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Part II: With Top Of Their Lineup Set, Cardinals Need More Muscle In The Middle

In a piece I posted earlier today, I took a look at how Matt Carpenter and Dexter Fowler are performing in the top two spots of a revised lineup. The answer: they’re doing great. But a big problem remains.

The top of the lineup is strong, but what about the middle?

It’s super to have two acclaimed leadoff men batting first (Carpenter) and second (Fowler) in your lineup. That’s a powerful way to ignite the offense. Walks, an inflated onbase percentage, doubles, homers, slugging.

It’s nice.

Except for this: manager Mike Matheny has now consolidated a significant percentage of his team’s home-run power in the first two slots of his batting order.

Through Tuesday’s doubleheader split with Milwaukee, the Cardinals had 63 home runs for the season. Carpenter (12) and Fowler (9) own 21 of them. The dynamic leadoff tandem has combined to deliver 33.3 percent of this team’s total HR count.

Excluding pitcher Adam Wainwright’s 2 homers, Fowler and Carpenter have combined to power 34.4 percent of the Cards’ homers by position players.

And if we limit the focus to the combined home-run numbers of the 10 Cardinals that at least 100 individual plate appearances this season, Carpenter and Fowler have launched 37.5 percent of the homers.

Since May 17, Carp and Dex have teamed for nine home runs. The team’s other position have produced 13 over that time … meaning that Carpenter and Fowler have delivered 41 percent of the home runs by position players over the past 26 games.

Maybe it doesn’t matter where the home runs come from as long as enough players are hitting them. But I don’t see it that way. With Carpenter leading off and Fowler batting second, the Cardinals will be leaving some power-generated runs on the table for an obvious reason: they’re next in line after the pitcher bats 9th.

I can’t complain about the onbase percentage being posted by the Cardinals’ No. 8 hitters. Thanks to Kolten Wong, Tommy Pham, and (briefly) Mags Sierra, the Cards .371 OBP in the No. 8 hole is first among the 30 teams.

This suggestion would cause manager Mike Matheny’s head to implode, and I don’t want to do that. But if a team has the Carpenter-Fowler power threat at the top of the lineup, it actually makes a lot of sense to bat the pitcher eighth, and use Wong in the No. 9 spot.  Wong has a superb .392 OBP overall, and that includes a .433 OBP when he bats eighth. It helps Wong that he’s hitting before the pitcher, because he’s walking 12.2 percent of the time when he’s slotted 8th. Since the start of the 2016 season, Wong’s has improved his plate discipline and nearly doubled his previous career walk rate. If he batted ninth, I think he’d still reach base at a healthy rate. And I think Wong would embrace the idea of getting on to set up Carpenter and Fowler.

But you would have to call 911 and rush me and many others to the nearest medical center if Matheny ever did something so freakishly perverted  (by his standards) as bat the pitcher 8th. This is a skipper that still uses sacrifice-bunt strategies that became hopelessly outdated — not to mention bad for an offense — around 20, 25 years ago.

Obviously, it isn’t just  about the hitters that take their turns late in the lineup, stepping in to hit with Carpenter and Fowler cueing up.

The middle-lineup hitters carry even more importance with two rich OBP sources batting first and second and creating abundant run-scoring opportunities.

Carpenter spent most of his time batting third this season. As we know, his resume as a No. 3 hitter isn’t bad, but doesn’t come close to matching his work as the No. 1 hitter.But it’s also true that, as the No. 3 hitter, Carpenter drove in 18.5 percent of his teammates that were on base — the best percentage by a Cards’ regular this season.

Based on Matheny’s usage patterns,  here’s what the Cardinals are looking at in their 3-4-5 spots right now:

Stephen Piscotty appears to be Matheny’s preferred option to bat third. Piscotty brings attributes to the assignment including a high walk rate (15%) and high OBP (.378). The power has come along slowly — a .397 slug overall this year — but Piscotty has ramped up for a .535 slugging percentage over his last 14 games. It’s a positive sign, but Piscotty’s plate appearances as a No. 3 hitter come out of the mini-sized sample box.  Piscotty is also a career .359 hitter with runners in scoring position, but that average isn’t sustainable. Still, if Piscotty’s swing is in synch, he can do a solid job as the No. 3 hitter. Matheny is on the right track here.

