How this 36-year-old suddenly started hitting like Barry Bonds

July 22nd, 2022

Two months ago, 36-year-old Matt Carpenter was toiling away with the Rangers’ Triple-A affiliate, the Round Rock Express, wondering if he'd already played his final Major League game. Carpenter spent last offseason rebuilding his swing, looking to get back to the big leagues. He got help from Joey Votto, Matt Holliday, a baseball performance lab and a new bat with the goal of adding loft to his swing and keeping the barrel in the zone longer.

Carpenter told The Athletic in February that he had more confidence in his swing than he had “in years, maybe ever.”

But he couldn’t quite crack Texas’ Major League roster this spring. Hopes he could return to the 36-homer 2018 version of himself were fading. Like so many other players before him, age, it seemed, had caught up with him.

When Carpenter was granted his release in mid-May, only one team offered the longtime Cardinal a Major League roster spot: The Yankees, who were on pace for one of their best seasons in franchise history.

Now, out of nowhere, the former MVP candidate and All-Star has been among the best hitters in baseball over the last month and a half, and a driving force behind an offense that's among the best in the Majors.

After Carpenter joined the Yankees in late May, he had a Barry Bonds-esque .469 on-base percentage and .911 slugging percentage during the first half of the season. His 13 home runs from his debut on May 26 to the All-Star break are tied for the sixth-most in baseball over that period -- and he's done it in about half the at-bats of those above him. He's hit a home run every 6.1 at-bats. His hard-hit rate (48.2%), barrel rate (19.6%) and avg. exit velocity (91.8 mph) would all be career highs.

According to the Elias Sports Bureau, Carpenter is just the seventh Major Leaguer since 1900 to hit at least 13 homers through his first 30 games with a club.

“I’m at a loss for words,” Carpenter said after a two-homer night against the Red Sox on July 16. “I said it the first day I was here: I’m just so grateful to be in the clubhouse, to be here with this group of guys and come to the ballpark every day. I’m thrilled to be a part of this. To be able to play like I’m playing and the way our team is playing on a nightly basis, this is a lot of fun.”

Carpenter’s excellence is, perhaps, the most surprising development of 2022’s first half. But how on earth is he doing it?

Pitch perfect placement

Carpenter is hitting the ball harder than ever, no doubt. But where he’s hitting it might be even more important.

Every time a hitter steps to the plate, he’s looking to hit a line drive or fly ball. That’s where the extra-base hits and home runs come from. Hitters are also wildly more successful when they hit the ball to their pull side. Batters are hitting .330 with a 165 wRC+ when they pull the ball this season. That drops to .317 and a 114 wRC+ when hitting the ball up the middle or to the opposite field. If you’re a hitter, why not just try to put the ball in the air to the pull side every time?

It appears Carpenter is trying to do just that. A whopping 46.4% of Carpenter’s batted balls have been a pulled fly ball or line drive. No other hitter with at least 50 batted balls is above 32.2% this season. No qualified hitter has finished with a Pulled FB/LD rate above 30% over a full season during the Statcast era. Carpenter is truly in uncharted territory.

Consider where Carpenter now calls home, too. Yankee Stadium is a haven for left-handed hitters. He’s taken full advantage – hitting eight home runs over the park’s short right-field porch so far. For the most part, though, Carpenter has deserved his success. Only one of his home runs is truly a product of Yankee Stadium – a three-run homer off of Red Sox reliever Darwinzon Hernandez on July 16, which would’ve only gone over the wall in the Bronx. Otherwise, seven of his 13 long balls have been “no doubters.” That is, a home run in every park in baseball.

Cooking Meatballs

Whether it's his age, those around him in the Yankees’ powerful lineup, or something else, pitchers have been keener to challenge Carpenter than in years past (at least for now), and he's taken advantage.

Pitchers are attacking the strike zone against Carpenter like never before. The 12-year-veteran has seen a career-high 53.5% of pitches in the strike zone (Zone%). Carpenter has never had a zone rate higher than 49.7% in his career. But it’s where those pitches have been within the strike zone that has Carpenter thriving.

10.5% of pitches Carpenter has seen have been in the "meatball" zone, or right down the middle of the plate. That figure would lead all qualifiers this season and is 3.5 percentage points higher than the next highest season in his career. Pitchers have thrown to the “heart” zone, which, similar to a meatball, are pitches at least one baseball width inside the edge of the zone, against Carpenter over a third of the time (33.4%). That would also lead all qualified hitters.

Carpenter has made good use of those opportunities. He's swinging at meatball pitches more than ever (81.6% of the time). He’s batting .474 with seven of his 13 home runs off pitches in the heart of the zone. By Baseball Savant’s swing/take run values, Carpenter already has +7 runs on pitches in the heart of the zone, which is tied for the 25th-most in baseball this year. Again, he’s done it in only 95 plate appearances. Just take a look at the pitch location of Carpenter's home runs this season.

Pitchers would be wise to approach Carpenter like he’s hitting in the middle of the St. Louis Cardinals lineup again. Until then, he’ll keep mashing the absolute easiest pitches to hit.

Crushing heaters (again)

From 2012 to 2018, Carpenter was among the best hitters in baseball against fastballs. As recently as 2018, he hit .291 with 25 home runs off of fastballs. That ability disappeared in 2020 and 2021. Over those two seasons, Carpenter hit just .214 with five home runs in 196 at-bats that ended on fastballs. After a career feasting on heaters, Carpenter, it seemed, just couldn't keep up with them anymore.

Well, he's crushing them again this year. Carpenter has eight home runs against fastballs so far and a +11 run value against four-seamers, which is tied for the eighth-highest in baseball with his teammate Aaron Judge, despite missing the first month and a half. His .378 batting average against fastballs would be the highest of his career. Carpenter is swinging and missing at just 19.7% of them, which would be his lowest since his dominant 2018 season.

But there’s reason to believe Carpenter may still struggle with elite velocity. His fastball success this season has come, for the most part, against heaters below 95 mph.

Carpenter has hit just .231 (3-for-13) with no home runs against pitches 95 mph and above. By contrast, he's hit .438 (14-for-32) with eight home runs against fastballs below 95 mph. Fourteen of his 28 hits have come against the latter.

It only stands to reason Carpenter will come back to earth. But you can scream small sample size all you want, it’s still been an incredible summer for the 36-year-old. If he doesn’t take another at-bat all season, the Yankees have still gotten more than they bargained for and then some. Carpenter is one of the most astonishing comeback stories in recent baseball history, no matter how it ends up.

And in the twilight of his career, the 36-year-old is appreciating every second of it.

“When I was sitting on that couch, I thought, ‘This could be it,’” Carpenter told on July 16. “I didn’t know when I was going to get a chance, if I was going to get a chance, to play again. That’s part of why it’s been so much fun to be here, because it’s just like a new lease on life.”