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August 8, 2012
Chris Carter's Mechanical Remedy
There is an old adage about the Red Sox needing 25 cabs for 25 players since the team could not get along. That phrase may need to be updated to reflect the 2012 Oakland Athletics, who may need 25 stories for 25 players; there are just so many fascinating stories in Oakland these days. Spiderman Reddick, the surprise young pitching staff, Yoenis Cespedes showing how his core strength translates at the major league level, Coco Crisp becoming Mr. Walk-Off, and Chris Carter hitting everything out of the ballpark since his umpteenth recall from Sacramento. Carter’s 2012 campaign is just one of many fascinating story lines in the successful season the Oakland Athletics have had thus far in 2012.
Carter’s minor league exploits are well-documented. He was ranked the 76th-best prospect by Baseball America in 2009, made his way up to 28th in 2010 before dropping down to 91st in 2011 and exiting off the list this season. Carter never had a slugging percentage under .500 once he left rookie ball in 2005 and had spent nearly 1300 plate appearances in Triple-A before his most recent recall.
While Carter continued to produce numbers in the minor leagues, his time in the majors was anything but impressive. He began his career with 33 consecutive plate appearances without a hit and struggled throughout his time in the majors in 2010 and 2011; pitchers quickly found the holes in his swing and exploited them. Specifically, pitchers quickly discovered that Carter had trouble covering the outside corner and was susceptible to breaking pitches, as his career hitting profile illustrates:
In 2010, he swung at nearly half the pitches he saw and struck out swinging 21 percent of the time, according to statcorner.com. That swing frequency continued in 2011, but he struck out swinging more frequently (30 percent).
It is tough to convince someone who has been so successful in the minors that he had to change, but the major league results spoke for themselves, even in a small sample size.
Carter’s player profile in the Baseball Prospectus 2012 had this to say about the slugger:
For several years now, the talk has been that Chris Carter will eventually become the middle-of-the-order power hitter that the A’s so desperately need. The slugger has all the characteristics of a prototypical cleanup hitter: enormous power, on-base ability, and an intimidating presence in the box. So far in his career, Carter looks the part in the minors, but when called upon for major league action, the weaknesses in his game are easily exploited by experienced pitchers. The sample size at the highest level is small, so it’s too early to label Carter as a Quad-A hitter, mashing in the minors then getting mashed in the majors. But his ability to make contact against superior pitching seems suspect, and the 25-year-old needs to take a step forward in 2012 or his status as a future Japanese import will be cemented.
Like many big sluggers, Sparks said, “Carter had an over-reliance on his upper body. So they focused on getting him to use his legs more -- adding some flex in his knees to make him less robotic at the plate. That made Carter less susceptible to pitches tailing away to the outside of the strike zone.”
Yesterday, I spoke with organizational hitting instructor Todd Steverson, who expanded upon the changes. Steverson stated that Carter initially felt like he was too close to the plate, so he did some trial and error things until he got comfortable, could get better extension on his swing, and could recognize pitches on the outer-half better. The pictures below show Carter in the box last year and how he has moved a bit closer this season:
Moving Carter closer to plate was just part of the process; the other part had to do with changing his lower half. Steverson explained that Carter was more of a front-footed hitter in the past, which led to some of his problems adjusting to breaking pitches. Carter’s strength still allowed him to punish pitches, but he had to make quicker decisions on pitches with that approach.
The organization worked with Carter on using his legs more and becoming a more balanced hitter rather than jumping out with that front foot. Carter already had good plate discipline skills as a hitter, but this change gave him a stronger understanding of the strike zone, which allowed him to make later decisions on pitches while staying back on the ball and using all parts of the field.
These gifs show how Carter has put those improvements into action, while the spray charts show how Carter is now hitting the ball to all parts of the field with authority:
Steverson pointed out that when someone like Carter is sent down to minor league camp during spring training, it is either a numbers game or a statement by the front office that the player is not ready quite yet. Carter’s lack of success in previous call-ups was obvious, but to Carter’s credit, he stuck with the program and did his time in Triple-A Sacramento while working on the changes to his approach at the plate.
The successful results did not show up all at once, as Carter had just a .234/.301/.467 slash line in May with a nine percent walk rate and a 22 percent strikeout rate. He did have 12 extra base hits in May (including six home runs), but it was not until June that everything came together. Carter’s slash line in June was an impressive .338/.463/.494, but more impressive was that he had as many walks (15) as he had strikeouts in 95 plate appearances that month.
Allowing Carter to stay down in Triple-A to work on his swing and see the successful results has paid off for Oakland; Carter was an integral part of the team’s success in July and continues to help the team in August, hitting .256/.402/.605 with 21 walks and 27 strikeouts in 107 plate appearances.
Before this season, Carter owned a .167/.226/.254 career slash line with just nine walks and 41 strikeouts in 124 plate appearances. Simply put, the change in his results thus far are as dramatic as the distances several of his home runs have traveled in 2012. It does not appear that Carter will need to get a travel passport ready for a career overseas just yet. No, he is now showing the talents that once led scouts to believe he was one of the best power-hitting prospects in the minor leagues.