Chris Carter is hitting. Like, consistently hitting. There's been a lot of discussion as to whether he has "figured it out," if this run is sustainable, and if he has ever had a run like this before. Just a disclaimer, I am pro-Carter. I think he's a likable guy with a lot of potential. Anyway, analysis.
Is this hot stretch sustainable? We all know batting average is an empty statistic for predicting future performance, but when it comes to Trogdor, we tend to use batting average to measure improvement more than we should. His batting average has climbed all the way up to a lofty .219 following his hot July and into his equally toasty August. We also know that Carter has serious contact issues, to the tune of a lowly 65.1 percent contact rate. Because of that low contact rate, Carter's batting average will fluctuate wildly following BABiP trends. During his month of July he posted a .314 BABiP, much higher than his season BABiP at .259, which is lower than his career BABiP at .284. Last year's BABiP, in his first full season in the Majors, was actually at .311 over 585 PA. I believe this is closer to his true BABiP.
BABiP is commonly used to predict regression or judge sustainability, but I prefer more "under the hood" stats to really see what's going on and match that statistical change to what the eyeball test says. Looking at Carter's notorious strikeout rate, his month of July is even more impressive. During July, Carter struck out only 26.9 percent of the time, a huge drop from his 32.9 percent K rate in June. On the season Carter has K'd 31.6 percent of the time, down from 36.2 last year. That's a solid improvement. What surprised me while researching his monthly splits was that July is not his best month this year in terms of K's. This May, Carter struck out only 23.9 percent of the time, though that is coupled with a depressed walk rate as well. Carter walked 5.7 percent of the time in May to 8.6 percent of the time in July. Looking back at hitting again, Carter hit .232 in May with a .250 BABiP. I expected for the decrease in K's, and related increase in contact, to lead to a decrease in power, but Carter's two highest months for ISO also happen to be May and July. The presence of these two separate months with closer to league average K rates, tied to his overall lower strikeout rate this season, indicate that he can make strides towards a lower strikeout rate going forward, one more in line with his Minor League numbers.
Having watched nearly every Astros game this year and last, thanks to an MLB.tv subscription and living far, far from the CSN debacle, I've noticed a trend in Carter's approach at the plate. All last year and the beginning of this year, Carter has struggled with the pitch low and away out of the zone, particularly soft stuff. I have mechanical theories as to why this is that I will address later. Last year, Carter swung at 28.6 percent of all pitches outside of the strike zone, connecting on 45.1 percent of those swings. This year he has taken a small step back, swinging at 32.1 percent of pitches outside of the zone and connecting on 41.0 percent of those swings. On a monthly scale this year, during his low strikeout May, Carter swung at 33.9 percent of pitches out of the strike zone, about on par with his season numbers, but connected with 54.1 percent of those swings, a more than 10 percent boost in that statistic. Making more contact on those poor swings cuts down on strikeouts. During his July, Carter posted a contact rate on pitches in the zone of 83.3 percent, compared to 78.2 percent this year. Simply putting the bat on the ball in pitches in the zone not only lowers strikeouts, but provides logically louder contact on better pitches to hit. This could explain his higher BABiP in July compared to May.
From what I can tell watching him hit, Carter has made one particular change that has helped his contact and plate discipline. Throughout last year and early this year, Carter had a tendency to open up his front shoulder to the pitcher, pointing his chest into center field. From an early age, hitters are taught to keep their front side closed and their arms in close to their bodies. This keeps a swing short, compact, fast, and to the ball. It also allows for greater plate coverage and improves hand eye coordination by leaving plenty of space for the hitter to manipulate the bat. Jose Altuve is a great example of this. When he is on, his swing is as quick to the ball and unhindered by his upper body as anyone's. His legs fire, his hips turn, and his shoulders and head go nowhere as he brings the bat quickly to the ball. Carter has struggled with opening that front side early and dragging the bat through the zone. It is difficult to explain, but if you have a baseball bat, or a stick from the yard, swing it in slow motion and turn your shoulders out to face the pitcher and notice that you cannot reach the outside corner the way you could without opening up. In addition, with his shoulders turned, Carter's head moves as well, making it difficult for him to hitch pitches right down the pipe as well, simply because he cannot see the baseball. During his hot July, Carter's upper body has become much more technically sound. He keeps his shoulder closed and keeps his swing short and to the ball. If Carter can continue swinging in a more mechanically proficient way, and hopefully Mallee is working on this, there is no reason Carter can't turn himself from a slugger into a hitter. Anyway, these are musings for a reason. I'd love to hear anyone else's thoughts on Carter's relative improvement.