HOUSTON — When strangers approach Chris Carter, he’s ready for the question. His reply is usually something like: “No, I don’t play for the Houston Texans.”
Carter is a 6-foot-4, 250-pound designated hitter for the Astros. He is tied for third in the majors with 33 homers, moving past his early season struggles to become a prime candidate for one of the most anonymous home run titles in years.
Aside from Jose Altuve, who leads the majors with 189 hits, Carter has put together the best season of any Astro. Most of the team toils in relative obscurity after years of losing, but Carter is little known even by Houston standards.
He is not part of the Astros’ marketing campaign around the stadium and in the city despite leading the team with 29 homers and 82 RBIs last season in his first year in Houston following a trade from Oakland. And while the team store at Minute Maid Park had jersey T-shirts for rookies George Springer and Jon Singleton within a week of their promotion, Carter’s No. 23 isn’t available.
“Under the radar, that’s fine with me,” he said in an interview with The Associated Press. “I don’t really need all the attention. I’m not really a big guy for that.”
Until recently, any attention Carter received was the unfavorable kind. He took a beating in the media and from fans last year when he finished third in major league history with 212 strikeouts. Hitting .181 through July 1 did nothing to abate that criticism.
The 27-year-old Carter was out of options and couldn’t be sent to Triple-A, but didn’t worry about the possibility the Astros might release him, even at his lowest point.
“I was never mentally defeated but more frustrated with myself because I knew I could do better,” he said.
“It weighed on me every day knowing that I wasn’t being productive and being the DH, if you’re not hitting then there’s nothing else you can really do.”
Houston catcher Jason Castro has a long history with Carter. He was so good for Double-A Midland in 2009 (hitting .337 with 24 homers and 101 RBIs) that Castro said trying to call a pitch with him at the plate taught him lessons he still uses today.
Even when Carter was struggling, Castro knew he’d turn things around.
“We’ve seen over the last two months the kind of hitter that he can be,” Castro said. “He’s got the tools that can singlehandedly change a game. He’s a pretty special player to have in the lineup.”
Former manager Bo Porter, who was fired on Monday, lauded Carter for his even demeanor, saying: “He’s always the same guy.” Shy and soft-spoken, Carter hates doing interviews and routinely mumbles four- or five-word answers when surrounded by a gaggle of reporters after a big game.
He’s always flashing his megawatt smile though, making it impossible to tell when things bother him. That doesn’t mean he isn’t keenly aware of what’s been said — and written — about him or that it doesn’t hurt.
“I still remember the people who were bashing me back then, but I’m not going to hold it against them,” he said.
Carter’s turnaround has many of the same people who called for him to be benched or released suddenly praising him. His teammates are having fun with the rebound, with several of them suggesting he should change his walk-up song to the 2005 hit “Back Then” by Houston rapper Mike Jones.
They think the chorus of that tune sums up what’s happening to Carter succinctly: “Back then they didn’t want me, now I’m hot they all on me,” Jones barks repeatedly.
Carter hit .270 last month to raise his average to .227 and leads the league by averaging a home run once in every 13 at-bats.
“It’s nice to be recognized as something more than somebody who just strikes out a bunch and might hit a few homers,” he said. “It’s just nice to have a feeling where people are like: ‘This guy can actually hit,’ now instead of just being a one-dimensional kind of player.”
He credits his improvement to changes made after being benched for three games in late May. He was asked about what changed so often that he would roll his eyes when queried about it again and again as his season took off. The easy answer is that he worked with hitting coach John Mallee to shorten his swing. A more complex explanation is that now every swing he takes means something.
“Before I was just swinging to be swinging just because this is what we’re doing and we’re in BP,” he said. “Just taking swings. There wasn’t really a real purpose or focus on it. So now I’m emphasizing more focus on what I’m doing.”
Carter finds it odd that he’s known solely as a home run hitter. It certainly wasn’t always the case.
He hit less than 10 homers as a high school senior. A third baseman with a wiry 6-foot-1, 185-pound frame, Carter wasn’t projected to be a power hitter.
By 2008, he had grown into what he calls “this body” and morphed into a slugger. That season he hit 39 homers in Class A Stockton and his role in the majors was set.
“You grow three inches and gain like 60 pounds and it changes everything,” he said with a laugh.
He believes he’s capable of hitting 40 home runs and is excited about the possibility of leading the league in long balls. But even that wouldn’t satisfy him.
“Personally I would know that there was more I could have done better,” he said. “Even though I hit 40 I know that I could still hit better than .220, .225 or whatever. I still know I could hit around .280, .300. But I can’t be just content with hitting 40 and .220 every year.”
“It would be successful, but it’s not successful at the same time,” he said.