JUPITER, Fl. (KMOV.com) -- After a week off due to back tightness, Matt Carpenter returned to action Thursday. Sort of.
The 31year old, having converted to first base ahead of the 2017 season, is still fine tuning his play at the position and returned to his work in the field. He is not medically cleared to swing a bat, but with no limitations on his defense, he was eager for to man first at game speed.
“I want to continue getting that work in, and we thought this was a good opportunity to do it. The other part is I just want to be involved. I hate sitting around,” Carpenter said. “There’s nothing I can do to recreate any kind of feeling [in my back] on the baseball field, minus taking a full swing. Lifting, running the bases, throwing, playing defense, all that stuff. It’s a real minor thing that I’m dealing with, but it was enough to be proactive about.”
To avoid the possibility of his tightness mutating into a more serious injury (like the oblique strain that kept him out a month last season), Carpenter shut down his batting work until after this weekend. He will swing again Monday and hopes to be game ready in a week, leaving him two weeks of spring games to catch up.
He needs as many opportunities in the field as possible to become familiar with the nuances of first base. Luckily, just about every ball on the ground (and a few in the air) involves the first baseman. If Carpenter were learning another infield station, he could go an entire outing without getting a rep.
“He got to move around the base, had to use his instincts backing off one time, had a couple things he got to do. He looked good. You can tell he’s been working and feeling more comfortable. It was just what we needed him to do,” Mike Matheny said after Thursday's contest.
Even though defense was the focus, Carpenter still managed to have fun at the plate. He was instructed not to swing, but the Astros weren’t aware of that. During his first at bat, the defense slid into a shift, leaving the left side of the infield unprotected.
“I wasn’t going to swing and wasn’t going to do anything, really. I was just going to take,” Carpenter said. “I saw the shift, and it was either stand there and take a strike or try to get a base-hit bunt.”
He went with the latter and with two strikes, dropped a ball right down the third base line. He offered a shrug when he got to first. Even handicapped with instructions not to swing, Carpenter put a ball in play for hit.
“Honestly, it opens our eyes to the ability to do that with two strikes if you’re willing. It’s there if you’re willing to take it. Obviously, the risk is if you bunt and miss, you strike out. But you can swing and miss and strike out, too. It’s something we all think about; it’s just, no one does it,” he said.
That may change in 2017. Last season teams shifted routinely against Carpenter. Despite his reputation as a disciplined hitter with power to multiple fields, defenses altered their position enough to qualify as a shift in 212 of his plate appearances (about 37 percent of the time).
“When you look at the numbers and charts and stuff, they see that when he does hit it on the ground, it’s usually on the pull side. That doesn’t mean that he’s a straight pull hitter,” Carpenter said. “For the most part, when I do hit to go the other way, it is in the air. I don’t hit it [the other way] on the ground much. It’s just the way the game is played now.”
But that strategy has a crucial flaw if a player is willing to- and capable of- laying down a bunt. It will force teams to play straight away for the first couple strikes, and if a hitter is willing to risk the two-strike attempt, he could take away the shift altogether.
“They shifted [against] me in the leadoff spot, but they had to respect the bunt, at least on the first couple strikes. But I could see them being less worried about that until I start [bunting]. The best way to beat a shift is to do it. You put the thought in the back of their head,” Carpenter said. “If it’s there, I’m going to take it. I’ve always been that way. I just think that’s good baseball.”
Carpenter expects to play in the field again over the weekend and will likely have the same restrictions on his swing. If he hopes to again exploit the shift, his best bet is Saturday when the Cardinals host the Braves. Atlanta shifted the ninth most times against hitters last season. Both the Nationals (Friday) and the Marlins (Sunday) were in the bottom eight. The team he exploited Thursday, the Astros, were the most shift-happy in baseball last season. He has them again Monday.