Here’s why Matt Carpenter’s at-bats have been going much better than you think
At first glance, Matt Carpenter’s quest to build on his breakout 2013 season doesn’t appear to be off to a rousing start.
He is hitting a so-so .275 with a less-than-robust .327 slugging percentage and, after setting all kinds of doubles records a year ago, hasn’t had a single two-base hit in the Cardinals’ first 15 games. His swing-and-miss rate is up, and his 13 strikeouts are tied with Peter Bourjos for most on the team.
With numbers like that, the man with the fat, new $52 million contract extension is looking like a one-year wonder.
Well, numbers can deceive. If you believe that Carpenter has been struggling, you probably believe that Adam Wainwright is an accomplished dancer. While Carpenter is lagging in hits and extra-base hits, other early numbers indicate he has become an even better leadoff hitter this season. His on-base percentage is .400, his average of 4.5 pitches per plate appearance is second in the NL and he ranks among NL leaders with 11 runs and 11 walks.
"He’s taking great at-bats, exactly like what we saw all last season," manager Mike Matheny said.
And that is saying a lot. Carpenter emerged as one of the NL’s most productive offensive players last season. He led the league in runs, hits and doubles and hit .318 with a .392 OBP. He won a Silver Slugger, made the All-Star team and finished fourth in MVP voting. He was so good, in fact, that improving statistically in 2014 would seem almost impossible even though this would be just his second season as an everyday player and, at 28, he is firmly in his prime.
But Matheny, who typically does whatever he can to reduce pressure on his players, seemed almost bothered when asked in spring training if Carpenter would be able to put up greater numbers in 2014.
"Why not?" Matheny asked. After all, Carpenter would be more comfortable with a move back to third base, he could prove smarter than the pitchers who have to adjust to him, and he would not be outworked.
"If he keeps the same approach, there’s no telling what he can do," Matheny said.
Matheny was referring to Carpenter’s overall approach to the game, but what separates Carpenter is his approach at the plate. Not that there’s much of a difference in the two. As a baseball player, Carpenter is the classic grinder, and nowhere is this exhibited better than when he is batting.
He lacks the speed of a prototypical leadoff hitter but remains an ideal guy to bat first. He sees pitches and he gets on base, qualities that pay off as much if not more than creating havoc on the bases.
Since Carpenter moved into the leadoff spot — Friday will mark the one-year anniversary — he has faced 766 more pitches than anyone else on the Cardinals. Only three others in the majors — Mike Trout, Shin-Soo Choo and Joey Votto — have seen more pitches than Carpenter (3,002) since he took over the top of the St. Louis order.
It’s almost like he changed his job description after he was given the responsibility of leading off. If he was supposed to see a lot of pitches, he would do just that. Carpenter has swung at a fewer percentage of pitches than any player in the NL since he ascended to the leadoff role.
But he insists his approach has remained consistent. That he watches more pitches nowadays is merely a product of playing regularly.
"Before (in his early days in the majors), you’re talking about a pinch-hit role. Taking the first pitch in a pinch-hit role is not a good idea," Carpenter said. "When you play (once) every six days, you want to swing. Now that I’m playing every day and leading off, I’m probably taking more pitches than what you’ve seen in years past but honestly, this is who I am."
Those times when he passes on a hittable first pitch have proven a small price for the benefits that have come with working counts. A two-run single that proved huge in last Sunday’s victory over the Cubs is a recent example. By the time Carpenter singled up the middle in his second at-bat, he already had seen 12 pitches from Edwin Jackson.
"He threw me everything he had — his slider, fastball, curveball, change-up. I knew after my first at-bat, even though I was 0 for 1, not only did I do my job to work a count, I put myself in the best position for the rest of the day," Carpenter said. "I come up for the next at-bat with a runner in scoring position and I’ve seen everything. He gets me in a deep count, leaves up a change-up, and I get a base hit. If I had gone up there and hit the first pitch, I wouldn’t have seen that changeup.
"That’s my mindset. The deeper I get into counts, the more comfortable I feel."
It matters not where he is hitting in the order or what the score is in the game.
"I take the same approach every time," he said. "Get a good pitch and when it gets there, be ready to go."
It’s continuing to work for him, too, even if not all the numbers say so just yet.
You can follow Stan McNeal on Twitter at @stanmcneal or email him at email@example.com.