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Cardinals Leadoff Spot: Some Reasons Why Matt Carpenter Is Absolutely the Right Guy

Who will bat leadoff for the Cardinals in 2018? If you listen to Cardinals manager Mike Matheny, the question is open.

Actually, we should say “reopened.”

Despite Matt Carpenter’s sensational .418 onbase percentage as the team’s leadoff hitter for much of 2017, Matheny isn’t set on going that way again in ‘18.

During baseball’s winter meetings last week, Matheny told reporters that he plans to discuss the situation with Carpenter and Dexter Fowler. Both have done their best career work as leadoff hitters.

“I want to hear what they like, what they want, too,” Matheny told the Post-Dispatch and other outlets. “I think it’s crazy not to at least understand what it is that they would like to see, the kind of player that they view themselves as, and then try to and move in that direction. Sometimes you have to have those conversations that are just blunt.”

This is a curious development for several reasons:

1. Though Fowler has performed well as a No. 1 hitter during his MLB career, Carpenter has a significantly superior track record at leadoff.

In 3,227 career plate appearances at leadoff Fowler has a .363 onbase percentage, .429 slugging percentage, and .792 OPS. His park-adjusted runs created (wRC+) when batting first is 110, which is 10 percent above the league average offensively.

In 2,594 career PA at leadoff, Carpenter has a .391 onbase percentage, .487 slug and .878 OPS. Carpenter’s park-adjusted runs created at leadoff is 42 percent above the league average.

Since becoming the Cards top-of-the-lineup guy in 2013, Carpenter ranks No. 1 among qualifying MLB leadoff hitters in park-adjusted runs created, is tied for 1st in walk rate, has the best onbase percentage, is 2nd in OPS and RBIs, and ranks 4th in slugging and homers.

Over the same time span (2013-2017) Fowler is 7th among leadoff men with a .362 onbase percentage, ranks 12th in slugging (.426), is 9th in OPS (.788) and 10th in park-adjusted runs created.

Sure, Fowler has more athletic ability and speed. But let’s not go crazy by putting too much emphasis on that. Since 2010, Fowler’s best stolen-base total for a season was 20, with the Cubs in 2015. The steals dropped to 13 for the Cubs in 2016, and fell again (7 steals) for the Cardinals in 2017.

The bottom line: in terms of offensive value (based on wRC+) Carpenter comes in 32 percent above Fowler in their respective performances as leadoff men. That’s a huge difference.

The top priority of a leadoff man is to get on base as often as possible to enhance his team’s run-scoring potential. Carpenter has done that better than any No. 1 hitter in the majors over the last five seasons. And to repeat a stat I’ve used several times, Carpenter’s leadoff OBP (.391) ranks fifth in the majors since 1974. And three of the leadoff men above Carpenter for OBP are Hall of Famers Rickey Henderson, Wade Boggs and Rod Carew.

2. Carpenter, for whatever reason, hasn’t been nearly as effective when he hits elsewhere in the lineup. When he’s batted outside of the No. 1 spot — and we’re talking 1,044 plate appearances — Carpenter has hit .243 with a .343 OBP, .395 slug, and .738 OPS. And in his park-adjusted runs created is only four percent above league average when he doesn’t bat first. So in other words: Carpenter is 38 percent more effective offensively as a leadoff man compared to his performance in all other lineup spots.

3. So what the hell would be the point of removing Carpenter from the leadoff position? He thrives there. And his fat OBP and considerable power makes for a potent combination at the top of the lineup. We were reminded of this again in 2017, when Matheny (understandably) began the season with Fowler batting first. With the Cardinals needing some power in their middle lineup, Carpenter was moved to the No. 3, and later was deployed at No. 2 in the lineup. But it didn’t work … for either player.

Given Fowler’s good track record in the No. 1 slot, his 2017 qualified as a small-sample fluke, but nonetheless the numbers were awful. In 227 plate appearances as the Cardinals’ leadoff man last season, Fowler batted .205 with a .308 OBP, .390 slug, and .698 OPS. His park-adjusted runs created at leadoff came in at 15 percent below the league average, which made Fowler 28th among 34 leadoff men in wRC+ (minimum 227 PA.)

