Improving Carter turning into a force
Astros slugger named American League Player of the Week
NEW YORK -- Chris Carter is a man of few words. He's friendly and approachable, and he usually has a grin on his face. Carter's actions when moving around the clubhouse are equally as understated when he walks with a slow purpose.
Carter's demeanor seldom changes from day to day, month to month. He's the same guy he was during the first three months of the season as he's been during the previous 1 1/2 months, except for this realization: He's having more fun.
"It's a lot more fun hitting balls than not," Carter said in his matter-of-fact style.
Carter, the man who last year made a run at the Major League record for most strikeouts in a single season (he struck out 212 times, third-most all-time), has turned it around this year -- and maybe his career -- in a span of about six weeks with an impressive display of power that's made him the feared slugger the Astros had hoped.
On Monday, Carter became the second Houston player this season to be named the American League Player of the Week, hitting .321 with four homers, nine RBIs and a 1.083 OPS last week.
Since July 1, Carter leads the Major Leagues in home runs (16), slugging percentage (.689), OPS (1.047), and he's tied with David Ortiz for the most RBIs with 39. He's also hit .311 in that span, which has allowed him to raise his batting average to .233 from .181. Carter's 29 homers have already matched a career high, and he has a shot to become only the fourth Astros player to hit 40 homers in a season (Jeff Bagwell, Lance Berkman and Richard Hidalgo are the others).
"We knew that he's the type of player that at any point in time could go from being an average player to a very good or great player, because he has a weapon that very few players in baseball have, and that is the type of power that he has," said general manager Jeff Luhnow, who acquired Carter, catcher Max Stassi and pitcher Brad Peacock from the A's in exchange for shortstop Jed Lowrie and Fernando Rodriguez in February 2013.
There has never been a question about Carter's power. The 6-foot-4 designated hitter slugged 39 homers in Class A Stockton in 2008, racking up 182 blasts in 826 career Minor League games. He has 77 homers in his first 363 games in the Majors.
Carter, 27, said the reason for his surge in power and confidence hinges on some changes he's made to his approach and swing. He's shortened his stroke, which certainly hasn't hampered his power, and he's been more selective.
"That's pretty much the main thing we've been working on, shortening the stroke," Carter said. "Back when we were in Kansas City [in May], I began working on having a shorter stroke and being more direct to the ball."
While not an easy adjustment to make at this point in his career, Carter said it takes a conscious effort to do it.
"As long as I'm in the cage thinking about it every time I swing, instead of just swinging, it shows up more in the game," he said. "I don't think about in the game, but in the cage and BP and stuff."
Houston hitting coach John Mallee has also made Carter understand the importance of swinging at better pitches. Because his swing is shorter, Carter is getting to more fastballs in the strike zone, pitches he was fouling off before. He's hitting breaking balls more often in the zone, too, and he has reduced his swing-and-miss ratio on those pitches.
"Just to see him because of the hard work we put in and the dedication, his routine and also the way he studies the opposing pitchers and watches film, he became a student of the game," Mallee said. "The talent has always been there, and I think now the experience of playing and getting at-bats and learning how guys are trying to get him out is paying off. He's really a smart guy, and I'm so proud of him for what he's been doing."
Throughout Carter's early-season struggles -- he had a 3-for-38 stretch from June 14-July 1 in which he didn't have an RBI and struck out 18 times in 12 games -- Luhnow and Astros manager Bo Porter never publicly lost faith in him. The power was much needed in the lineup, but at what expense?
"I think I even said it at the beginning of the year when he was struggling. There's going to be a year where Chris Carter hits for a higher average, cuts down on his strikeouts, makes more contact, hits 30-plus home runs and drives in 100-plus runs and gets consideration for MVP votes or All-Star votes," Luhnow said. "That's the type of player in the last month and a half that he's become.
"You never know when a player is going to start to turn the corner, and you never know how long he's going to keep that turn for. In Chris' case, I think we're all in agreement -- Bo, myself, everybody else -- it's worth continuing to invest in this young man, because the payoff could be huge."