Let's cut to the chase. It's now July and Chris Carter is hitting a Mendozian .184. Here at the Crawfish Boxes we generally caution against overreacting to a small sample size. Give player X enough time, some better luck with BABIP, etc. and they will regress to the mean. This is usually the type of thing you would hear to defend a hitter like Chris Carter, but this is not one of those posts.
Look, Chris Carter has just been plain bad. His .184/.267/.406 line is easily the worst among full-time DH's. In fact, assuming Carter plays the full season and continues this pace, he will go down as having one of the worst seasons a DH has ever had (probably the 2nd worst all-time, with Adam Dunn's atrocious 2011 season saving him from having the top spot). It's ridiculous that someone hitting .184 would even be a designated hitter. Is there any doubt that, outside of Carter's power, a good number of the pitching staff could match his batting line given enough at bats?
Given that we're nearly at the all-star break Carter hasn't just been the victim of small sample size either. While he may rebound some in the 2nd half, he's going to have to rebound a lot to go from costing the Astros -0.4 wins to being above average for the season. With over 1000 total plate appearances, Carter's .184 batting average actually isn't incredibly lower than his career .212 mark. If you were hoping that Carter was going to morph into a prototypical moneyball-type power and walks player, then it appears you set yourself up for disappointment.
Actually, scratch that. Carter IS a power and walks player, he's just one that doesn't hit; that is to say quite literally that he has trouble finding the ball with his bat. His 34.4% strikeout rate is good for 11th all time among those with at least 1000 plate appearances. Care to guess how many players in the 30% strikeout rate club stuck around in the majors to reach 2000 plate appearances? It's an ugly list with an ugly answer. Outside of pitchers, and hitters who played during the dead ball era, there are only 6: Russell Branyan, Mark Reynolds, Bo Jackson, Jack Cust, Rob Deer, and Chris Davis. If we includes guys who reached 1800 PA's that list grows to includes Kelly Shoppach and Wily Mo Pena.
Some of those names don't look bad, Carter is certainly no Bo Jackson, but a team could do worse then Jack Cust and Mark Reynolds right? Well...the memory of Jack Cust is actually better than the reality of Jack Cust. Despite his career .374 OBP, Cust accumulated a total of 6.5 WAR during his ENTIRE career and never topped more than 2.5 WAR in a season, thanks mainly his terrible defense in the outfield. Mark Reynolds has great power, but doesn't really do anything else well and has similarly been limited in how much value he adds to his team. He had 3.3 WAR in 2009 but hasn't finished much above one win over replacement level since. You need more than one good skill to be valuable in this league.
Of course it would be great if Chris Carter morphed into Chris Davis, but at 27 years old it's doubtful that's going to happen for him. Let's take a look at Davis' age 27 season to see how he compares with Carter...oh wait, Davis was 27 last year when he exploded for 53 home runs and set the league on fire. Mmmmmmm... yeah. Davis also batted in the .260-.285 for the early years of his career, well above Carter's .212 mark. Cust, Reynolds, and Davis all own better batting averages than Carter. There's no way Carter is turning into anything like Bo Jackson (a one of a kind player), and no one is hoping that Carter becomes the second coming of Russell Branyan. Which leaves....
Yup, Rob Deer. Deer's career .220 batting average is only 8 points higher than Carter's. His power numbers are also more closely aligned with Carter's, while Reynolds has so far shown slightly better power. Deer contributed 3.9 WAR to the Tigers in 1992, which is pretty good, but he only reached 2 WAR in two other seasons. If the Astros are holding on to Carter, they are basically holding out for a breakout 4 WAR year like Deer had in 1992, or for a poor man's version of Mark Reynolds, who isn't very good in the first place.
Which isn't to say that they should cut bait with Carter immediately. Carter is better than his first half performance, but probably not by much. At this point? He is what he is. Even if he goes on some hot streaks during the 2nd half he will still have limited trade value, most teams aren't chomping at the bit to get a 28-year old hitter who has trouble batting above the Mendoza line.
Carter's value is further limited because he strikes out so much. With good power and lots of strikeouts, it's feast or famine every time he comes up to bat; and while strikeouts are losing their onerous reputation around the league, they still remain a very undesirable outcome. While we have come to appreciate plate discipline and working pitch counts, there comes a point when enough strikeouts means that you just aren't a very good hitter, and your value is going to be limited. There probably isn't quite a magical number, but historical data suggests that around 30% is where a lot of strikeouts become too many. That's right where Chris Davis is for his career, and 1.5% above where Adam Dunn (the patron saint for high strikeout big power guys) is sitting at. At 11th all time with a 34.3% strikeout percentage? Carter is way above it.
It's been said before that all a player needs to be great is to have two elite skills. Carter walks at a decent level and hits for power at a very good level, but you have to be great at both to succeed in this league. If the Astros aren't already looking for another middle of the order bat to replace him, they should be.