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Should we worry about Matt Carpenter’s slow start?

Matt Carpenter St. Louis Cardinals

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Matt Carpenter, like most of the St. Louis Cardinals offense, is off to a slow start at the plate. Results-wise, at least. That’s led some to worry about him “not being able to hit outside the leadoff spot.” It looked today like Carpenter himself is worried about how he’s seeing the ball as well, since he attempted to bunt against Max Scherzer.

I wrote on Tuesday that the punchless offense might be a concern all year based on the contact profiles of the players on the rosters. One of the players I was not worried about at that time was Matt Carpenter. When I wrote that article, Carpenter was generating an above average exit velocity, and his 90.6 mph after one extra game is still above average by 2.3 mph.

To be fair, there is a real concern that Matt Carpenter struggles when he’s not hitting leadoff. For his career, he owns a hard-contact rate (Hard%) of about 37% in 2,205 plate appearances from the leadoff spot and about 30% in 841 PAs anywhere else. Since 2015, that split has increased to 43.4% in 870 leadoff PAs and 28.8% in 391 PAs elsewhere.

This year, however, he hasn’t had that problem. At least, not based on his Statcast batted ball data. Instead, his problem is bad luck.

In 2015 and 2016, while taking most of his plate appearances in the leadoff spot, Matt Carpenter hit 718 balls tracked by Statcast. Of those, 176 (or 24.5%) were hit at 100 mph or harder. This year, through today, Carpenter has 23 tracked batted balls, and has hit 6 of them (26.1%) harder than 100 mph. It doesn’t look like he’s had any trouble generating hard contact from the three hole right now.

What happened on those six batted balls? Naturally, they were all outs. All of them outs, even while averaging a hit probability of 63.3%. That hit probability suggests Carpenter could have expected four more hits than he actually has now. In that case, his batting average would be .346 through today, and no one would be talking about Carpenter’s slow start. Instead, we’d probably talk about how well he’s adjusted to life outside the leadoff spot.

It appears his approach at the plate is just fine, too. Through the 8th inning today, he had a 17.6% walk rate and 14.7% strikeout rate, both better than his career averages. His chase rate (O-Swing%) is slightly better than his career average and his contact rate is within 1% of his career average. The rest of his plate discipline statistics are on par with where he’s been over his career.

Of course, these numbers take more than two weeks of games to stabilize. However, it doesn’t look like Carpenter is doing anything differently this year than he has done for his entire career. That he’s kept a consistent approach and, thus far, continued to hit the ball hard is an encouraging sign, despite his low batting average. In fact, as I’m writing this right now, he walked again, raising his walk rate to 20%.

The St. Louis Cardinals offense has struggled to put runs on the board so far. The offense will struggle all year if Dexter Fowler and Matt Carpenter don’t hit. Luckily, it looks like Matt Carpenter is actually hitting, he’s just getting unlucky. If he continues making strong contact, results will come.