Chris Carter's gaudy first ABs

Chris Carter stepped to the plate in the second inning in Kansas City on Tuesday night and drew a walk.

The next night, also during his first at bat, he drilled a double.

At a sick rate, Carter manages to get on base in his first plate appearance.

In the middle innings, however, not so much.

Carter, the tantalizing power bat, has always been something of an enigma. He has dominated at every level of the minor leagues. But when given earlier opportunities in the show, he has looked as scared and lost as a five-year old wandering the produce aisle while mommy’s at the deli counter buying the cold cuts.

The well-documented adjustments Carter has made at the plate have translated during his third tour of duty in the majors.

He’s shortened his swing and moved closer to the plate. Although platooned initially, he’s enjoyed success pounding right-handed pitching.

Most significantly, the big man has stopped biting at bad breaking balls. And his patient approach has resulted in more good pitches to hit.

Nothing has exhilarated A’s fans more than seeing Carter finally deliver the awesome power bat the team craves. Some have compared him to Frank Thomas. But Carter’s frame and quick stroke are more reminiscent of Jermaine Dye. He provides an imposing presence in the middle of the order behind Josh Reddick and Yoenis Cespedes.

Still, there are two sides to Carter. The locked-in focused beast of a hitter. And Chris Carter, the sleepwalker.

All the good Chris Carter attributes are on display in his first AB. His early game at bats are sharp, patient and productive. He’s doing everything right. Waiting for good pitches, taking his walks. Making pitchers come to him.

In the middle of the game, however, A’s fans are getting reacquainted with a player who left his mojo in the minors. He’s strikeout prone and considerably less patient. He’s jumping at pitches and walking less.

In the later innings, typically when games hang in the balance, Carter reawakens, locking in again. Is it simply a matter of maintaining focus? I think so.

Let’s look closely at the numbers.

Carter has produced most of his hits (11), home runs (4) and walks (10) in his first plate appearance. (This includes his late-inning pinch-hit walk-off home run against the Mariners.) His OBP is a phenomenal .618 in his first AB. Only 11.8 percent of his strikeouts have occurred in his first trip to the dish.

But the on-base percentage drops to .313 in his second plate appearance and plummets to Cliff Pennington levels (.267) in his third trip. At the same time, the K’s rise dramatically. About 32 percent of Carter’s total strikeouts occur in his third AB.

Carter’s position as a 5th hitter in the lineup, means he has typically made his fourth plate appearance around the eighth or ninth innings, when games are on the line. During the fourth plate trip, the Carter we have grown to like re-emerges – at least in part. His on-base percentage shoots back to .400 and he has belted 30 percent of his home runs. But his plate discipline remains an issue. He has walked only three times in his fourth AB and K’d eight times – 24 percent of his total strikeouts.

You can find just about any statistical breakdown online. How a player performs at night or day; on turf or grass; at home or away. But I couldn’t find an easy way to analyze plate appearances by at-bat, so I clicked on ESPN’s player stats and reviewed all games Carter has played – logging into a spreadsheet by hand every at bat since his June recall, while watching Wednesday’s game on TV.

Carter’s batting average in his first plate appearance is .458. It plummets to an astonishingly consistent .185 in both his second and his third ABs. And it rebounds to .318 in his fourth AB.

How does this play out between the lines? When Carter walked Tuesday it would be the only time he reached base safely. He struck out his next two trips – and never got a fourth plate appearance.

When he doubled in his first plate appearance Wednesday, Carter worked the count and got a pitch he could handle. In his second and third appearances, he came up first-pitch hacking and eventually made ground ball outs. In his fourth plate appearance, with the A’s down a run in the ninth, Carter took the first pitch, and fouled off another before delivering a lead-off single.

I’m not a coach, a player or a shrink, but the numbers indicate that Carter is laser focused in his first AB – and more willing to take pitches. He clearly loses some of that sharpness in the middle innings or becomes a little too aggressive.

I didn’t analyze it, but anecdotally, he also seems more prone to brain freeze or defensive miscues in the middle innings. When the game hangs in the balance, he recaptures some of the focus and discipline that has made him so impactful.

No one would label Carter the next Pujols. And no one would expect him to replicate his first AB numbers all game long. He’s not a super hero. I get that. But he needs to find a way to keep focused and disciplined. Imagine if he could somehow bottle some of that first AB success and sprinkle just a fraction of it around his middle inning appearances? Oakland would feature a methodical, powerful big man delivering quality at bats, all game long, amid a possible playoff run.

For now at least, better make sure you’re squarely in your green plastic seat, tuning in to Korach or in front of the TV when Carter strides to the plate for the first time. There’s a pretty good chance, the big guy is about to make something happen.


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