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How the Heck Did Matt Carpenter Become the National League Home Run Leader?

The St. Louis utilityman had been a solid contributor and a multi-time All-Star prior to this season, but this is different. Over 25 percent of his career homers have come in 2018, and now he’s an MVP candidate?

A treated photo of Matt Carpenter Getty Images/Ringer illustration

Cardinals first baseman Matt Carpenter has been a consistently excellent hitter during his six and a half seasons in the big leagues. Even as the Cardinals’ roster changes, and Carpenter bounces around the St. Louis infield based on team need, you know you can count on him to post an OBP in the high .300s. He’s hit at least 21 home runs every year from 2015 to 2017, so he’s not the slow version of Ichiro he was when he broke in, but somehow he’s leading the National League in home runs.

A fact which raises one particular question: HOW THE HELL IS MATT CARPENTER LEADING THE NATIONAL LEAGUE IN HOME RUNS?

Carpenter tied his previous career high in home runs, 28, on August 4, and broke it the next day. That feat is more impressive because Carpenter had an abysmal start to the season. On May 15, he was hitting .140/.286/.272, and he didn’t hit his fourth home run of the season until May 21. In the past three months he’s climbed all the way back not just to adequacy, but into the MVP discussion. Since June 9, Carpenter has hit a home run every 11.63 plate appearances; in 1961, Roger Maris hit a home run every 11.44 plate appearances.

This is not just shocking; it’s positively disquieting. However, it’s just the latest deviation from expectations from a man who’s made a career out of defying the odds.

Back when I wrote about college baseball, part of my job was to project the future professional potential of the players I was covering. I was by no means a scout, but I’m proud of how early I was on the Kyle Schwarber bandwagon, and I was in on Paul DeJong back when DeJong himself was still thinking about going to medical school.

But I’ve also pegged numerous college ballplayers as future big leaguers, only to end up whiffing. Among position players, I had two blind spots: The first was for super-athletic outfielders who had trouble making contact. I thought then–Dallas Baptist outfielder David Martinelli would be an All-Star—he ended up hitting .218/.268/.328 over two seasons in the Phillies’ system, never rising above low-A. The other class of players I missed on constantly was undersized corner infielders who lacked standout athleticism but killed high-level college pitching. The most successful of these players was probably Schwarber’s Indiana Hoosiers teammate Sam Travis, who has a 71 OPS+ in 38 career games for the Boston Red Sox. Others, like Texas A&M third baseman Boomer White and Illinois first baseman David Kerian, you’ve also probably never heard of.

Those players don’t pan out because, confined to a corner even in their early 20s, their professional potential rests mostly on their offense, and standards at third base and first base are lofty enough that only the best hitters can stick there. Those standards are doubly tough to meet if you don’t have plus power and are getting by on hit tool and plate discipline alone. Even first basemen we think of as contact-first hitters still put up substantial power numbers: Joey Votto averages 69 extra-base hits per 162 games for his career, and Freddie Freeman averages 68.

Most important, there’s a huge gap in quality even between high-level college pitching and the big leagues. Both Kerian and White had huge draft years—Kerian hit .367/.462/.667, while White hit .386 and walked more than twice as often as he struck out. But Kerian hit just .205/.274/.290 across two seasons in low-A, while White’s career minor league line is .223/.305/.286. Neither has played a game in the affiliated minors this year.

St Louis Cardinals v Colorado Rockies
Matt Carpenter
Photo by Dustin Bradford/Getty Images

Carpenter looked like that kind of prospect. He was an unremarkable player at TCU until he drastically changed his conditioning routine as a redshirt junior and ended up hitting .333/.472/.662 as a fifth-year senior. (The NCAA adopted deadened metal bats two years after Carpenter went pro, so those numbers are impressive, but not as eye-popping as they look. Dustin Ackley hit .417/.517/.763 that same year.) That performance was good enough to convince the St. Louis Cardinals to take Carpenter in the 13th round of the draft, a region usually reserved for high-risk high schoolers and college players with little upside, but hey, someone’s got to stand at third base for the high-A team. Nine of the 30 players picked in the 13th round of the 2009 draft have made the majors, but only Carpenter has been worth more than one win above replacement.

Carpenter made it to the big leagues in less than two years, and since then has been a critical part of the St. Louis lineup and made three All-Star teams. He has quietly compiled a career that might have ended up with him getting Hall of Fame chatter if he’d played a full season before age 27—his career 132 OPS+ would be sixth out of the 13 Hall of Famers who played half their big league games at third base, between Home Run Baker and Wade Boggs. Carpenter would be the best 13th-round pick for just about any franchise that didn’t also draft Albert Pujols.

At the start of Carpenter’s career, he hit like a poor man’s Boggs. He was a top-notch on-base and bat-control guy with enough power to hit tons of doubles, but not enough to hit more than 11 home runs in any of his first three seasons. In 2013, his first full season in the majors, Carpenter was an exceptional contact hitter who got on base all the time. Out of 140 qualified hitters, he finished 11th in OBP and 13th in contact rate, to go along with the 33rd-lowest strikeout rate.

