What Kerry Carpenter does so well that makes Detroit Tigers think he can succeed in MLB

Detroit Free Press

TOLEDO, Ohio — Late Tuesday night, Kerry Carpenter was called into Lloyd McClendon’s office for a surprise meeting.

“Did your dad die a few years ago?” McClendon, the Triple-A Toledo Mud Hens manager, asked.

“Yes,” Carpenter said.

Carpenter’s father, Ken, died on May 11, 2020, from a rare form of liver cancer at the age of 62.

“Where are you from?” McClendon asked.

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“Eustis, Florida,” Carpenter said, starting to realize this was a different kind of meeting.

“Is your mom at home?” McClendon asked.

“Yeah,” Carpenter said.

“Call your mom and sister because you’re going to Detroit,” McClendon said.

Carpenter, the hottest player in the Tigers’ minor league system, will make his major league debut Wednesday night against the Cleveland Guardians.

“Your dad would be proud of you,” McClendon said.

Carpenter walked out of the office and his teammates started celebrating

“Just walking out of Lloyd’s office and seeing all of them lined up was special,” Carpenter said. “These guys are my brothers.”

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And they were thrilled for him.

“He’s such a great dude,” Mud Hens infielder Josh Lester said. “He deserves it.”

The clubhouse TV was tuned to Bally Sports Detroit and Tigers manager A.J. Hinch made the announcement almost simultaneously. Hinch said that Carpenter will make his debut as the designated hitter.

“Hey, they are talking about you,” somebody said.

“That’s pretty cool,” Carpenter said.

The swing of things

Carpenter earned this promotion after skyrocketing through the minor leagues, hitting for both power (30 home runs and a 1.025 on base-plus-slugging percentage this season) and average (.313), while dominating at both Double-A Erie and Triple-A Toledo.

Here is a 24-year-old outfielder who changed his swing right before spring training and then has put together a life-changing season, going from Double-A to the big leagues in a matter of months.

Which is not typical.

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But these are not typical times in Detroit. The Tigers offense is horrible, and it makes sense to give him a shot. I mean, what can it hurt?

Maybe he will struggle — most rookies do.

Then again, maybe he’ll hit.

Like he has all season.

“He hits the ball hard,” Tigers director of player development Ryan Garko told me Tuesday afternoon, sitting in the dugout at Comerica Park. I interviewed Garko in Detroit and then drove to Toledo to do a story on Carpenter, not knowing that he was about to get called up.

“He’s hitting for power,” Garko said. “He’s hitting left-handed pitching. His swing has continued to play.”

Actually, Carpenter seems to get better the higher he goes. He struck out 72 times with just 16 walks in Erie, and he had just 17 strikeouts with 17 walks in Toledo.

Sure, it’s a small sample size at Triple-A. But the fact that he jumped to the big leagues after just 30 games in Toledo is pretty amazing.

And it all stems back to that swing change.

“I did it right before spring training and it’s was kind of a leap of faith,” he said.

Then, he started ticking off all the people who helped him.

“I knew it was the right thing to do,” Carpenter said. “(Tigers minor leaguer) Jacob Robson helped me. My uncle helped me. All the hitting coaches, and the staff here helped me. All the support that I’ve gotten has been amazing. They’ve just helped me become the hitter I am today — and that’s a big league hitter.”

Carpenter does that when he’s talking. He drops in statements that are dripping with confidence. He’s not cocky by any means. But he has an unmistakable belief in himself that comes after 30 homers this season.

Then again, his hitting hasn’t been questioned. His biggest weakness is his defense. He has a good arm for an outfielder but he’s not very athletic.

“He’s gotta get better defensively,” Garko said.

A few weeks ago, the Tigers didn’t really have a spot for Carpenter.

But it will be far easier to find a place in the batting order for Carpenter now that Miguel Cabrera is starting to take time off because of his creaky right knee.

Skeptics might say: yeah, yeah. Another hotshot bat. We’ve seen hitters come up and then struggle.

But Carpenter has analytics on his side.

“He pulls the ball in the air,” Garko said. “If you start diving into the granular data, being able to pull the baseball in the air is a pretty good marker of success.”

Garko explained that many minor league hitters do most of their damage going opposite field against fastballs.

“A lot of times, you will see hitters who have success in the minors where there isn’t a lot of velocity and all their damage is oppo,” Garko said. “Then, they get to the big leagues and struggle against fastballs.”

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But Carpenter is pulling fastballs.

And Garko views that as a great sign that he can have success at the big league level.

A life-changing moment

Carpenter walked through the hallway, holding his cell phone.

“Did you call your mom?” I asked.

“Yeah, my mom and my sister were screaming in the house,” he said.

He looked like he was glowing. His cheeks were red and he had a permanent smile.

“It would have been awesome if my dad was here to witness it,” Carpenter said. “But obviously, couldn’t happen, but I think about him all the time.”

His father was his first coach in little league.

“Anytime I wanted to go to the field, even in high school, I’d ask him to throw to me in the cage or on the field, and he would do it and he would stay out there for hours,” Carpenter said.

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His father’s death changed his life completely.

“It started making me ask myself questions especially about my faith,” he said. “In that way, God used a terrible thing but it ended up being a great thing because Jesus Christ saved my life through that.”

“I noticed you have a religious walk-up song,” I said. “What is it?”

“It’s ‘Nobody’ by Casting Crowns,” Carpenter said. “The message is the fact that I’m literally a nobody, that Jesus Christ came from the throne of heaven down to Earth, lived a sinless life, died on a cross for me and I put my faith in him because I can’t save myself. Only He can save me.”

‘I just want to enjoy it’

Carpenter is the first to acknowledge that he still has to improve.

“I have a lot of work to do,” he said.

But he bringing a hot bat and a lot of confidence to Detroit.

“My goal is to just learn and be present and enjoy it,” Carpenter said. “Because I don’t want to look back years from now and wish I had enjoyed it more. I don’t want to stress about it. I don’t want to be like, oh, if I don’t perform up here, I’ll go back down. Because it’s an amazing gift that I’ve been given. And I just want to enjoy it, be in the moment present, and try to win games up there.”

Several players on the Mud Hens have played in Detroit.

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And Carpenter has been picking their brains, getting advice, preparing for this moment.

“I’ve definitely asked questions,” Carpenter said. “When you’re there, you’re there for a reason. You don’t have to do anything different. It’s just a better level. I belong there. And they believe that I belong there. So I don’t have to change a thing. Just be myself.”

There is no question he has talent.

But it’s his mental approach that is so interesting.

“These are the best players in the world,” Carpenter said. “I’m going to line out, strikeout, fly out. I’m gonna get out so it’s not the end of the world. These guys are really good, but I’m really good as well.”

Contact Jeff Seidel: jseidel@freepress.com. Follow him on Twitter @seideljeff.

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