A couple of days ago I read this article from Derrick Goold where Matt Carpenter was quoted as saying that “he’s done selling his soul for home runs.” I found the article especially strange because in the article Carpenter talks about completely changing his approach at the plate…AGAIN! It was just a couple of years ago when Carp turned himself into a home run hitter by changing his swing and approach at the plate.
This is especially unusual because so many hitters have become well-known for improving their careers by doing exactly what Carpenter did a couple of years ago. Players like Daniel Murphy, Josh Donaldson, and Justin Turner have become stars by trying to hit more home runs and have encouraged many others to attempt the same thing. And now Carpenter wants to do the opposite?
Well, not exactly. With Carpenter’s homers have also come an increase in his strike outs. In 2013 and 2014, Carpenter’s K rate averaged 14.7 %. From 2015-2017, his K rate has averaged 20.7%. Over a 600 PA season, that an increase in 36 strikeouts per season. Now, the sabermetric community has developed many a hand cramp telling people that strikeouts usually aren’t that much worse than every other type of out and, in fact, are actually better than double plays. Nevertheless, 36 additional strikeouts means 36 additional balls NOT in play some of which would inevitably end up in time Carpenter would have reached base.
Carpenter is particularly upset about his .241 batting average last season — look at all the good it’s done that the sabermetric community has begun convincing people that batting average is way overrated! — and wants to increase his batting average and reduce his strikeouts and doing those 2 things would mean sacrificing some homers. The question is then, do we really want Carpenter trading home runs for a higher batting average?
At first, I thought the question was pretty stupid but now I’m starting to come around the idea that the answer is yes.
In the article, Carpenter is quoted as saying that he would be content to hit 15 home runs and 50 doubles instead of the 23 home runs and 31 doubles he had last season, if it also meant reducing the strikeouts. Now, 50 doubles is really difficult to get and would pretty obviously make him a better hitter since it would increase his number of extra base hits while also reducing the strikeouts. What if he gives up those 8 home runs, though, and only gets more singles? How many singles would he have to gain in order to make it worth giving up the 8 home runs?
Last year, Carpenter had a .361 wOBA so, clearly, for this experiment to be worthwhile, he’s going to have to end up with at least the same wOBA this season. Let’s say that this season Carpenter had the same number of everything as last season except for home runs, outs, and singles. He would lose the 8 home run by dropping from 23 to 15 and, in order to keep a .361 wOBA would need to go from 64 singles to 78. He would only need to trade his 8 home runs for 14 singles in order to just break even.
How hard would that be? Last season he had 622 PA’s so if he lowers his K rate by 6% that would reduce his number of strikeouts by 37. Take away those 8 home runs and that’s an additional 45 balls in play. Last year his BABIP was just .274 but a different approach that isn’t so fly ball heavy might increase it to the league average of ~.300 so let’s assume a BABIP around .300. A .300 BABIP on an additional 45 balls in play means an additional 13.5 hits. How about that! Even if we assume all 13 – 14 of those additional hits are singles then his wOBA would exactly be equal this year to what it was last season.
This obviously assumes he can reduce the strikeouts by a lot so that he’s back at his pre-2015 K rate. I don’t honestly know if that’s reasonable. Can he do it simply by changing his approach over the offseason? I don’t know that either but I think that we’ve shown that it’s conceivable that he could trade homers for balls in play and end up at least as good an offensive player as he was in 2017.
Obviously that means that if he turns some of those homers into doubles, presumably his wOBA could actually increase. Carp’s best season came in 2013 when he had 11 HR’s, 55 2B’s, and a 13.7% K rate. His BB rate that year was 10% and last year his walk rate was 17.5% so a lot of those assumptions rely on the fact that this increase in the number of balls in play doesn’t force him to sacrifice any walks.
It’s rare that we hear any baseball player, coach, or analytics guy suggesting a player should try to hit fewer home runs so my first inclination when hearing what Carp wanted to do was to think this had no chance of actually making him a better hitter. But maybe I was wrong. Hopefully I was. The numbers, I think, show that this is doable IF he can actually lower the K rate to his 2013 levels.
Thanks for reading.
I thought that might get your attention.
Ever since teams started shifting against left-handed hitters, crowds of eminently knowledgeable baseball fans have been screaming for those lefty hitters to bunt against the shift. As Mr. Baseball Genius Extraordinaire sees the second baseman pulled into shallow right field, the shortstop looking lost on the wrong side of the bag, and the third baseman pulled a furlong and a half away from the 3rd base line, I can hear him screaming at the TV, “Just bunt the damn ball right down the line! Even Matt Carpenter could run for days!” “He should bunt every time to beat the shift!” Eventually someone like Matt Adams would try to bunt to beat the shift and said baseball genius would scream out “Finally!” as the bunt trickles foul along the 3rd base line. “I don’t understand why he doesn’t always do that!”