Jedd Gyorko has been Matheny’s  cleanup hitter of choice. In 168 plate appearances at cleanup this season, Gyorko has five homers and 22 RBIs. (He has three homers and six RBIs at other lineup spots.) Look, we all respect Gyorko. He’s one of the Cardinals’ best players. Gyorko brings value to the field; his 1.3 WAR leads the team’s position players. And his overall offense, based on park-adjusted runs created, is 23 percent above league average. But Gyorko has homered only twice in 138 PA since the 2nd of May.  Over that time he’s batted .266 with a .304 OBP and .375 slug and .679 OPS. Among No. 4 hitters that have enough plate appearances to qualify this season, Gyorko ranks 22nd in slugging (.474) and OPS (.814), is 22nd in RBIs (16), is tied for 18th in homers (five), and ranks 29th in isolated power (.173 ISO). Finally, Gyorko’s park-adjusted offense as a No, 4 hitter is 13 percent above league average for that lineup spot and puts him 12th among 18 cleanup batters that have 150 PA there. That’s OK; nothing special. As much as we appreciate Gyorko, you’d like to see the team get more muscle at cleanup.

Matheny continues to bat Yadier Molina fifth, and it’s still a mistake. With Molina having (by far) the most plate appearances (147) as the team’s No. 5 hitter, the Cardinals are 20 percent below league average in park-adjusted runs created from the five slot. Molina (mostly) and the Cards’ other No. 5 hitters rank 24th in OPS (.675),  27th in slugging (.356),  29th in homers (4),  30th and last in RBIs (15). The Cards’ No. 5 hitters are also 30th (last) in Isolated Power with an 0.85 ISO. As for his personal stats as a No. 5 hitter, Molina has a .306 OBP, .403 slug, .709 OPS and is 15 percent below the league average for offense at the fifth spot. With all due respect to the iconic Molina — and it isn’t his fault — it’s preposterous to have him batting fifth in this lineup.

Yes, even with limited options.

And that’s another issue.

Tommy Pham would appear to be an option.

One of the Cardinals’ most productive hitters since his May 5 promotion from Triple A Memphis; Pham’s park-adjusted runs created is 31 percent above the league average. Despite that, Pham has been used for only four plate appearances at No. 3, hasn’t been used at all at No. 4, and has a mere seven PA as a No. 5 hitter.

Pham has more combined plate appearances at No. 7 and No. 8 this season (29), than he does in the 3-4-5 slots (11).

If Carpenter and Fowler stay at 1 and 2 to making pitchers miserable, the Cardinals will have to do a lot more to cash in. They’ll have to find a way to  beef up the middle of the lineup.

GM John Mozeliak can’t force Matheny to use a smarter option than Molina at 5th in the order.

And Mozeliak can’t do much about Gyorko’s slump. And Mozeliak can only hope for Piscotty to raise the power numbers.

But here’s what the GM can do: make a trade for a substantive, menacing hitter that would add a true element of danger in the middle of the STL lineup. I don’t know who this monster is, or even if there is a monster available — but this is the team’s biggest need.

Thanks for reading …

–Bernie

More: Miklasz – Matt Carpenter Batting Leadoff? You Win. I Surrender. It’s The Right Thing To Do

  • JDinSTL

    The same story since Craig went down. If they had any intention of acquiring such a hitter, it would have been done long before now. Those guys are expensive, you know?

    • JohnS

      Yeah, I get the distinct feeling Cards’ ownership is just feeling like, you know, we just can’t, you know, quite afford to pay these outrageous salaries. I mean, you know, it just really cuts into your profits and when your primary focus really is making big money and not winning, it would really hurt to step up and sign some guy to a thirty million a year contract. I really do feel for them as I know it would be difficult to step up and pay some athlete this kind of money, I would probably do everything in my power to not to have to do that. I am sure especially Mr. DeWitt, who lets face it, grew up in the era when ballplayers were totally financially exploited by the owners really would have a hard time doing this. It is almost like the Cards, the team, needs a new set of owners who perhaps aren’t making their primary living off the ball team, who could just run it as a hobby and out of egotistical needs would spend the cash necessary to make this team a winner. Alas, it does not appear any white knight future owner of that sort is one the horizon for this team, and so we appear to be saddled with an ownership group that does not feel like it is able to financially compete with the big boys….

  • Tom Ryan

    I can’t disagree, not much pop in sight in our system, a couple of fast OF with good bats with little power in AA and perhaps a solid 4th OF type like Bader in AAA…no room for them currently and Grichuk gets first call anyway. We have to make a trade for a power RBI bat and trade some guys we hate to lose to generate offense to compete this season, but we also need 1-2 solid relievers and/or hope Weaver can contribute. RRP Montgomery isn’t on the 40 man, but has done a solid job at AAA for us this season.

    • M W

      Have you bothered to look at AAA? There is plenty of pop. They just have to get a chance. Not sure what else Voit can do.

