What does it feel like for a hitter when he’s on a tear like Kerry Carpenter’s last month?
“I felt like it doesn’t matter really what’s being thrown to me,” Carpenter said. “If I’m right with my approach and right with my swing, I feel like I could hit anything.”
It certainly felt that way Saturday night at Double-A Erie. After laying off a couple fastballs off the plate, he got a 2-0 fastball up in the strike zone and lined it to right-center field, bouncing it off the top of the fence and over. After grounding out in his next at-bat, he crushed another ball over the right-field fence.
It was Carpenter’s fourth two-homer game of the season, and his third in two weeks. His 19 homers moved him into a tie for the lead across Minor League Baseball. His .720 slugging percentage and 1.116 OPS entering Sunday led all qualified Minor League hitters. The former 19th-round Draft pick out of Virginia Tech and supporting hitter in a star-studded Erie lineup last year is now blossoming into somebody to watch.
“It’s a great story,” Erie manager and former Tigers infielder Gabe Alvarez said, “because he’s such a great kid. People gravitate to him. He’s everyone’s favorite kid in the locker room. But he went through a swing change this offseason.”
Carpenter isn’t superstitious. If he does the same thing every day, it’s just out of habit. But behind the sweet swing that has become the talk of the Tigers farm system is a whole lot of work, and a bit of a leap of faith at a time when he could have been fighting for a job on the back fields of Tigertown.
Carpenter had a solid 2021 season at Erie, especially for somebody who skipped a couple Minor League levels following the lost Minor League season in 2020. On a team that had top prospects Riley Greene, Spencer Torkelson and Ryan Kreidler for a good portion of the summer, Carpenter led the SeaWolves with 24 doubles and 74 RBIs to go with a .262 average and 15 home runs. But his .433 slugging percentage and .752 OPS weren’t eye-opening.
“One of my friends said, ‘You had a pretty good year, but your swing isn’t that great. Like, you could have a better swing and you’d be a lot better,’” Carpenter said. “And at first, I was like, ‘I don’t know, man, I think I’m just going to hang with the swing that I have.’ And then, he was just teaching me a little about it, and then I felt what he was trying to have me feel and I was like, ‘Alright, I have to change this, because I felt that much better.’”
That was in January, fairly late in the offseason. And that friend was fellow Tigers Minor League outfielder Jacob Robson, who has been through the grind Carpenter was on.
Carpenter began working with Robson on retooling his swing to incorporate more lift. Looking for more guidance, he connected a month later with Richard Schenck, a hitting instructor based in St. Louis who claims Yankees slugger Aaron Judge and Cubs outfielder Ian Happ among his clients.
The swing work made a difference, but it was still a work in progress when Carpenter arrived at Tigers Minor League camp in March.
“I felt pretty good, but it wasn’t great,” he said. “And then we started games and I was getting at-bats and I was just kind of battling it. In games, I would revert to my old swing, and so it was kind of a battle to just get that out of my head and say, ‘This is the swing that works, even if it was stupid for a game just to try it.’
“I wanted to be great, even if it meant looking stupid in Spring Training for a little bit trying to do something different. I knew it was the right thing to do.”
Carpenter returned to Erie and batted just .238 with a .749 OPS in April. He hit four homers, but he struck out 24 times in 63 at-bats. He can remember the game when it finally clicked.
“The last game of our series in Akron, about three or four weeks ago,” he said.
Carpenter was already on a tear with three home runs and two three-hit games in a five-game stretch. He went 2-for-8 that afternoon, but one of the hits was a three-run homer.
From there, the tear was on. Carpenter went 9-for-18 with four doubles and three homers over a five-game stretch, then pummeled Bowie for 10 hits, half of them homers, in six games.
For the month, Carpenter hit .411 (37-for-90) with 13 homers, seven doubles, 29 RBIs and a 1.393 OPS. Carpenter’s craftsmanship earned him Eastern League Player of the Month honors for May.
“It was unbelievable. He was hitting right-handers, hitting left-handers, hitting fastballs, hitting offspeed pitches,” Alvarez said. “Whether the balls were in, out, high, low — he was hitting them; hitting home runs to the pull side, home runs the other way. It was as complete of a month as I’ve ever seen.”
It’s still going. The next test will eventually be Triple-A, but the Tigers will need to figure out their outfield logjam first, once Robbie Grossman returns from Detroit’s injured list and Akil Baddoo returns from an oblique injury.
“A lot of people on the other team have come up to me during games and have been like, ‘Why are you still here?’” Carpenter joked. “But I try not to think about it. All I can control is where I am, and I know that where I am is exactly where God wants me in the moment.”