A three-time All-Star, three-time MVP-vote recipient, and one-time Silver Slugger, Matt Carpenter had to settle for a minor league deal heading into the 2022 season. Yet despite his accolades, the limited interest in the lefty was warranted: He had posted a meager .203/.325/.346 slash over the past three seasons, 13 percent below league average by wRC+.
Entering his age-36 season, most teams reasonably concluded that Carpenter wouldn’t be able to stave off his precipitous decline. That is, before one phone call with Joey Votto changed everything.
2022 Statistics: 47 games, 154 plate appearances, 15 home runs, 37 RBIs, nine doubles, .305/.412/.727 triple slash, 217 wRC+, 2.3 fWAR, 2.4 bWAR.
Carpenter grew up in Texas, attending a high school where his father led a baseball program that produced three other big leaguers. Later, he attended Texas Christian University, playing all four years with the latter two coming as a redshirt — he was the first TCU position player to have to undergo Tommy John surgery. As a result of his extended tenure, he holds his college’s record for most games played and at bats. He also ranks second in base hits, doubles, and walks, and fourth in runs scored, RBIs, and total bases.
As a senior, Carpenter set a school record for doubles in a season and led the team in triples and walks. Ultimately, he put up a .333/.470/.662 triple slash, making it too hard for teams to pass him up in the draft despite his advanced age and injury history. That summer, in 2009, the Cardinals made him a 13th-round draft pick.
Given his late-round status, Carpenter had to prove himself in the minors, where he more than held his own over two and a half seasons and slashed .300/.408/.451 before debuting in the majors in late 2011 as a 25-year-old. After that cameo, he played a utility role for the Cardinals in 2012 before securing a full-time role as their second baseman for 2013.
Carpenter relied on gap power and a keen eye for success during his first two seasons. In that stretch, his .383 on-base percentage ranked 11th among the 125 players with at least 1000 plate appearances. In his first full season as a starter, 2013, he got on base at a .392 clip and bashed a league-leading 55 doubles, tied for the 21st-most in a single season since the live ball era began in 1920.
But in 2014, Carpenter only doubled 33 times, dropping his isolated power down to a below-average .103, a career-low that still stands for the lefty. Already 29 and preparing to exit his prime, Carpenter had to make his first major adjustment, choosing to add more loft to his swing at the expense of bat-to-ball ability. Luckily, he had plenty of surplus contact rate, as he ranked eighth in that regard among hitters with at least 1,000 trips to the plate from 2013-14. While his contact rate dropped nearly 10 points to 80.2 percent in 2015, the addition of loft was a resounding success: Carpenter’s flyball percentage soared to a career-high 41.7 and he cracked the 20-homer plateau for the first time.
Over the next three seasons, Carpenter continued honing his power swing, posting home run totals north of 20 and fly ball rates north of 43 percent each year. He also did a much better job pulling those flies: while he pulled a measly 15.3 percent of them in 2015, his lowest single-season mark over the next three years was 24.9 percent in 2017. Not everyone can successfully navigate a swing change that yields more pulled flies, but those types of batted balls tend to fall or go for homers, and Carpenter clearly made the most of them. The vast majority of his long balls went over the right field fence from 2016-18:
But by 2022, it was time for Carpenter to adjust again. While he had homered in 4.3 percent of his plate appearances from 2015-18, that number shrank to 2.4 percent from 2019-21. Though he largely maintained his fly-ball and overall pull rate increases during this span, his pulled fly-ball percentage dropped, as did his max exit velocity and quality of contact as measured by xwOBA. What’s more, he wasn’t demonstrating the same bat-to-ball skills that he had earlier in his career, connecting on only 74.3 percent of his swings.
That’s when the fateful phone call occurred. Votto, who was on vacation, jumped at the opportunity to help a former NL Central foe curtail the same age-related decline that had sent him spiraling just a year earlier. The Cincinnati first baseman sent Carpenter on a countrywide quest to revamp his swing with the goal of hitting the ball as hard as possible (former teammate Matt Holliday also lent him a hand). For Carp, that meant using data to an extent he never had in the past ... and the data said he still had the ability to bash baseballs in him.
It couldn’t have been more correct. After signing on with the Rangers in March, Carpenter tore up Triple-A to the tune of a .275/.379/.613 slash. But that was merely a preview of what was to come. A week after the Rangers granted Carp his release in May, the Yankees scooped him up to take on some of the at bats previously belonging to an injured Giancarlo Stanton. During his time in the Bronx, Carpenter’s max exit velocity went back up to 107.7, the highest mark he’d posted since 2019. Perhaps more impressively, he posted his best barrel rate (13.7 percent) since Statcast began tracking the metric in 2015. He also notched his highest hard-hit rate and xWOBA since 2018 and pulled a massive 51 percent of his flyballs (25 of 49).
Despite no noticeable change in the types of pitches he swung at, his contact rate soared back up to 79.1 percent, his highest since 2017. It’s likely this was due to a new bat that the lab identified as a fit, in addition to his mechanical overhaul. All in all, it led to a streak for the ages — one that changed from a mere fill-in to an essential part of a division winner’s lineup.
Over 47 games and 154 plate appearances, Carpenter hit 15 dingers en route to posting a .305/.412/.727 triple slash and a wRC+ more than twice that of the league average hitter at 217. That wRC+ is the best single-season mark (min. 150 plate appearances) since Barry Bonds in 2004. A lot of players on that list had more plate appearances, but Carpenter's performance held up against that of similarly-aged players in spans of the same length: His 1.139 OPS was the 10th-highest mark, and his 15 homers tied for 20th-highest, in any non-overlapping 47-game stretch with at least 150 plate appearances for anyone 36 or older since 2004.
Unfortunately, the reason Carpenter’s season was limited to just 47 games was that he fractured his foot on August 8th by fouling a Logan Gilbert pitch off of it. That added to the pain of a pitiful August for the entire Yankees squad, as the Bombers went just 10-18. Luckily, they turned things around in time for the playoffs, and they rushed Carpenter out of his walking boot and onto the field. They might have been a little too eager, though, as the lefty struck out 9 times in his 12 playoff plate appearances, notching just one hit — a single.
I’d chalk the playoff futility up to rust — I think Carpenter more than earned his new two-year deal with the Padres based on his regular season performance. But repeating it is another question, especially since Petco Park is far more spacious in right field than Yankee Stadium. Yet even though he’s no longer a Yankee, I’m excited to see if Carpenter can keep it up in his age-37 season, new bat and analytical savvy in hand.