Defensive shifts are changing the way in which the game is played and it’s becoming increasingly difficult for left-handed hitters because those shifts are taking away a lot of what used to be hits and turning then into routine ground outs. Even a hard hit ball to right field often ends up in nothing more than a 4-3 ground out as the 2nd baseman is positioned in short right field specifically to take away those base hits. This leaves the 3rd base line open but left-handed hitters don’t often hit the ball down the 3rd base line.
Below you’ll find a diagram of all of Carpenter’s batted balls for the 2017 season. The green dots are his ground balls. It’s pretty clear by looking at the diagram that his fly balls tend to go to left-center field and left field more than right but his line drives and ground balls are predominantly to the right side. Knowing that, how would you position your fielders if you were defending Carpenter?
Carpenter is, therefore, a perfect candidate to lay down some bunts in order to reach base more often but there are 2 primary reasons why lefty batters don’t “do that every time!!!!” The first is that homers and doubles are much more valuable than bunt singles. It may surprise you to learn that bunts rarely, if ever, turn into home runs. It’s extremely rare. (I actually went looking on baseball-reference to find the number of bunt home runs in MLB history but there was no way to look for one in the play index. A google search came up with videos of Brian Dozier and Steven Souza hitting bunt homers but they’re both actually bunt singles with errors that turned them into “Little League Home Runs.”)
The 2nd reason players don’t bunt that often against the shift is that bunting major league pitching, especially when the hitter is trying to surprise the defense, is really freaking hard. Fans sit at home crushing a bag of Funyuns thinking that bunting against Aroldis Chapman is something anyone can do anytime they try but it just isn’t that easy. Nevertheless, neither is hitting against the shift.
Bunting against the shift is easier for a lefty hitter to pull off than a right-handed hitter because the 3rd base line is exploitable. First basemen don’t leave the 1st base line open against righties because they have to get to 1st base to catch the throws from whoever fields the ball. The Cardinals basically only have 3 left-handed hitters — Carpenter, Kolten Wong, and Dexter Fowler (switch-hitter). I’m not going to worry about Greg Garcia for purposes of this discussion because, you know…Greg Garcia.
The table below shows the 3 hitters’ wOBA against the shift in 2017 and their wOBA on ground balls in 2017 (per fangraphs).
|Player||wOBA vs shift||wOBA on grounders|
So Wong actually performed better against the shift last season than he did overall but Carpenter and Fowler were dramatically worse and all 3 hitters were much worse on ground balls than they were overall (not a shocking result, to be sure).
So in order for us to suggest that they bunt more often, they would have to be able to do better when bunting the ball than they performed when they weren’t bunting. In 2017, both Wong and Carpenter performed very well when bunting for a hit. Wong had 4 hits in 9 attempts when bunting for a base hit and Carpenter had 4 hits in 7 attempts. Fowler, on the other hand, had no bunt hits in 2017 even though he is the fastest of the 3. Of course, even a guy like Carpenter who’s (ahem!) a bit challenged on the bases can get bunt hits because of where the 3rd baseman is positioned. Even though Fowler has no bunt hits last season, he was 2 for 5 in 2016, 3 for 8 in 2015, and 3 for 5 in 2014 so he clearly knows how to bunt.
Now, obviously, all these bunt hits are going to be singles so a batting average of, say, .400 is going to end up with a slugging percentage of .400 also an OPS of .800. Guys like Fowler and Carpenter who can hit the ball out of the park with some regularity should be judicious about how often they bunt but I think it’s fair to say they should be bunting more often than they are, especially considering how most hitters perform against the shift.
Still, these 3 guys have all had a high degree of success when bunting for base hits in the past. There’s no reason that can’t continue in 2018. If they could, between them, bunt for a .400 or higher average, then how many times should they attempt to bunt for a hit? The answer is, first of all, that they should clearly bunt for a hit more often against lefties than righties, at least for Wong and Carpenter. For Fowler, that’s more difficult to determine because, even though he was much better vs. righties last season, he’s been much better vs. lefties over the course of his career.
So against the shift, the 3 should bunt more often — possibly a lot more often — until teams change the way they set their defense. It’s a classic game theory situation, with the Cards’ hitters all being quite good bunters and the defense — to this point — allowing those 3 to bunt so as to better defend ground balls and line drives that are pulled to the right side. In my mind, it wouldn’t be too many if they each decided to bunt 15-20 times this season as long as teams allow them to do it and they can do so successfully.
Teams are sacrificing a lot less often as they’ve come to realize how valuable outs are and that it doesn’t make a lot of sense to give them up for a small gain. But bunting for hits can and probably should be used more frequently because of the frequency with which teams are deploying defensive shifts. Fortunately, the Cardinals have 3 guys who can use their ability to bunt to take advantage of these shifts, thus putting more bodies on the bases and giving the team more scoring opportunities.
Thanks for reading.