Matt Carpenter’s Breakout
What is Behind Matt Carpenter’s Breakout and What Does it Mean for the 2022 Yankees?
By Chris O’Connor
July 16, 2022
In late February, I read a terrific article from Ken Rosenthal of The Athletic about Matt Carpenter and his long quest to rebuild his swing in the offseason. Carpenter, who had hit just .186 and .169 in 2020 and 2021, respectively, was a free agent after the Cardinals declined his option for 2022. I was skeptical before I read it. Offseason stories like these always have to be taken with a grain of salt. Every player comes into spring training in the proverbial best shape of their lives and Carpenter, who had just turned 36 in November, had posted three straight seasons with an OPS+ below 100. After reading it, however, I was hooked. Carpenter was a player with essentially nothing to lose after having seen Major League clubs show little interest in him before the lockout, so he completely overhauled his swing and training regimen through a data-driven approach. Among other things, he switched to a heavier bat that better suited his swing/body type and trained using unorthodox drills designed to shorten his swing path and more efficiently shift weight from his back side to front. After the lockout ended, he signed a minor league deal with the Texas Rangers and was sent to Triple-A to start the season. After he requested his release from the club in mid-May, he signed with the Yankees, who at that point had seen their outfield depth crater due to injuries and underperformance. All he has done since then: in 27 games, he has slashed .338/.442/.846 with 10 home runs and a 252(!) WRC+. That leads to three questions that must be asked:
How has he done this?
How sustainable is it"
What does it mean for the the 2022 Yankees?
From a plate discipline standpoint, Carpenter has adopted a more aggressive approach that has enabled him to tap back into his power. His swing rate, which had been above 40% just once since 2013, is up to a career-high 43.4%. This should come as no surprise considering part of his offseason approach included reaching out to Joey Votto, who has become the model for adopting a more aggressive approach at the plate to combat the aging curve. What Carpenter has done well is control his aggressiveness without losing his discipline. His chase rate is actually below his career average and his walk rate is 13.0%, not far off from his career rate of 13.4%. That kind of balance is not easy to strike, but it becomes all the more impressive that he has done this when considering the massive change in his swing. Getting the ball in the air is good in theory, but in practice it does not always work out for hitters. Some, like Christian Yelich (though not so much lately), can sustain MVP-level production with a low launch angle. And focusing too heavily on launch angle can lead to hitters to strike out more, hit easy popups, and become too one-dimensional (Joey Gallo). When it comes to something as complex as hitting baseball, there is no cookie cutter approach to success.
With his new uppercut, however, Carpenter is making the best kind of contact that a hitter can make. For one, he is pulling the ball 57.6% of the time. That is easily a career high and well ahead of his 41.6% career rate. He is also elevating the ball more than ever before. His ground ball rate, which had never been below 28.3%, is at a miniscule 14.0%. As expected, his average launch angle, which has never been above 22.6 degrees, is at 25.9 degrees. These are not measly popups, either. While his average exit velocity and hard-hit rate are not appreciably up over prior seasons, he is barreling the ball 19.6% of the time. That is almost double his career average and nearly triple the MLB average of 6.7%. Buying into a more aggressive and analytically-friendly approach has led to a career revitalization in a way that appears relatively sustainable. Is he going to hit for a 252 WRC+ moving forward? Of course not. The league is going to start pitching to him differently, most likely with fastballs up in the zone, and force him to adjust. But I do think Carpenter can be an impact bat down the stretch and into the playoffs. He is not hitting the ball much harder than he has in the past, which makes this seem less fluky. He is simply making better kinds of contact in a more aggressive approach without sacrificing his plate discipline. ZIPS projects a slash line of .220/.341/425 and a 120 WRC+ for the rest of the season, which sounds about right, if a little on the conservative side. Combining that with passable corner outfield defense, which should improve as he gets more runway there down the stretch, makes for a valuable player, particularly when considering the rest of the options that the Yankees have.
There are not a lot of good outfield trade candidates. Andrew Benintendi and Michael A. Taylor are unvaccinated, and I seriously doubt that the Yankees would pay up to what the Orioles and Pirates would ask for Cedric Mullins and Bryan Reynolds. I would be very surprised if Joey Gallo is a Yankee after the trade deadline; for whatever reason, he was just not a fit for the team and city. It is difficult to imagine him getting playoff at-bats even if he is here. That leaves Aaron Judge, Giancarlo Stanton, Aaron Hicks, and Carpenter as the outfield options in the playoffs. Depending on what the Yankees do at DH, they could put Judge in center and use Stanton and Carpenter in the corner spots. Hicks could be a late-inning defensive replacement or may start over Carpenter against lefties.
Whatever happens, Carpenter’s presence allows the Yankees to focus more on getting another starter or reliever at the deadline. Seeing a guy who had been left for dead by all 30 teams make such a big impact on the best team in baseball has been magical. While his current level of production is clearly unsustainable, the underlying numbers suggest that he will continue to impact the team in a positive way when the regression monster hits. I can’t wait to see what Carpenter can do for this team down the stretch and in the playoffs.