Carpenter struggled mightly away from his sweet spot last season; when batting third or second he batted .205 with a .329 OBP, .387 slug, .716 OPS and was seven percent below league average offensively (wRc+).

Before Matheny relocated Carpenter to the No. 1 hole on June 7, the Cardinals averaged 4.0 runs in their first 56 games and had a 26-30 record. After Carpenter resumed batting leadoff, the Cardinals averaged 4.8 runs over their remaining 78 games, going 43-35. And Their team OBP went up 11 points, their team slugging percentage rose 39 points, and that added up to a 58-point increase in OPS.

4. Coincidence? I don’t think so. Fowler demonstrated a more powerful side to his offense after moving out of the leadoff spot and into other places on Matheny’s lineup card.

In his 264 plate appearances when hitting in a spot other than No. 1, Fowler’s offense became straight-up imposing. He batted .316 with a .409 OBP and a dangerous-bat .573 slug for a .982 OPS. As I mentioned earlier, when Fowler hit first last season, he was 15 percent below the league average offensively according to wRC+. But when he hit elsewhere in the lineup, Fowler was 53 percent better than the league average.

That’s an enormous swing … a 68 percent difference.

So on one side there is Carpenter. He absolutely performs best as a leadoff hitter …but is is much weaker when hitting in other places.

On the other side is Fowler, who could do a fine job as a leadoff man if we’re willing to throw out his early-season frustration at the top spot last season. And I think it’s fair to discard that as an anomaly. But even at his best, Fowler hasn’t matched Carpenter’s career OBP and power at No. 1 … and unlike Carpenter, Fowler has shown that he can prosper — and power up — when you hit him second, third, fourth, etc …

So why mess with something that led to an improved offense in 2017, after Mike Matheny wisely restored Carpenter to the leadoff spot and took advantage of Fowler’s power surge to boost a needy area of the lineup?

5. This is pretty simple. As simple as in 1-2-3-4 … Each of the top four lineup spots have an excellent fit.

— Carpenter at leadoff, for reasons cited here.

— Tommy Pham batting second. Why? Because that was by far his most regular spot in his breakout campaign. In 397 plate appearances as the No. 2 hitter last season, Pham batted .313, got on base at an excellent rate (.420), slugged .520, and had a .940 OPS. In the second slot Pham performed 51 percent above the league average; in the majors only Giancarlo Stanton came in higher than Pham among No. 2 hitters.

— Fowler, with his power element, can be an asset as the No. 3 hitter.

— New Cardinals left fielder Marcell Ozuna, obviously, is the cleanup hitter. Last season he ranked 2nd among NL No. 4 hitters in slugging (.536), was 3rd in OBP (.372), 3rd in OPS (.908), 6th in isolated power … and Ozuna’s park-adjusted runs created figure at cleanup was 38 percent above the league average, and the best by a No. 4 hitter in the NL.

This isn’t complicated.

The Cardinals have a good situation, with the right personnel lined up to perform at a high level in each of the first four spots in Matheny’s lineup.

No need to overthink this, Mike.

More: Trading for Manny Machado is Not Only Risky Business. It’s Bad Business.

  • Tom L

    Yes, Carp is the best option to lead off given the current choices.
    No, he is obviously not an ideal leadoff hitter. Too slow, too shaky on defense.
    It looks like he’s our guy, though.
    Go Cards!

    • Mike

      I believe Wong is a better option. He produced like a leadoff hitter last season.

  • tominco

    Well, duh.. that’s the easy question. More interesting is who hits 5th. Probably DeJong or some yet to be acquired player at 3B, moving DeJong to 6th, Yadi, 7th and Wong 8th. Also, I’d hit the less experienced Pham 3rd, letting Ozuna provide protection.

  • TH

    I really liked what I saw out of Fowler last season when he moved down in the lineup. He showed power that I didn’t think he was capable of producing…I think in an ideal world you’d like to see Carp put up those numbers in the middle of the order somewhere but, for reasons only the baseball gods can understand, he hasn’t been able to do that. Part of me still thinks this is complelely random (and it honestly probably is) but I’m done fighting it. At this point in time, just leave the guy alone and let him bat lead off. The baseball gods want this. Make them happy!

