If the A’s have not had many reasons to regret the February 2013 trade that sent Chris Carter to the Astros in exchange for Jed Lowrie, they might have experienced pangs on Tuesday night in Houston. In the bottom of the eighth — with the A’s clinging to a 2-1 lead and a tie atop the AL West with the Angels, and with Lowrie on the bench with a broken finger — reliever Luke Gregerson delivered a 90 MPH fastball down and in to Carter, the Astros’ designated hitter. The ball ended up some 400 feet away, deep in the leftfield stands, for a three-run homer that gave Houston a 4-2 margin that would hold up.
The bomb did more than saddle the A's with a late-inning setback and more than produce the delightful sight of the 6-foot-4, 250-pound Carter directly following his 5-6, 175-pound teammate Jose Altuve across home plate. It provided further proof that Carter is currently one of the hottest hitters in the league, and that after struggling in certain ways for the majority of his professional career, he might have finally found himself at the age of 27.
In 2010, Baseball America ranked Carter as the game’s 28th-best prospect. He was 91st the next year, and off the list entirely by 2012. His problems then were the same that bedeviled him until roughly eight weeks ago. When he hit the ball, it went a long way. But the problem was hitting the ball. His swing was long, and he uncoiled it at way too many pitches that were off the plate. Between 2010 and 2013, he struck out 336 times in 254 games and hit .220, and in his first season with the Astros he led baseball with 212 whiffs while batting .223. He was almost entirely a boom-or-bust hitter, and the busts were winning.
The first three months of this season seemed to portend a similar landslide. Through July 3, Carter had struck out 90 times in 73 games, and he was batting just .182, with 13 home runs and 30 RBI. The next day, with the abruptness of an Independence Day firework, things changed. All of a sudden, it seemed, the exhortations of everyone around him — to shorten his swing, to lay off the junk — sunk in. In his 44 games since July 4, Carter has 19 home runs and 47 RBI, a span in which no one else has more than 14 or 41. Perhaps even more surprising is that he is batting .293 during that stretch, with a BABIP of .319 that isn’t especially high. While he is still striking out (55 times since July 4), the range of outcomes his at-bats are now producing makes his whiffs more tolerable.
Carter’s 32 home runs are fourth in the majors, and he is closing fast on the Orioles’ Nelson Cruz, who leads with 34. What is so promising to the Astros is not only his uptick in numbers, but the sustained way in which he has produced it.
"He’s been good for two weeks here, two weeks there, a week here, a week there in the past," manager Bo Porter told Jose de Jesus Ortiz of the Houston Chronicle a few days ago. "But once it got past the three-week, four-week mark, I think every player lives to get to that point where they go to themselves, 'OK, this is not a streak. I’m actually a really good player.'"
The Astros are playing for the future, and as of two months ago Carter’s name wasn’t often uttered along with those of presumed future centerpieces like Altuve, George Springer, Jonathan Singleton, Carlos Correa and (at the time anyway) Brady Aiken. And yet Carter, despite his age, has himself yet to reach arbitration eligibility, and won’t be a free agent until after the 2018 season, by which time — if all goes to plan — the Astros will have been competitive for a couple years.
Of course, two months is not enough time to draw any firm, long-term conclusions about a player, particularly one with Carter’s skillset. Even a year or two isn’t enough. Last season, for instance, the Orioles’ Chris Davis — who had long struggled to balance his immense power with low averages and high strikeout rates — at 27 batted .270 with 53 homers and 138 RBI, and finished third in the AL MVP voting. This season Davis is hitting .188, albeit with 22 homers and 61 RBI, and is on pace to strike out a league-high 196 times. The pendulum can swing back at any time. Even so, Chris Carter’s ascent qualifies as another reason for hope in Houston.