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Carpenter fixes swing to focus less on homers

First baseman: 'I'm not going to let myself hit .240 again'
MLB.com @JoeTrezz

JUPITER, Fla. -- When it finally came time for reflection, Matt Carpenter looked at his 2017 season and shook his head. The sections of his slash line stood out like snapshots of three different stories, written in a language he was raised on but lost somewhere along the way.

.241/.384/.451.

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JUPITER, Fla. -- When it finally came time for reflection, Matt Carpenter looked at his 2017 season and shook his head. The sections of his slash line stood out like snapshots of three different stories, written in a language he was raised on but lost somewhere along the way.

.241/.384/.451.

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The first number colored Carpenter as the kind of hitter he was embarrassed he had become. The next painted him as near-elite. The third hinted that, at age 32, time could be catching up with him. How could he be all three at once?

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"Is this even production?" Carpenter asked.

Through one lens, the answer may be an obvious "yes." Carpenter produced a 120 OPS+ while batting shoulder issues, rendering him above average by one of the game's most popular all-in-one metrics. Through another he declined dangerously, collecting fewer hits in more games than the season before, striking out at a career-worst rate and hitting line drives at an all-time low. Looked at either way, Carpenter put up one of the most debatable seasons in baseball in 2017, when he profiled as one of the game's tougher outs and also -- somehow, simultaneously -- a less skillful version of himself.

"I'm not going to let myself hit .240 again," Carpenter said. "I look at my season as a huge disappointment. I wasn't happy about the kind of year I had at all."

Part of that, Carpenter says, was health. He admits his shoulder issues made it difficult to drive the ball the other way, a tendency that, as a younger player, lay at the crux of his abilities.

"But a lot of that was also an approach thing," he said. "I can count on one hand the amount of line drives the other way I hit last year. And that's who I am."

Video: STL@HOU: Carpenter goes 2-for-2 with single, homer

A desire to return to a high level of production led Carpenter to examine his performance in two-strike counts, where he was once one of the most productive players in baseball. He hit .180/.299/.340 in those situations in 2017, a far cry from his .279/.349/.431 two-strike line back in '13. That year he led the National League in hits, doubles and runs. The only thing missing from his game was power, and Carpenter embarked on a four-year mission to prove he could provide it.

Fully committed to hitting the ball in the air more, Carpenter's home runs spiked from eight in 2014 to 28 in '15. He left the yard at almost an identical rate in '16. He raised his average launch angle that year to an average of 17 degrees, aligned exactly with that of Nationals second baseman Daniel Murphy, one of the fly-ball revolution's most successful acolytes.

But last year Carpenter raised his average angle four more degrees, putting his swing in the same neighborhood as all-or-nothing sluggers Mike Napoli and Joey Gallo. Carpenter's launch angle even increased in two-strike counts, from 21.4 degrees to 21.9 degrees. Few hitters swung more from their shoes when the situation called to shorten up.

"He can be a power hitter but he can also be a guy in situations who can be a situational hitter," Cardinals manager Mike Matheny said. "Unfortunately, there are some data points that support swinging and swinging until it's over. Some players are doing that and being rewarded for it, but I'm not going to be convinced that's winning baseball."

Carpenter hit more balls in the air, but his average exit velocity on fly balls fell more than 2 mph. The former gap-to-gap specialist morphed into a three-true-outcomes type. Carpenter's batting eye and slugging percentage didn't rate all that differently in 2013 than they did in '17, but by the end of it, he'd sacrificed 77 points of batting average in four years, giving mid-career Carpenter the statistical look of a young Adam Dunn.

"What am I doing? I'm selling my soul for home runs, and I'm not going to hit 50." Carpenter said. "Was it necessary to hit 25? Was it worth it?"

Carpenter compared the numbers to some from his younger years. He isn't sure what -- insecurity? peer pressure? -- prompted the swing change that he said he regrets.

His relentlessly all-fields cut had earned him a reputation as one of the more adroit hitters in the sport. He was contractually and financially secure. He'd made All-Star teams, earned National League Most Valuable Player Award votes. Yet as more hitters around the league dropped their shoulders and swung for the fences, the temptation tugged at him.

"I wanted to prove and show that I can be a guy who drives the ball out of the ballpark," Carpenter said. "But now, it's such a commodity. We have a ton of guys who can do it, and I've done it."

"I felt like I lost sight of who I am," Carpenter said. "I'm trying to fix it."

Joe Trezza is a reporter for MLB.com. Follow him on Twitter at @joetrezz.

St. Louis Cardinals, Matt Carpenter