      • Tom Ryan

        Daily. When I said system, I was referring also to our AA and two A teams currently playing, how much pop at those three teams you want to talk about. Yes, Voit has power, but he has to find another position to play besides 1B at St Louis, else he better request a trade. Wisdom hits HRs, but with a low batting average, lots of Ks. Bader and Kelly can provide some power, but they are blocked by guys ahead of them. I like DeJong, but those minor league fences and pitchers allow more HRs than the majors.

      • JohnS

        Plenty of AAA pop, but Voit and Wisdom rightly or wrongly are not really considered everyday MLB players by the Cards and there is little coming in terms of bona fide MLB position players in the Cards’ system with POP!. Carson Kelly has some pop for a catcher but won’t ever be allowed to show it in the bigs, or at least for three, well two and a half more years, if he is not traded sooner.
        For some bizarre reason they don’t even try to draft bona fide power types, they seem to prefer average sized slow footed players like Biff and Sparky, the kind of guys who you would find hanging out with Archie and Jughead!
        Though I was elated with the Fuller draft pick, finally a big guy with some pop in his bat, maybe the first we’ve drafted to fit that profile since Pujols?

        • geoff

          Let me understand here, you want to bring up Voit and Wisdom and Kelly, and bench Carpenter and Gyorko and Molina. I am assuming that you want to then get rid of the three you benched, and maybe Mo could unload them to Atlanta for a case of Dr. Pepper and a bag of chips. You could well be right…it might be time to just blow this thing up. Clear out the major league roster and fire everybody from Mo through the strength and conditioning coach. Anything would be better than watching this bunch….Right??? I am being a smart-ass but Mo has kinda painted himself into a corner with the contracts he has given out to average or below players. I would think Mo has to be a bit uncomfortable about his future with the Cardinals. There has to be a point where the DeWitts look at the dead money and the dead assed brand of baseball and decide it’s time for a change.

  • Richard Craig Friedman

    Dusty is desperate for pitching help. Wainwright, Rosenthal and Oh for Harper!

  • JeremyR

    Pham is slumping too. His OBP is still good, but he hasn’t hit for power or average since May, putting up a 231/375/.256 line.

    I actually think the best clean up hitter this team has right now is Fowler.

  • James Berry

    Here’s the problem with Wong hitting 9th, after the pitcher at 8th. Of that 12.2 percent walk rate Wong is boasting this year, 8 of the 19 he has are IBBs. Moving him behind the pitcher will negate most IBBs that he would get when hitting in front of the pitcher. Your belief that Matheny should make that switch is flawed.

    Yadi hitting 5th is not smart by any means. Ideally he should be hitting 7th in this lineup. Can’t hit him 8th because SAC bunts would turn into DPs, routinely. Hitting him 7th would allow Wong to move him over to 3rd, at least, on most hits.

  • Fowler should be batting deeper in the lineup. He’s a clutch hitter and he offers as much power as anyone else in this lineup. I believe he should be 3rd, with Carp & Wong ahead of him. But Muttheny could find his butt, even if he had an Indian guide to outline the route.

    • JohnS

      I do like the thought of Fowler batting third or fourth against right-handed pitching, but am also wary of having three lefties filling the first three positions in the order….that lineup could get “turned-around” on them pronto with a change of pitchers…otherwise love the thought of current team OBP “monster” Wong being in the two hole…get your best hitters more AB’s, not less, no way Wong should be batting so far down in the order…

      • You do make a fine point, it’s not wise to bat three lefties consecutive. I think Diaz could work in the 2nd slot too. Then it would be left (Carp), right (Diaz), left (Fowler), right (Piscotty), Gyorko, Martinez, Yadi, DeJong, pitcher.

        Obviously Wong is now hurt and out–again.

  • Richard Craig Friedman

    What if I throw in Leake?

    • Tom Ryan

      Still leake(y)!

    • JohnS

      Doubt if Washington would take the whole Cards team for Harper…and if they did, we wouldn’t manage to re-sign him!

  • rightthinker4

    There is just not enough offensive talent on this team. Nobody really scares the opposition. MO is not going to make a big trade because he will have to give up some of his overrated minor league jewels.

  • BradW

    Yeah, Pham needs to be batting ahead of Yadi. Matheny doesn’t want to hurt Yadi’s pride. This team can’t afford to keep giving away small advantages through mismanagement. I think the margin in victory is too small for a Matheny-led team to ever win a WS.

