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 …


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