One year after MLB debut, Kerry Carpenter looks like big part of Detroit Tigers’ future

Detroit Free Press

Kerry Carpenter always understood the process.

When a batter gets to the big leagues, pitchers make adjustments. From there, it’s up to the batter to counter. This process, which some describe as the cat-and-mouse game, never ends. Some of the best players, both batters and pitchers, can adjust to their opponent within an individual plate appearance.

Carpenter, a 19th-round pick in the 2019 draft, has been making those adjustments with the Detroit Tigers in the big leagues for the past 370 days, beginning with his MLB debut on Aug. 10, 2022.

“It’s a dream come true,” Carpenter said. “Everybody coming up always said that it’s hard to make the big leagues, but it’s harder to stay. It’s true. This is the best league in the world, and they know your weaknesses better than you know your weaknesses. It can eat you alive if you let it.”

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Carpenter — who reached the big leagues on the same day that the Tigers fired nowformer general manager Al Avila — has played 106 games in his career, spanning parts of two seasons. The 25-year-old is hitting .273 with 21 home runs, 26 walks (6.7% walk rate) and 92 strikeouts (23.6% strikeout rate).

In the 2023 campaign, Carpenter has 15 home runs in 277 plate appearances across 75 games. The left-handed hitter is averaging 0.2 home runs per game and 18.5 plate appearances per home run.

He averaged 18.8 plate appearances per home run over his 31 games (and 113 plate appearances) in the 2022 season. The consistency of his power, despite some ups and downs along the way, is a positive sign.

“He’s done a good job of learning and evolving,” Tigers manager A.J. Hinch said. “He has the right amount of stubbornness in him in his approach and his swing. You need that as a hitter. You can’t tinker so much to the point of not knowing where your body is at, where your swing is at and where the barrel is at. On the flip side, you can’t be so stubborn that you’re not going to adjust to how the league is pitching you.”

Recently, Carpenter has integrated mental toughness into his approach to the grind of the 162-game season. His mindset and attitude helped him escape rough stretches — sometimes by making an important adjustment — in late April, early July and late July into early August.

A right shoulder sprain sidelined him from April 28 until June 9.

“It’s probably this year,” Carpenter said, when asked about the most important lesson he has learned. “Throughout the year, it’s not even physical, it’s mental. It’s the battle that you go through every day mentally. If you have a bad game, if you’re even down on yourself a little bit, then this game will just eat you alive. The resiliency that you learn, if you have a tough game, you’re going out and facing (good pitchers) the next day. You gotta get over it.”

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From 2022 to 2023, Carpenter has improved his walk rate (5.3% to 7.2%), strikeout rate (28.3% to 21.7%), whiff rate (27.8% to 24.3%) and chase rate (33% to 31.8%). His refined approach, which he set out to accomplish this past offseason, has been the driving factor in his continued success.

Here’s what Carpenter said in December 2022, after his 31-game introduction to the big leagues: “There’s some stuff with my approach, like controlling the strike zone. I feel like my swing can let me do that because I can be quick to the ball, so I can make later decisions and better swing decisions. Pick pitches that I can drive and handle, and then later in the count, do a better job of putting the ball in play and helping the team out more.”

It’s another example of an adjustment.

“Kerry believed in himself before anybody else did, and I think he had to hit his way here, and he knows he has to hit his way to stay,” Hinch said. “He spends a lot of time and energy working on his craft.”

Hinch believes Carpenter’s outfield defense has taken a step in the right direction, just like his power production on offense.

“We’re starting to see more confidence in the outfield,” Hinch said. “That is a big step not only for the current roster but for future rosters to be able to keep a glove on your hand and stay somewhere, being an attack-minded outfielder who can stay on the field for the whole game. We’ve watched that grow a little bit in the calendar year, too.”

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Defense is important, but offense will determine Carpenter’s future. Right now, he looks like a mainstay — alongside center fielder Riley Greene — in the middle of the batting order for years to come.

In the last 10 games, Carpenter hit .460 with three doubles, four home runs, two walks and four strikeouts. He launched two home runs over the Green Monster in Saturday’s 6-2 win over the Boston Red Sox at Fenway Park.

There’s an opportunity for Carpenter to establish himself as the Tigers’ primary designated hitter in 2024 and beyond.

“I feel like I’ve done a pretty good job of bouncing back,” Carpenter said. “Going through tough times with tough results isn’t easy, especially up here when you’re searching for your swing or just being able to see the ball. But this year, I’ve learned a lot and plan on continuing to learn.”

Contact Evan Petzold at epetzold@freepress.com or follow him on Twitter @EvanPetzold.

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