    • JohnS

      I really don’t think Yadi cares where he bats, seriously doubt he would feel hurt batting sixth or seventh as opposed to fifth. This seems to be all on MM. Can you imagine a scenario where Molina has gone to MM and insisted that he bat fifth in the lineup? I honestly can’t, it would be beyond silly. Yadi just wants to win, I believe…..

      • BradW

        I agree with you. I have a hard time seeing Yadi acting like that. Matheny just wants to show him respect, rather than giving the team the best chance to win. It may be a little thing, but it seems like Matheny does a lot of little things like that. They add up, and they are really hard to overcome at the highest level of the game, such as deep in the playoffs or WS. The margin between winning and losing at that level is very fine.

  • geoff

    I found these two stat lines for a couple of middle of the order hitters: 24 games 97 ab 18 runs 28 hits 5 dbl 1 trpl 8 hr 21 rbi 8 bb 23 so .289avg .340obp .608 slg .948 ops >>>>>>>>>> 207ab 33runs 57 hits .275 ba 13 hr 45 rbi .378 obp .517 slg .895ops….I know I wouldn’t mind seeing either of these two players in the middle of the Cards lineup. Bernie, you keep insinuating that Matheny is some sort of booger eating moron, who has to be controlled by Mo. Mo put this roster together . Mo is the one who said many of us had overinflated the importance of Jose Oquendo ( a name we now know is synonymous with hard work and good defense) to the team. Mo is the one who chose to get rid of Matt Adams, the first stat line, by paying the Braves to take him off his hands. My guess is that when Freeman returns, Hart will trade Adams for prime assets while the Cards continue to pay for him to play for yet another team. Mo is the one who decided that Matt Holliday, the second stat line, just isn’t the ball player that Grichuk is. So while Grichuk is still flailing away in AAA ball, those two middle of the order bats that everyone is now clamoring for, the two the Cardinals had in the fold, are filling the middle of another team’s order. Bernie, maybe it’s time for you to be a bit more realistic in your assessment of the Cardinals top brass and Matheny. Mike makes more than his fair share of head scratcher moves and he plays favorites and evidently prefers players who are Christians, he is NOT the one who evaluated and put this group of players together. Mo, who you talk about as if he is some sort of god, is the one who handed this roster, to Matheny.

    • JohnS

      But Mo is also the one who hired the booger eating moron, among his other faults….

      • geoff

        John, I would be willing to bet a dollar against a donut the Matheny knows more about baseball than you and me combined. Bernie has made it more than clear over the years that he regards Mo as some sort of genius (could it be because they both love the metrics?), while he has grudgingly offered a back-handed compliment or two along the way to Matheny ( maybe it’s Matheny’s open admission to being a Christian, a veiled reference B often goes to). Mike Matheney appears to me to be a good man and a good baseball man. He does not have the horses to compete, and chances are he won’t get them either. Mo has locked up every spot but left field and his powerless bench.

  • geoff

    Has anyone else noticed that the team assembled by LaRussa and Stewart assembled in Arizona can play a little bit?

    • JohnS

      Yup, they sure didn’t appreciate what Tony and Stewart built in such a short time either did they. The big shot prospect they traded to Atlanta for Shelby is looking like a big bust so far, and Shelby will be fine in the long run. Bet they are loving them such Zack right now too. Stewart and Tony got busted way too quick by AZ!

      • geoff

        Truth is LaRussa and Stewart were not hip enough. They actually had the unmitigated gall to trust their eyes instead of sabre-metrics. Had ownership been a bit patient, Tony’s group may have had a chance to really put something together….but I guess it’s better to bring in some mathematician whose only body part that ever got close to a jockstrap is his nose.

      • Realist50

        Huh? Inciarte alone now looks like he’s a lot more valuable than Miller. It’s true that Swanson is struggling this year, but he’s also a 23 year old. That was a horrible trade for the Diamondbacks.

  • Brian Hudson Sr

    Even with a “power” bat in middle (JMO) I just don’t see this team having the winning attitude or edge. It runs deeper.

    • JohnS

      Agreed, one slugger can’t make up for the porous defense, bad bullpen, now faltering rotation, and atrocious base-running and bad managing and general managing….Babe Ruth couldn’t help this team too much….and it wouldn’t be his fault!

  • JohnS

    Oh, gee, Cards need a big bat in the middle of the order. They knew that in the off-season but we were assured by media types they would go and get one during the season if it proved to be needed. Now we get, “if one is available” and “don’t know where we would find such a creature”, and so forth. We seem to get this sort of bait and switch from the Cards each year. One thing for sure, you don’t seem to hear or read the expression “trust in Mo” much anymore. I mean, who would after the last few years of panicky poor brain dead moves by him??