Sunday, September 30, 2018

Matt Carpenter Achieves the Rare Feat of Going an Entire Season Without Grounding into a Double Play

Carpenter grounded into zero double plays in 2018

Matt Carpenter's 2018 season will be largely remembered for enduring the worst slump of his career and the seemingly salsa-fueled hot streak that followed.  However, the St. Louis Cardinals infielder also quietly achieved a rare feat during his excellent 2018 campaign when he finished the season without grounding into a double play.  By doing so, Carpenter became just the tenth hitter to go an entire campaign without being doubled up while amassing the required number of plate appearances to qualify for the batting title.

Grounding into double plays has been tracked by the NL since 1933 and by the AL since 1939.  Over that time, going an entire season without being doubled up while accumulating enough plate appearances to qualify for the batting title is a rare feat only accomplished by nine other hitters prior to Carpenter--George Watkins, Pete Reiser, Dick McAuliffe, Rob Deer, Rickey Henderson, Ray Lankford, Otis Nixon, Craig Biggio, and Chase Utley--and never by the same player twice.  Moreover, nearly half of the players to complete the double play-free campaign achieved it under special circumstances.  The first hitter to turn the trick, Watkins, did so in 1934 with just 329 plate appearances for the season as only 100 games played were required to qualify for the batting title at the time.  In addition, Henderson, Lankford, and Nixon each had their double play-free campaigns in 1994 when the baseball strike wiped out nearly the last third of the season.  Also, Augie Galan is sometimes credited with going the entire 1935 campaign without hitting into a twin-kill, however, according to Retrosheet's game logs from that season, the slugger was indeed doubled up on June 25 of that year.

Statistics from the ten double play-free seasons

Year G
Watkins 1934 105
296 38 73 18 3 6 33 24 34 2
Reiser 1942 125
480 89 149 33 5 10 64 48 45 20
McAuliffe 1968 151
570 95 142 24 10 16 56 82 99 8
Deer 1990 134
440 57 92 15 1 27 69 64 147 2
Nixon 1994 103
398 60 109 15 1 0 25 55 65 42
Lankford 1994 109
416 89 111 25 5 19 57 58 113 11
Henderson 1994 87
296 66 77 13 0 6 20 72 45 22
Biggio 1997 162
619 146 191 37 8 22 81 84 107 47
Utley 2016 138
512 79 129 26 3 14 52 40 115 2
Carpenter 2018 156
564 111 145 42 0 36 81 102 158 4

Throughout his career, Carpenter has always been difficult to turn two on.  Going into the 2018 campaign, the Cards slugger had only once grounded into more than five double plays in a season.  Moreover, prior to 2018, Carpenter's career average for grounding into a twin-kill when he had the opportunity do so was just 6.1%--well below the MLB average which usually hovers around 11%.  Part of what makes Carpenter so difficult to double up are his swing mechanics which focuses on hitting the ball in the air and slugging hard line drives while avoiding hitting the ball on the ground.  In fact, Carpenter's 26.4% ground ball rate in 2018 easily ranked lowest among 140 qualified hitters and well below the MLB average of 43.2%.  Low ground ball rates have been commonplace for Carpenter the last several seasons as the Cardinals infielder produced the lowest mark in 2017 with 26.9% while his respective totals of 30.6% in 2016 and 29.7% in 2015 ranked him fifth and second from the bottom in those years.  Conversely, Carpenter's swing mechanics generates lots of fly balls and line drives as the slugger ranked among the top-ten in both categories during 2018.

Carpenter’s yearly GDP per Opp rates

3 0 0.0%
86 10 11.6%
74 4 5.4%
80 3 3.8%
95 5 5.3%
71 4 5.6%
97 5 5.2%
91 0 0.0%
597 31 5.2%

In addition to his swing mechanics, batting out of the leadoff spot played a large role in Carpenter joining the small group of hitters to complete a double play-free campaign.  Leadoff hitters are more likely to accomplish the feat than any other spot in the batting order because they are guaranteed at least one plate appearance with no runners on base.  Moreover, following their initial plate appearance, leadoff batters spend the rest of the game batting behind the weakest hitters in the order who are often asked to sacrifice when there is a runner on first base.

For the majority of his career, Carpenter has batted out of the leadoff spot where he has hit much better than in comparison to other spots in the order.  Carpenter is certainly not the prototypical top of the order base-stealing speed merchant, having never swiped more than five bags in a season.  What's more, over the last few seasons, Carpenter started putting up slugging percentage and home run totals more commonly seen by hitters batted in the heart of the order.  Nevertheless, Carpenter and the Cardinals seem to have recognized, perhaps begrudgingly, that despite his skill-set, the infielder performs his best when batted leadoff.

Carpenter's career GDP per Opp is just 5.2%
St. Louis initially began batting Carpenter at the top of the order during his 2013 breakout sophomore campaign in which the club won the NL Pennant and the slugger led the senior circuit in hits, doubles, and runs scored.  Since that time, the Cardinals have only temporarily moved Carpenter from leadoff--once to the number two spot in the order for three months in 2015 and then to the three-hole for the opening two months of 2017.  However, both times Carpenter struggled to produce and was subsequently moved back to leadoff where he regained his hitting stroke.  Despite Carpenter's previous difficulties batting outside of the leadoff spot, the Cardinals opened 2018 with Carpenter hitting third in the order.  After getting off to a slow start, Carpenter was moved from the three-hole on April 20 and rotated between leadoff and the two spot for the next several weeks.  Carpenter's season hit a low point on May 15 when the Cards infielder sported an anemic .140/.286/.272 batting average/OBP/slugging percentage slash line.  Nevertheless, a couple games on the bench and starts as the number seven hitter seemed to revive the slugger's struggling bat.  Finally, on May 26 the club moved Carpenter back to leadoff where he remained for the duration of the season.