    • TH

      Also those are some serious obp monsters batting in front of Ozuna! That’s an awesome top of the order.

    • Dennis

      I believe when Carp leads off, his mentality is to get on base any way he can. Lower in the lineup his thinking shifts to driving the ball harder, which just is not as effective for him. He should be able to think like a leadoff hitter wherever he bats, especially after the first time through the order, but psychology can be a funny thing.

      • TH

        I’d like to agree with this but he drew a near 16% walk rate while batting 3rd last year which, while lower than the 19% rate he posted at lead off, is still extremely high. His power numbers increased slightly when moving back to lead off as well (.229 iso vs .209) so I’m not sure if he’s really changing his mentality at all when he moves to lead off. It’s just one of those funky baseball things I guess.

  • Trever Bushnell

    Every year Matheny does this.Carpenter is the leadoff man.No more thinking or talking about it. Forget about this and focus on things that actually need thought about. Like why do I have no clue when it comes to managing?

    • Christopher Toth

      Exactly. Matheny is a man lost in metrics space.

    • Mike

      It’s time to tell Carpenter he needs to produce in the three hole, or he hits at the bottom of the order or off the bench.

      • Mike

        But yes, Matheny is awful.

      • ken

        yes, because it’s entirely subject to sheer force of will…….

  • Christopher Toth

    So much for Matheny getting aboard the metrics bus.

    It is quotes like this one that reveal he hasn’t learned anything about letting metrics drive his decision making

    Could someone give him a nudge and let Matheny know these are not simply hard numbers and that players through their batting results reflected in these numbers are telling you what they want while at the same time telling you where they thrive best isn’t always one and the same.

    His job as manager is to put them in positions to succeed, not positions that make them “happy”.

    Jeesh.

    Matheny quote from article:

    “I want to hear what they like, what they want, too. I think it’s crazy not to at least understand what it is that they would like to see, the kind of player that they view themselves as, and then try to and move in that direction. Sometimes you have to have those conversations that are just blunt.”

  • Mike French

    I have never understood this insane idea of moving Carpenter out of the lead off spot. His numbers are some of the best in the history of the game at that spot, and yet last year they signed another lead off hitter instead of the #3 hitter we needed. I believed the Fowler signing was crazy back then and still do. Now we have to play Fowler in a position he doesn’t prefer, and isn’t accustomed to, batting in a spot that isn’t his ideal spot. And to top it off, we also have the annual debate as to who the lead off hitter should be? How is this a good idea? In my opinion, one of the dumbest free agent signings in a long time by this front office.

    • Mike

      The team needed him to produce in the third spot like he has at leadoff. He’s a slow, dead pull hitter and terrible base runner. There are better options for leadoff on the team.

      • ken

        no, there aren’t. in fact, there may not be a better option in the entirety of MLB.

      • Mike French

        At the time we signed Fowler, Carpenter was arguably the best leaf off hitter in baseball. Speed is not that important anymore. Besides, Carpenter had no problems scoring on a single after he led the game off with a double. The Cards had also tried Carpenter at the 3rd spot earlier in the year, before we signed Fowler, and he did poorly. But the Cards signed another lead off hitter anyway. They tried to force Carpenter into a role he didn’t fit and weakened two spots in the lineup in the process. Instead of signing or trading for a #3 hitter to fill a gaping hole, they created more imbalance in the lineup and more problems that had to be worked around. Fowler is a good player, don’t get me wrong. He was just not the right player for the Cardinals’ needs. He’s still not a good fit for the lineup, or the outfield for that matter. But the Cards will try to make a #3 hitter out of him anyway because they now have no choice.

        • James Berry

          But he couldn’t score from 3rd on a single? Carpenter has become what is wrong with the modern game. He either wants to walk, hit a homer or he strikes out. He’s a poor defender at 3 positions with no foot speed and a horrible base runner. You say speed isn’t very important anymore and that’s a fallacy. Speed will always be important. That doesn’t mean speed as in stealing bases, but speed to go 1st to 3rd and speed to tag up on a sac fly. Speed to cover ground on defense. Quickness of feet(which he doesn’t possess either) on hot grounders and liners. He’s a base clogger and that is one of the reasons they wanted him hitting third. It’s more acceptable to lack speed in the middle of the order as opposed to hitting lead off. Always has been. Always will be.

