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.