Magical Matt Carpenter Has Turned into Essential Piece of Juggernaut YankeesJune 14, 2022
The beauty of baseball is that you never know when an alleged has-been is suddenly going to become the hottest hitter on the best team in Major League Baseball.
Isn't that right, Matt Carpenter?
It wasn't even a month ago that the Texas Rangers released the 36-year-old Carpenter from a minor league deal that had him playing for Triple-A Round Rock. Though the decision was mutual, it still resembled yet another low point for the three-time All-Star after he was one of MLB's worst hitters in his last two seasons for the St. Louis Cardinals.
When the Yankees picked up Carpenter on May 26, it certainly wasn't out of desperation. They were already 31-13. They were just having a bit of trouble getting production from the left side of the plate, so the decision to add the veteran's left-handed stick had a palpable "What the heck?" quality to it.
Three weeks later, the guy just can't stop hitting home runs.
With six home runs through 10 games with the Yankees, Carpenter needs just one more to match his total for the last 180 games he played with the Cardinals.
"I've played the game long enough to know what it feels like and looks like when I'm right," Carpenter said after launching two homers and driving in seven in an 18-4 blowout of the Chicago Cubs on Sunday. "This is certainly that."
All this hot hitting isn't going to waste. Whereas the Cardinals went 19-25 in games in which Carpenter started in 2021, the Yankees have won all but one of the seven games he's started for them this season.
Is it premature to call Carpenter a candidate for the American League Comeback Player of the Year? Probably. But after everything he went through to get to this point, there's a place for him in that conversation if he can keep this up.
Rumors of Matt Carpenter's Demise...
The Cardinals could have had Carpenter back for 2022 if they had picked up his $12 million option, but they instead chose to pay his $2 million buyout and make him a free agent. As he told Dan Martin of the New York Post, it was a case of the "front office people" in St. Louis having determined that he was "losing ability."
Honestly, who can blame them?
Carpenter was 26 when he played his first full season for the Cardinals in 2012, and he quickly minted his stardom with an All-Star nod and a fourth-place finish in the National League MVP voting in 2013. Another All-Star selection followed in 2014, and then he really took off as one of baseball's elite hitters in 2015.
From then through 2018, the TCU alum hit at .260/.376/.497 with a 134 OPS+ and 108 home runs. He was one of 15 hitters to break the latter two thresholds, and he even outhomered four past and future MVPs: Joey Votto, Kris Bryant, Mookie Betts and Freddie Freeman.
Then came the start of Carpenter's decline in 2019, and it got so ugly throughout the year that there was pressure on former Cardinals manager Mike Shildt to move the then-33-year-old to the bench. He resisted that year, but another down year for Carpenter in 2020 and the club's trade for Nolan Arenado in Feb. 2021 finally forced the veteran to the pine.
Far from reinvigorating Carpenter's career, the move to part-time duty seemed to put the lid on the coffin. Though he hit three home runs in April, zero more followed in the 197 plate appearances he took throughout the rest of the season. In the No Homers Club for that span was just him and Magneuris Sierra, who also has zero home runs for his entire MLB career.
It was painful to watch Carpenter flame out so spectacularly in St. Louis, and there was no solace to be found in either his surface-level numbers or underlying metrics.
He hit just .203/.325/.346 with an 83 OPS+ between 2019 and 2021, notably with the three highest strikeout rates of his career. And while he did salvage a decent hard-hit rate (42 percent) and exit velocity (90 mph) in '21, his .412 expected slugging percentage for 2019-21 was still well south of the .524 mark he put up between 2015-18.
But while all this sure made it look like Carpenter was finished, what he's proving now is that it was merely that version of him that was finished.
...Were Greatly Exaggerated
As far as what's changed about Carpenter since last season came to a close, it's gotta be the mustache, right?
We can't be certain about that, yet it seems like a perfectly reasonable answer to say, "Well, that and the changes he's made to his swing."