Like most hitters, Carpenter has evolved as he’s aged, but the weird thing is that he’s almost adapted his offensive game to suit the defensive position he played. As a rookie in 2012, Carpenter picked up at-bats where he could, featuring at five different defensive positions. The next year, manager Mike Matheny gave Carpenter 128 starts at second base and 136 starts in the leadoff spot, and he responded with the high-contact, low-strikeout, high-OBP season above. Carpenter led the National League in hits and runs scored, and while 73 of his 199 hits went for extra bases, only 11 of them were home runs. Carpenter’s isolated power, .163, was 66th-best among qualified hitters.

That offseason, the Cardinals traded third baseman David Freese to the Angels and promoted second baseman Kolten Wong, a first-round pick and former top-100 prospect, to a full-time starting role in the big leagues. Carpenter slid over to third base and continued to get on base but not hit for power, posting matching OBP and slugging numbers: .375. But in 2015, he added power to his game—he hit 28 home runs and posted a .505 SLG, both career highs.

After bouncing around a crowded infield once more in 2016, Carpenter took over first base full-time in 2017, after Matt Adams was traded to the Braves in May. In 2018, Carpenter has spent time at both infield corners, frequently playing both in the same game to accommodate defensive substitutions elsewhere on the diamond. But since July 2, Carpenter has played 51 games, and spent at least some time at first base in 49 of those games, and he’s hit .301/.420/.688 with 19 home runs, a 61-homer pace over 162 games.

When Carpenter was a middle infielder, he hit like one, but now that he’s a first baseman, he’s hitting like a first baseman, though correlation obviously does not imply causation. The fact Carpenter’s slugging .395 while playing second this year, .491 while playing third, and .714 while playing first is likely the result of his playing more second and third base while he was slumping in April and May, and more first base during his three-month reign of terror. It’s not like Carpenter puts on a first baseman’s mitt and suddenly thinks he’s Mark McGwire. But Carpenter’s power growth has negated the effect of his defensive decline at the very least. With a month to go in the season, and with a two-month slump hanging around his neck like a millstone, Carpenter is having his best overall season since 2013, according to both Baseball Reference and Baseball Propsectus. That year, he finished fourth in NL MVP voting and ended up in the neighborhood of seven wins, according to both sites’ WAR/WARP metrics.

Carpenter’s hitting approach has also changed markedly over the course of his career. You can see how he trades contact for power in these numbers, and an increased emphasis on putting the ball in the air—Carpenter had the 60th-lowest GB/FB ratio in 2013, but in 2018, he’s got the lowest ratio in the league.

Matt Carpenter Trading Contact for Power

Year HR BB% K% GB/FB HR/FB% Contact%
Year HR BB% K% GB/FB HR/FB% Contact%
2013 11 10 13.7 1.14 6.1 88.8
2014 8 13.4 15.7 1.16 4.7 88.9
2015 28 12.2 22.7 0.71 15.8 80.2
2016 21 14.3 19.1 0.71 13.3 82.6
2017 23 17.5 20.1 0.53 12.2 82.5
2018 34 15 22.2 0.54 21.4 77.4

Carpenter’s also pulling the ball more—between 47.2 percent and 48.1 percent in each of the past three seasons, compared to 32.5 percent in his rookie season. He’s hitting it harder, making hard contact on a career-high 50.4 percent of batted balls in 2018, up from 34.2 percent as a rookie in 2012.

The change in Carpenter’s underlying numbers should be familiar to anyone who’s followed the swing plane revolution, in which players have increasingly tried to hit the ball hard and in the air more often rather than “hitting it where they ain’t.” This approach leads to harder contact, more home runs, and more strikeouts, and in 2018, Carpenter is blowing away his career highs in hard contact rate and home runs, and blowing away his career low in contact rate.

Carpenter doesn’t point out an influential swing guru or use quite the same verbiage as swing plane revolution poster boys Justin Turner and Josh Donaldson. He told ESPN’s Jerry Crasnick that while he’s trying to hit the ball in the air, he’s looking more for line drives than fly balls—but Carpenter is particularly well-suited to adjusting his swing to fit the times.

For starters, he’s not one of those hitters who can only hit out of the same swing groove he learned when he was 13—Carpenter has repeatedly tweaked his training methods, his approach, and his mechanics both in college and in the pros. And just as important, Carpenter has exceptional bat control and plate discipline—among the 161 active players with at least 2,000 career plate appearances, he has the eighth-highest walk rate and the 40th-highest contact rate. In other words, if the price for tripling his home run potential is a few more strikeouts, Carpenter can easily afford to pay. Even his 2018 strikeout rate and contact rate, both career worsts or close to it, are both within a few tenths of a percentage point of the league average. Joey Gallo, who has as many home runs as Carpenter this year, strikes out 56.3 percent more frequently.

The power numbers Carpenter is putting up in 2018 probably aren’t the new normal—his HR/FB percentage is flukily high, even taking into account the harder contact he’s making, and besides, there really isn’t such a thing as a hitter with a true talent .700 SLG. But Carpenter’s already confounded expectations on numerous occasions, so maybe he’s got another surprise up his sleeve.