2023 Tigers previews: Kerry Carpenter looks to mash his way to a full-time role

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This time last year, outfielder Kerry Carpenter was an afterthought on most Tigers’ prospect lists. A below average defender who had shown decent bat to ball skills and some power, but little in the way of plate discipline, the Tigers 19th rounder in 2019 was not on the radar as a breakout candidate. 513 plate appearances and 36 home runs across three levels later, and suddenly Carpenter is expected to win a spot on the major league roster in 2023 this spring.

One of the wilder notes from his age 24 season was the fact that he hit a home run every 12 plate appearances for the Double-A Erie SeaWolves. That’s 50+ HR territory over a full season. Even at Double-A that is wild. UPMC Park is a good place to launch some bombs, but that is still an amazing pace to sustain over 63 games.

By the time he graduated to Triple-A and then 31 games in the majors to finish his season, that ratio was a somewhat more reasonable home run every 20 plate appearances, but he really didn’t fall off all that much in his first look at the major leagues. This season pitchers will adjust, and things will become more difficult, but Carpenter has made himself harder to bet against heading into 2023.

Kerry Carpenter 2021-2022

Season Level PA K% BB% HR ISO wRC+
Season Level PA K% BB% HR ISO wRC+
2021 AA 461 20.4 6.3 15 0.171 102
2022 AA 262 27.5 6.1 22 0.342 164
2022 AAA 138 12.3 12.3 8 0.314 176
2022 MLB 113 28.3 5.3 6 0.233 126

Right now, Carpenter seems set to DH against right-handed pitching and play some corner outfield. He has one of the better arms in the outfield, and will probably see a fair bit of time in right field this year, though his overall defensive numbers are below average due to the occasional bad jump or route.

They may test him more against lefties than we think, as his overall 2022 splits were reasonably well balanced, but Matt Vierling is guaranteed to play everyday against lefties though he may work at 3B as well as anywhere in the outfield. Either way, they’ll both be competing with Akil Baddoo for some of the reps at the third outfield position. Riley Greene and Austin Meadows will be playing basically everyday, though potentially Meadows could get some days off or in the designated hitter as well slot to help keep his legs healthier this season.

The one big question for Carpenter is whether he can improve his plate discipline a bit more. We’re not going to take a ton from just 31 major league games, but Carpenter did post an O-swing percentage of 37.5, which is five full points higher than league average. His 13.7 percent swinging strike rate was 2.5 percent higher than league average as well. Finally, he was three percent better than average against called strikes, and that could go back the other way toward league average.

His 28.3 percent strikeout rate was the result, and that can’t get much worse without eventually costing him playing time. Carpenter has never walked a lot, but that’s not specifically the problem. He just needs to chase less overall and get more out of his ability to drive the baseball to perform in the majors to any degree like he did last year. He still has plenty of options so the situation isn’t urgent, but to stick around consistently, he’s going to have to adapt more of Scott Harris and A.J. Hinch’s mantra to control the strike zone better.

On the plus side, Carpenter hits the ball hard in the air quite a lot, posting a solid 14.5 degree average launch angle with basically an average hard hit rate in his brief time in the majors. His average and max exit velocities weren’t as high as in the minors, but still, 36 home runs in a season, including plenty of them to the opposite field, proves the approach out. Cranking six of those homers in just 31 games at the major league level leaves some level of confidence. Carpenter notably worked with Richard Schenck, Aaron Judge’s swing coach, last year and crediting him with some of the adjustments made to be quicker to the ball and drive pitches in the air more consistently.

Outlook

Carpenter is going to find pitchers a little more prepared to challenge him in 2023. The chase and swinging strike rates say his strikeout rate could climb higher and put a ton more pressure on him to continue delivering serious power numbers. He’s an assassin against most types of fastballs and covers the whole zone quite well. The Tigers desperately needed more of that in their lineup, but he is still vulnerable to breaking balls in particular. We’ll have to see how many major league pitchers can exploit that by cutting some of the fastballs out of their pitch mix against him. They’ll still have to throw quality strikes around the corners with sliders and curveballs to really make that approach work, but Carpenter needs to become a little more of a complete hitter to replicate last season’s success.

It’s going to take some work to claim a full-time spot, but Kerry Carpenter was one of the few real bright spots at the plate in 2023 and finished the season quite strong and doing plenty of damage. He’s an excellent story in his own right. The 25-year-old outfielder may not quite fit as a “Harris-type” player, but adapting a bit of the new front office’s guiding philosophy will make him a valuable hitter for years to come. Hopefully he can pull it off.

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