Following his career pattern, Carpenter excelled hitting leadoff and put himself among the league leaders in several categories and into the NL MVP conversation.  Carpenter's move back to the leadoff spot and resurgence from his horrendous early season slump largely coincided with the secret planting of a garden in the slugger's backyard by teammate Adam Wainwright and Wainwright's daughters while the St. Louis pitcher was on the disabled list and Carpenter and the Cardinals were on a road trip in early May.  From this garden, Carpenter started making his own spicy homemade salsa and as his bat heated up he began putting the salsa on most meals and taking jars of it on road trips.  As Carpenter slugged his way out of his early season slump, his seemingly salsa-fueled hot streak gained ample media coverage.  Soon, T-shirts bearing the inscription "It's Gotta Be the Salsa" and salsa jars with Carpenter's secret recipe were being sold with a portion of the proceeds going to St. Louis charities.

Overall, Carpenter made 115 starts as St. Louis' leadoff hitter while having his name written into the three-spot 17 times and being tapped as the number two batter for 15 games.  In addition to Carpenter, six of the other nine hitters to complete a double play-free campaign--McAuliffe, Henderson, Lankford, Nixon, Biggio, and Utley--were primarily batted leadoff in the season they achieved the rare feat.  By contrast, hitters batted in the heart of the order are much less likely to complete a season without grounding into a double play as a higher majority of their plate appearances come with runners on base.  In fact, only Reiser has been able to turn the trick while regularly batting in the heart of the order as he was hit out of the three-hole during his double play-free 1942 campaign.  Interestingly, the two other hitters to turn the trick, Watkins and Deer, regularly batted sixth--though Deer also saw a fair share of his plate appearances come from the five and seven spots along with a few from the eight hole.

GDP opps from double play-free year and career GDP rates

DPopp cGDP%
Watkins 50 6.4%
Reiser 148 3.3%
McAuliffe 78 6.7%
Deer 87 4.2%
Nixon 61 9.6%
Lankford 67 6.4%
Henderson 31 9.5%
Biggio 78 8.1%
Utley 61 6.2%
Carpenter 91 5.2%

Over the course of his 2018 campaign, Carpenter had 91 plate appearances in which there was an opportunity for the slugger to ground into a double play.  Carpenter's 91 opportunities rank second highest among the ten hitters to achieve the rare feat, trailing only Reiser's incredible total of 148.  Reiser's presence at the top of the leaderboard is not surprising, as he was the only one of the ten hitters regularly batted in the heart of the order.  With his 2018 season included, Carpenter's career average for grounding into a double play when he had the opportunity do so dropped from 6.1% to 5.2%.  Among the ten hitters, only Reiser and Deer have career marks lower than Carpenter's impressive 5.2%.  Despite not being recognized as a fast baserunner, Carpenter's 5.2% is well below the career averages of Henderson and Biggio--two Hall of Famers renowned for their speed on the basepaths and expertise at batting leadoff.  In 2018, the average major league hitter grounded into a double play just over ten percent of the time that they came up with the opportunity to do so.  Thus, a hitter with Carpenter's 91 double play opportunities on average would have grounded into a twin-kill nine times.

Carpenter's 36 home runs stand out in comparison to the other nine hitters who completed the double play-free campaign.  Although Deer, Lankford, and Utley all produced 30-home run seasons during their career, each of those three sluggers' round-tripper totals were well shy of Carpenter's 36 during the year they avoided the twin-kill.  Through May 15, Carpenter had gone deep just three times.  However, as Carpenter went on his seemingly salsa-fueled hot streak, the slugger put up mammoth home run totals and surged into the NL-longball lead late in the summer.  Unfortunately, Carpenter's early season struggles reared their ugly head again as he homered just once in September and was consequently caught and passed for the lead in the campaign's final days.

The majority of Carpenter's HRs came in clusters
The manner in which Carpenter put up his impressive home run total added an extra level of intrigue to his double-play free 2018.  In fact, Carpenter went on a home run tear each month of the season--save for the first and final months of the campaign--with the majority of his longballs coming in tightly-packed clusters of games.  Carpenter’s first cluster of home runs took place between May 26 and 29 when the Cards slugger went deep in three out of four games.  Then from June 15 to 21, Carpenter smacked five round-trippers over seven contests including three consecutive games in a row.  Carpenter’s most impressive home run barrage came in July when he crushed eight longballs in six games between the 14th and 21st.  During that stretch Carpenter became one of just 28 players to go deep in six straight games--two shy of the record of eight shared by Ken Griffey Jr., Don Mattingly, and Dale Long.  Carpenter's July longball barrage also included a three-home run game on the 20th.  Finally, between August 3 and 10, Carpenter had two separate streaks in which the slugger went yard in three consecutive games interrupted by just one homer-less game to give him six longballs over the seven-contest stretch.

By finishing the 2018 season without grounding into a double play, Carpenter became just the tenth hitter to accumulate enough plate appearances while avoiding the twin-kill for an entire campaign.  Although the most recent double play-free season prior to Carpenter's happened just two years ago, due to its overall rarity, it may be a while before the next player accomplishes the feat.  Moreover, nearly half of the double play-free seasons were achieved under special circumstances, underscoring its difficulty and exclusivity.  However, with the combination of his swing mechanics and ability to consistently avoid the twin-kill coupled with the Cardinals proclivity to bat the slugger leadoff, Carpenter has the potential to put together another double play-free campaign and be the first hitter to accomplish the rare feat twice.

----by John Tuberty

Follow non-salsa-fueled blog on Twitter @BloggerTubbs

Photo credit:  Matt Carpenter 2016 Topps, Matt Carpenter 2017 Topps BUNT, Matt Carpenter 2018 Topps Now

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