St. Louis Cardinals infielders Kolten Wong and Matt Carpenter have a lot in common.
Both hit from the left side of the plate. At the midpoint of the 2019 season, both players were likely to face a shift of three defenders on the right side of the infield because of their tendencies and both players were struggling to live up to their career expectations.
But a funny thing happened at the All-Star break. Wong had an epiphany and began to hit the ball to all fields. He is experiencing the best two months of his career and has risen to have the highest batting average among Redbirds regulars. Carpenter, after occasionally dabbling at hitting the ball the other way once in a while, insists on trying to beat the shift in a bid to hit home runs. His average continues to dwindled in the .210 range and he eventually lost his grip on a starting job.
Over the past month, Wong is hitting a robust .373 following a July in which he hit .357. Wong has 29 hits to the opposite field and bats .456 on balls in play toward left field. His willingness to hit the ball where it’s pitched has forced opposing fielders to play him more honestly and because of it Wong has opened up hitting lanes up the middle and to right field.
Carpenter, batting .215 as the calendar turns to September, has made some improvement. But it’s arguable that his .238 batting average is more the result of good fortune than it is a sign that he’s adapted and started to work his way out of his season-long doldrums. Carpenter has only nine opposite field hits all season and when he puts the ball in play toward left field, he is only a .205 hitter.
Why can Wong adapt and Carpenter can’t? If you watch the way the former’s batting style has changed this season, he’s largely abandoned his high leg kick designed to create leverage and drive the ball toward the right field wall. He can better stay back on the ball and that gives him the ability to adjust to pitches instead of guessing the location and coming up empty when he’s wrong.
Carpenter changed his swing early in his career to create an uppercut stroke designed for a bid for home runs. He’s hit his fair share over the past few years. But the undeniable fact is that he has made himself very pitchable. Because of it, strikeouts have piled up -- but his power numbers are way down this season.
I have harped for years that Wong could be an elite offensive player if he would stop trying to pull everything. You have to have more than one trick in your bag to be a major league player -- especially if you’re going to be a lead-off hitter, which is really what St. Louis needs Wong to be going forward. We have seen this from Wong in short bursts before, but he’s never been able to sustain things this long. I hope, as far as Wong is concerned, this is the new normal.
You have to be happy to take three of four games from any team in back-to-back doubleheaders. Still, it was no easy feat for the Redbirds to pad their National League Central Division lead against the Cincinnati Reds.
While they’ve been out of serious contention for a while now, the Reds are a much better team lately than they were at the beginning of the season. Cincinnati has a good offense with some much-needed support with Joey Votto in the lineup. And now they have some pretty solid starting pitching with the addition of Sonny Gray and Trevor Bauer to the front of their rotation. Next season, with a little help in the bullpen, the Reds could be a serious contender for the postseason.
The Cardinals have seen Wong and pitchers Jack Flaherty and Dakota Hudson make some big strides this season. But I think they’re going to need to continue to try to get better if they’re going to keep from getting passed up in the division. St. Louis could lose some valuable pieces with Marcell Ozuna, Adam Wainwright and Michael Wacha all set to become free agents. What happens if Carlos Martinez successfully returns to the rotation? While that saves the need to add a starter, who will replace him at the back of the bullpen while Jordan Hicks misses half of the season or more following Tommy John surgery?
Harrison Bader’s fielding
One last thought: Harrison Bader was left for dead by a lot of Cardinals fans who were disappointed he wasn’t dealt away at the trade deadline. But he’s been huge since he returned from a minor league trip to find his swing. He’s hit .329 over the past month and made a super play in the top of the ninth in the finale of the Reds series to complete a double play by perfectly positioning himself to catch a medium fly ball and throw a strike to cut down a runner trying to score from third. Bader might never be a .300 hitter. But he’s the best defensive outfielder this club has and he’s a menace on the base paths -- if he can just get there enough.