The 2022 Tigers were baseball’s worst offensive team, as the lineup’s near-total lack of production was the chief cause (even beyond a staggering number of pitcher injuries) for a hugely disappointing 66-96 record in what was supposed to be a return to contention. “Best batter on the 2022 Tigers” is pretty faint praise, and Kerry Carpenter’s 113 plate appearances last season didn’t even make him a qualified hitter, yet Carpenter still took the dubious honor by posting a team-leading 124 wRC+ over his 31 games of work in his rookie season.
While Carpenter hadn’t really been on Detroit’s radar last year amidst the bigger-name veterans or more highly-touted prospects on the roster, a club so suddenly desperate for hitting could hardly afford to look past a promising bat. This earned him a larger share of playing time heading into 2023, though Carpenter had a modest .217/.280/.464 slash line over his first 75 PA this season. He was then dealt another setback when he sprained his right shoulder at the end of April, resulting in about six weeks on the injured list.
Upon returning from the IL, however, Carpenter has not just been the Tigers’ best batter, but also quietly one of the most productive bats in baseball. Since Carpenter was activated on June 9, only nine qualified hitters have topped his 159 wRC+, as he has slashed .317/.380/.575 over 245 PA. He joined the 20-homer club this past Wednesday, with a grand slam that represented all of Detroit’s offense in a 6-4 loss to the Cubs.
These types of numbers are impressive for anyone, but especially for a 19th-round draft pick from the 2019 draft. Carpenter hit well in his first pro season, but likely due to the canceled 2020 minor league campaign, he took a bit of a step back in 2021 with a .752 OPS over 461 PA for Double-A Erie. Carpenter returned to Erie to begin the 2022 season, but he started to tear up pitching at both the Double-A and Triple-A levels, finishing 2022 with a .313/.380/.645 line and 30 homers over an even 400 PA for the two affiliates.
In this sense, Carpenter didn’t exactly come out of nowhere, though few would’ve predicted that he would’ve kept swinging a hot bat in the majors. And, it is worth noting that Carpenter has still totaled only 433 PA in the big leagues — too small a sample size to clearly state that he is truly for real. Carpenter’s walk and strikeout rates are also a bit below the league average, and he has some significant splits, as his left-handed swing is lot more productive against right-handed pitching (.938 OPS) than against southpaws (.724 OPS). Carpenter has also benefited from a .328 BABIP this season, and his .382 wOBA is well above his .362 xwOBA.
That said, a .362 xwOBA ranks in the 87th percentile of all batters, so Carpenter’s production would be very notable if he was “only” delivering at that expected level. His contact and barrel rates are both well north of average, so it isn’t like he is getting lucky on soft contact. And, while we’re still operating within a small overall sample size of career at-bats, Carpenter is doing much better against left-handed pitching in 2023 than he did in 2022.
On the defensive side, Carpenter has made some positive strides as a corner outfielder, spending most of his time in right field this year. A Gold Glove isn’t necessarily in Carpenter’s future, but public metrics have rated his right field work as just a touch below average. The UZR/150 and Defensive Runs Saved metrics have been more impressed by his 72 1/3 innings in left field, though Carpenter’s solid throwing arm probably makes him a better fit in right field. While more DH at-bats will be available in Detroit once Miguel Cabrera retires, Carpenter certainly looks like at least a passable corner outfielder, which gives the Tigers more flexibility in how they’ll manage their roster going forward.
Detroit’s 2023 offense is still near the bottom of the league, but there have at least been some signs of life with Carpenter’s production, and solid showings from former top draft picks Riley Greene and Spencer Torkelson. Blue-chip star prospects like Greene and Torkelson have been the faces of the Tigers’ lineup of the future, but striking paydirt on a less-regarded player or two has always been a key element of any successful rebuild. It looks like the Tigers might have found at least an MLB regular with their 19th-round selection, and Carpenter’s elite production over the last few months might also hint at a higher ceiling.