly differently when he leads off than they do when he doesn’t. So let’s look, using Statcast data since 2015.

Matt Carpenter St. Louis CardinalsZach Gifford | THE INTREPID STL

Again, we don’t see much here. He sees an eerily similar rate of all pitches whether leading off or not. Aggregating by fastball, breaking ball, and off speed pitch types shows basically the same picture. Pitchers attack him the same way whether Carpenter is leading off or not.

But how does Carpenter respond to that attack? Is he more aggressive in one situation versus the other? Not really.

Matt Carpenter St. Louis CardinalsZach Gifford | THE INTREPID STL

Pitchers do throw Carpenter slightly less balls in the zone when he’s not leading off. It’s not a substantial difference though, equating to about one less pitch in the strike zone every eight plate appearances. Maybe not even a noticeable difference. Carpenter swings at pitches in the zone slightly more and chases slightly less when he’s not hitting leadoff. In other words, he’s “correct” more often when not leading off. Again, though, that’s maybe one swing every other game.

Finally, there’s an argument that maybe Matt Carpenter hits worse when he’s not leading off because he’s already been slumping before he’s moved out of the leadoff spot. Then, when he returns to the leadoff spot, it’s because he’s started to hit better from a different slot in the order.

So I paged through Carpenter’s game logs since the start of 2015. I found three instances where he was primarily hitting leadoff before being moved to another slot in the lineup for a decent chunk of time. Below, I compare his last stretch of games (primarily hitting leadoff) to his next stretch of games (primarily hitting not-leadoff).

Matt Carpenter St. Louis CardinalsZach Gifford | THE INTREPID STL

As you can see, the latest incident just happened. Obviously we don’t have the next ten data for this time yet, although Carpenter did go 0-4 on August 3rd from the three-hole. In the other two instances, Carpenter’s OPS dropped by about 200 points immediately after leaving the leadoff spot. He wasn’t slumping in either case before being moved, and yet he performed significantly worse after the move. (Note I used Last 7/Next 7 for the second instance since he returned from his oblique injury on August 5th).

Next, I found three instances where Matt Carpenter was moved from primarily hitting not-leadoff back to leadoff. I wanted to see if he seems to hit better when he leads off because he’s already gotten “hot” before being switched back to the top of the order. Nope.

Matt Carpenter St. Louis CardinalsZach Gifford | THE INTREPID STL

In all three cases, Carpenter was in a miserable slump while hitting not-leadoff, was put back into the leadoff spot, and immediately performed like a great hitter. Twice he performed unbelievably great. It’s as if going back to the leadoff spot sparked his bat.

My last thought was that this problem might be a situational thing – maybe Matt Carpenter can hit with none-on, none-out situations and struggles more with runners on base. The data doesn’t support idea either, though, as Carpenter has a 69 wRC+ in 187 plate appearances hitting not-leadoff and a 145 wRC+ hitting in none-on, none-out situations in 1004 PAs from the leadoff spot.

Further sacking the situational argument is how Carpenter hits with runners on base. With runners on, he owns a 156 wRC+ when hitting leadoff and 114 wRC+ when hitting not-leadoff. So we can’t even attribute his not-leadoff struggles to situational factors. He’s just a better hitter when he occupies the first slot in the order.

 

So, we’ve gone through a lot of data. Almost all the data! And what do we have?

  • Matt Carpenter has significantly worse hitting stats when he doesn’t lead off compared to when he does.
  • Carpenter’s contact quality is similar-but-weaker when he does not lead off compared to when he does. Since it’s weaker, his not-leadoff contact quality (xwOBA-con) is significantly worse than his leadoff contact quality.
  • Health isn’t the cause for the weaker contact.
  • Carpenter has pulled the ball less when he’s hit not-leadoff.
  • He strikes out and walks (ever so) slightly less when he leads off.
  • Pitchers attempt to execute the same plan off attack whether Carpenter leads off or not.
  • Carpenter has a similar approach in terms of zone-swings and chase rate whether he leads off or not.
  • He isn’t slumping when he’s moved away from the leadoff spot, and he’s not hot when he’s moved back to the leadoff spot.
  • Carpenter hits significantly better with the bases empty and with runners on when he leads off versus when he does not lead off.

The only thing that sticks out here is that difference in Pull%. I can’t find any reason why he’d pull the ball less often when not leading off. Therefore, I must speculate that his timing is slightly off when he doesn’t hit leadoff.

So, is Matt Carpenter a worse hitter when he’s not hitting leadoff? His 3,450 career plate appearances say yes.

  • Zach Gifford

    Another note worthy of inclusion… We can’t blame the shift for Carpenter’s struggles when hitting not-leadoff, either. Since 2015, when hitting leadoff, Carpenter has faced the shift in 338 of his 1073 plate appearances (31.5%) and has hit for a 126 wRC+ against it. When hitting not leadoff, he faces the shift less often and hits significantly worse against it. 147 of his 584 not-leadoff PAs (thru 8/3/17) have come against the shift (25.2%), and his wRC+ in those situations is only 45.

    So, on the whole, the shift hurts Carpenter. But he’s shifted against more when he’s leading off, so we can’t blame that for the disparity between his leadoff and not-leadoff performance. And once again, he’s done better against the shift while leading off than otherwise. When he’s in the leadoff spot, it’s like he barely notices the shift. When he’s not leading off, the shift is suddenly crippling.

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