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  • Scott Warren

    The fact that “the manager” can’t even get this right is just another in a looooong list of reasons he shouldn’t be in the dugout. My goodness.

  • Tyler Huelskamp

    Matheny will end up batting the pitchers spot first because he is smart.

  • Mike

    He
    sucks everywhere else isn’t a good reason to keep him in the leadoff
    spot. He walks a lot isn’t a good reason either. He’s not a good leadoff
    hitter. He’s been a very good hitter who can only hit in the leadoff
    spot, but a slow, dead pull hitter and
    bad baserunner is not who this team needs in the leadoff spot.The team
    needed him to produce in the three hole and he failed. He needs to
    produce hitting third, bat 7th or 8th, come off the bench, or get traded
    to the AL to DH.
    The
    article is flawed from the begging with only two options for the
    leadoff spot, which unfortunately with Matheny, is probably true.

  • M W

    I don’t think there’s any doubt Carp is best served at the lead off spot. But once he’s on base, he’s a statue and the worst baserunner in baseball.

  • James Berry

    The best place for Carpenter to hit is in the AL.

    • Rod mcfain

      Absolutely

    • Dan Patterson

      Well said.

  • BradW

    Bernie, with a middle-of-the-order bat, like Ozuna, it has become more difficult for MM to meddle with the lineup to the extent the offense will underperform until mid-season. That isn’t so easy to do anymore with such apparently obvious roles. Let’s also give him credit for his creative ability to sacrifice the best interest of the team to keep the veteran players happy. You don’t see that much in the game in this day and age. It takes one back to the olden days of little league baseball. sigh. At least he can keep driving those overpriced free agents away, like Stanton.

  • Jody Wassmer

    Ol’ Mikey would mess up a wet dream! There he goes again wanting the veterans to tell him what to do. Here’s a thought Captain Concussion: Manage the team yourself; I’m guessing no one asked you if you wanted to play the outfield when you won your Gold Glove behind the plate.

  • Rod mcfain

    Have you seen Carpenter on the bases? It takes two triples to score him from third. Ok, maybe that’s a slight exaggeration. But he’s not just slow, he’s a flat out bad runner and is not a player who’s aging well.

  • BradW

    I see a lot of people complaining about Matt’s baserunning. I checked fangraphs, and he was a very slightly above average base runner in 2017 and for his career. BTW, he also is a significantly better runner than Wade Boggs was over his career. Boggs had a career OBP of .415, while Carp’s is .377. Most people wouldn’t mind having Boggs as a lead-off batter, at least the rational people. I call BS.

  • ken

    there really is no other reason needed to keep matt at leadoff other than that he seems to do so much better at leadoff than other spots. if matheny messes with that–again–then he truly lacks even a basic grasp of being an MLB manager.

  • LawrenceKScardsfan

    Totally agree with the proposed lineup. And when MCarp doesn’t play, let’s see what Wong can do there.

    Now what if Machado has to be penciled in? I guess the best that we can hope for is that he won’t be the leadoff hitter. LOL.

    • geoff

      Would you pay Lynn 66 million over a three year contract? I know I would sign him for that today if he would take it.

      • LawrenceKScardsfan

        Sure – definitely. CC went back to the Yankees. I was looking at him as a transitional pitcher.

  • Tarzan

    Nice take, Bernie, and spot on!
    MM’s assertion that we should see what the players “want” is asinine. What they “want” should be far down the list to “what’s best for the team.”
    Fowler wanted to bat leadoff, but later when he experienced great success bating lower in the lineup, even He agreed it was a good move.
    When Fowler said he wanted to be the centerfielder, the numbers showed that Pham was much more suited to be that guy.
    If MO and MM claim to no be on-board with the new metrics, why the hell do they now ignore what works? If they want to prove they’re the smartest guy in the room, they are failing miserably.