Even as far back as Feb. 2021, Carpenter was speaking openly about wanting to "get my bat speed back to where I feel like it should be." Though that mission clearly failed, his search for a fix for what ailed him not only continued throughout the 2021-22 offseason but expanded.
Ken Rosenthal of The Athletic was on the story in February, writing that Carpenter took some cues from Votto—namely, to train for modern power pitching by taking swings against a pitching machine set at "maximum velocity and maximum spin"—and also took strides to become more mechanically efficient. He even switched to a new bat.
Even before the Yankees scooped Carpenter off the scrapheap, there were signs that all his time and effort to remake his swing had been worth it. As he had a .991 OPS and six homers in 21 games at Round Rock, it wasn't for lack of production that he didn't get a shot with the Rangers. They just didn't have playing time for him.
Now that Carpenter is in the majors, the specific benefits of his new swing are all out in the open. Just for starters, his gains in bat speed are plainly evident in how he's cut his whiff rate against fastballs in half:
The decline in Carpenter's strikeout rate is also noticeable. He's gone from whiffing in 30.9 percent of his plate appearances in 2021 to a much more manageable 23.3 percent in 2022.
Otherwise, Carpenter simply had to get back to being a pull-power hitter. Of the 155 home runs he hit between 2012 and 2021, 98 were to right field. He hit nearly half as many (50) to center and just seven to left field.
Carpenter made the most of his right-field power alley between 2015 and 2018, wherein 24.6 percent of his batted balls were line drives or fly balls to his pull side. That figure dipped to 21.1 percent between 2019 and 2021, and he also exhibited a drastic lack of thump in the latter year. Even when he did pull balls in the air, they went a career-low 261 feet on average.
Small sample size and all, but these issues are long gone in 2022.
With the Yankees, pulled line drives and fly balls account for a whopping 41.2 percent of Carpenter's batted balls. And as for their average distance, well, take a look:
As much as it stands out that Carpenter has hit five of his six homers at Yankee Stadium, don't chalk it up to the short porch in right field. He's truly crushing the ball.
Ultimately, it's all there in his expected slugging percentage. At .782, he ranks ahead of even Bryce Harper, Aaron Judge and Shohei Ohtani since May 26.
A Great Team Now Has a Good Problem to Have
Though the Yankees hardly needed a good luck charm, Carpenter has been one for them anyway. They were 31-13 before he arrived and 13-3 since he did.
At 44-16 overall, the Yankees aren't off to the best start in their history. It's pretty close, though, as only the 1998, 1953, 1939 and 1928 clubs started better. All four of them went on to win the World Series.
This is not to say the Yankees are devoid of problems, however, and one of them concerns Carpenter. Even as hot as he's been, his day-to-day role on the team remains unclear.
Though he has made three appearances as a pinch-hitter, it's as a starter that he has all eight of his hits—including, naturally, all six of his home runs. Yet he's not a better defensive option than Josh Donaldson at third base, Gleyber Torres at second base or Anthony Rizzo at first base, and there are even complications with playing him at designated hitter.
If Carpenter is in at DH, the Yankees are left with three outfield spots to distribute to four players: Aaron Judge, Giancarlo Stanton, Joey Gallo and Aaron Hicks. Benching Gallo or Hicks would have been addition by subtraction earlier in the year, but not now since both have a 145 wRC+ in June.
Rather than stress about this, though, it seems that Yankees manager Aaron Boone realizes he's in an enviable position of having no wrong buttons to push. In MLB.com's Bryan Hoch's words, his notions for Carpenter include a "continued role at designated hitter, off the bench and occasionally in the field, which is just fine."
Really all Boone has to worry about is not letting Carpenter go cold. The way he's swinging it, that's only going to happen if he denies him at-bats entirely.
Stats courtesy of Baseball Reference, FanGraphs and Baseball Savant.
Catch Matt Carpenter and the New York Yankees vs. the Tampa Bay Rays on TBS tonight at 7 PM ET. MLB on TBS Leadoff with Pedro Martinez, Jimmy Rollins & Lauren Shehadi kicks off coverage at 6:30.