You Don’t Beat Everyone’s Ass Without Finding A Guy Like Matt Carpenter
4:40 PM EDT on July 18, 2022
Earlier this year, Matt Carpenter was just a dude hanging out on the Rangers' Triple-A team, who almost nobody in baseball thought had any juice left for the Majors. Now, he's blasting the ball at a more fearsome pace than anyone else on the best team in the world. And it only got more ridiculous this past weekend, when Carpenter smashed his 12th and 13th home runs over his last 30 games as part of the New York Yankees' emphatic blowout of the Red Sox on Saturday. No Yankee ever has shown this much power in such a short span of games since debuting with the team.
For the first seven years of his career, Carpenter was a fine hitter, sometimes streaky on a month-to-month basis but fairly consistent year-to-year. In all but one season between 2012 and 2018, the versatile infielder finished with an OPS between .828 and .897. He was a reliable all-around hitter and three-time all-star for St. Louis, and the 2018 campaign, his age-32 season, stood out as his best yet, with career-high marks of 36 home runs and a 143 OPS+.
In his follow-up 2019, however, Carpenter's strength began to leave him, his body began to show signs of wear, and the increased adoption of the shift gave the lefty more and more problems. Making by far his fewest plate appearances since he was a rookie, Carpenter only cleared the fences 15 times and batted just .226. The shortened COVID-19 year saw him dip even further to a .186 average and .640 OPS and 2021, at age 35, saw an even further decline, to .169 and .581.
This is how MLB careers end. You're a good player, and then an average player, and then a below-average player, and then such a liability that the only ballclub you've ever known can't reasonably keep you on its roster. There's no obvious way to reverse it. That's just how time passes. And though Carpenter found a job with the Round Rock Express and managed to hit like a big fish in a small pond in early 2022, the Rangers didn't have any belief in him as a big leaguer, and they mutually agreed to a split in May so Carpenter could seek out an opportunity elsewhere.
The oddity that has been Carpenter's year begins with the fact that the franchise willing to give him a shot was not some desperate tank job just looking for warm bodies, but the team that was dominating the rest of the American League. A week after Carpenter left Round Rock, the injury-plagued Yankees made the bet that his Triple-A performance was not a dead-cat bounce and brought him into the clubhouse as a DH and occasional fill-in fielder. Expectations were low, but Carpenter just seemed happy that he didn't have to retire yet.
“My response to (Yankees manager Aaron) Boone was, ‘If you want me to load the bags on the plane, that’s what I’ll do,’” Carpenter said before his first game on May 26. “I’m excited to put a Yankee uniform on and be a part of the best team in baseball right now. I’m just fired up to be here. Whatever that role looks like.”
Carpenter's first few games with the Yanks were a little weird but nothing to blow your mind, as memorable for the new mustache prompted by the team's infamous facial hair policy as they were for any on-field heroics. The only way Carpenter could still get on base, it seemed, was by sending the ball where the shifted fielders could only watch it sail over their heads. He went just 3 for his first 16 at the plate, but all three of those hits were home runs. And as the Yankees got healthier, and Carpenter settled into a role as a lefty power hitter off the bench, he delivered as much as they possibly could have hoped for. At the end of June, Carpenter was a .250 hitter with six dingers in 36 ABs. And he wasn't opposed to using some veteran guile to hang on to that spot in the bigs, either.
So the Yankees had landed on a solid pinch hitter at a pretty negligible price. Good for them. You can always use those to gain an edge in a playoff run. But over the last few weeks, Carpenter has transformed into something so much bigger, forcing himself into the everyday lineup with a nonstop parade of hits that has left everybody scratching their heads. On July 2, getting his first start in 10 days in Game 1 of a doubleheader, Carpenter went 3-for-5 with two home runs in a 13-4 KO of the Guardians. In his next start on the 5th, he picked up a couple more hits and another RBI. After a dong against Boston on the 8th, Carpenter was slashing a ridiculous .305/.406/.814 in his limited appearances. And shockingly, as he's played more and more over the last few series, all of those numbers have gone up even higher. Carpenter's now a key contributor to the Yankee attack, and swings like these have become more and more of a common sight.
In retrospect, there was some evidence that this resurgence was a possibility, even if no one could imagine the extent. Back in February, Ken Rosenthal had a story at The Athletic about Carpenter seeking out Joey Votto's guidance to help rebuild his swing and get back to the hitter he used to be. Carpenter changed his bat, trained to swing harder, and transformed his approach so his bat would stay in the zone longer. This genre of story isn't exactly uncommon—plenty of baseball players try and fail to find their way back to a game that's left them behind—but today it reads like prophecy.
“I believe in my heart he’s got a lot left,” Nolan Arenado said at the time. “He’s trying to get back to who he is. And with the work I saw him do, I believe he will.”
There's no doubt that Carpenter is producing higher quality contact than he did during his final days in St. Louis, as his average exit velocity has climbed nearly two mph since last year and he's barreling the ball almost twice as often. But there's also a clear symbiosis happening between him and the Yankees, where each side improves the other. Carpenter's slugging percentage is a whopping 1.143 at home compared to .727 in five more plate appearances on the road, which shows how going from playing in a brutal ballpark for lefty sluggers in St. Louis to the sandbox that is Yankee Stadium has given him a boost. Also helpful is that he's now batting in the middle of the most terrifying lineup in the American League, with hitters like Judge and Rizzo and Stanton often getting on base or clearing them before Carpenter steps up. As a result, he's seeing a noticeable uptick in pitches in the zone, because pitchers who want no part of the big names have to eventually decide on somebody to challenge. Opposing teams are forcing Matt Carpenter to beat them. And so far, that's what he's doing.
You don't put up a .696 winning percentage in the first half of the season without a few surprises. The Yankees were the favorites to win the AL East heading into the year, before anyone even thought about Carpenter. But the manner in which they've steamrolled the competition on their way to a 13-game lead still has everybody a bit stunned, and their +199 run differential implies that they could be even better. The obvious credit goes to superstars like Gerrit Cole and Aaron Judge, and regular contributors like DJ LeMahieu, but the Yankees are where they are because they've combined their eight-figure salaries with surprise success stories like Nestor Cortes and Jose Trevino, both of whom are first-time all-stars this year. Even more impressive is Carpenter, who won't be appearing on Tuesday but still sits fourth among Yankee hitters in WAR despite playing in just a third of his team's games. It's tempting to call it unfair. But any team in the league could have had Carpenter this year, if only they'd been willing to give him a chance.