  • geoff

    I liked Carpenter better before he changed his swing to dropping his left shoulder trying to increase his vaunted saber metric launch angle. I don’t think as many people noticed his base running insufficiency as much because, so often, he was standing on second right off the bat. I wonder why Ozuna would not be hitting third. I would think you would want to get your high walk guy followed by two .300+ hitters. It used to be that your best pure hitter batted third, get him to the plate in the first inning.

  • rightthinker4

    Every time Matheny talks it becomes more clear that he likes to hear himself talk. If Carpenter is on the 2018 Cardinals, the obvious spot in the lineup is leadoff. Arguably he’s the best leadoff hitter in baseball. MM doesn’t have to talk with Carpenter to figure out where Carpenter likes to bat in the lineup. Leadoff!

    • geoff

      Well, in my crazy mind , if it were possible, I would have Pham, a base stealer, who can go first to third on a base hit to right,lead off followed by Carpenter who sees a lot of pitches and is pretty much a dead pull hitter, followed by Ozuna, then Fowler, DeJong and so on. I know Carpenter who proven he only hits when leading off but he would be a perfect number two hitter behind a base stealer.

  • keith walker

    Bernie is correct this IS a no brainer but doesn’t mean MM will do the obvious but in this case he should. MC is the best leadoff man in baseball by the numbers. this is NOT whiteyball anymore and he produces and those numbers were with a bad shoulder most of season. Fowler slides to third where he did some serious damage as MOO bat and is his new home and HAS to be in LF, CANNOT play CF anymore he was one of worst in majors last year and doesn’t have the arm for Rf. That would be one terrific defensive OF with Pham in CF and Ozuna in RF. Gyrko 5th, dejong 6th, yadi and wong. on days MC isn’t in lineup who ya got? Wong leadoff then Martinez 5th and drop everyone back one? Martinez is a wild card here as backup to both corner ofers and First and is a MOO bat with pop.

  • John Sachse

    The base running could be overlooked if he would go back to his old swing that produced a much higher average, a ton of doubles, and an occasional home run. Otherwise, if he continues the uppercut swing that produces several opposite field pop-ups,, he should not be leading off.

  • flood21

    Here we go again. You’re hatred of MM has got all the haters riled up again. Bottom line. Fowler was brought in to be the leadoff hitter, when MM seen it wasn’t working he made the change and stuck to it. (know comments on that) The fact that MM wants to talk to his players about possible changes is called managing or communicating. My bet would be that Marp leads off and all this hating on Matheny will be for naught. I am in no way a big fan of MM, but at some point you have to quit looking for ways to crucify him. All he said is he wanted to talk to his players about what he is thinking and get their thoughts.

  • Scott Warren

    “Why wouldn’t Matt Carpenter hit leadoff?” Because Mike Matheny is the Cardinals manager, that’s why.

  • badgerboy23

    One of MM’s (many) problems as a leader is that he does not seem to possess the ability to successfully talk players into making changes in an enthusiastic manner for the betterment of the team. Both players have been successful there, there are reasons both ways, but only one guy is gonna hit leadoff. If you scoff at my point, then why did Mo fly out (by himself) to talk Fowler into moving out of center, and why did Mo leave MM at home to make his case with Stanton? Does anybody else think Theo would have taken Joe with him on similar trips?

  • So far as I can tell the commenters here are 17-12 in favor of keeping Carpenter at lead-off. Make that 17-13. My count is not precise, but the point is that even commenters on a board where the writer repeatedly asserts that Carpenter is the best lead-off and basically just a fantastic player (Bernie’s hyperbole turned back on him) are EXTREMELY divided over this assertion. Why don’t you poll MLB scouts, Bernie? One of the chief arguments for batting Carpenter first according to Bernie is THAT HE CAN’T HIT ANYWHERE ELSE. That could just as easily be used as an argument for trading him to the AL because, in order to bat first, or second, or third, or ANYPLACE else in the lineup you need to be able to play a position defensively and run the bases. I am NOT persuaded that Carp is an average baserunner. I wouldn’t mind so much if he weren’t leading off, BUT THAT’S APPARENTLY THE ONLY PLACE HE CAN HIT.

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