St. Louis Cardinals: Matt Carpenter Must Stay in Leadoff Spot

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Jun 26, 2016; Seattle, WA, USA; St. Louis Cardinals second baseman Matt Carpenter (13) celebrates with teammates in the dugout after hitting a solo home run in the sixth inning against the Seattle Mariners at Safeco Field. Mandatory Credit: Jennifer Buchanan-USA TODAY Sports
Jun 26, 2016; Seattle, WA, USA; St. Louis Cardinals second baseman Matt Carpenter (13) celebrates with teammates in the dugout after hitting a solo home run in the sixth inning against the Seattle Mariners at Safeco Field. Mandatory Credit: Jennifer Buchanan-USA TODAY Sports /
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Matt Carpenter has returned to the leadoff spot for the St. Louis Cardinals, this is where he thrives, and this is where he must stay.

On August 11th, 2016, the St. Louis Cardinals lost their number 3 hitter in the lineup. Matt Holliday took a 94 MPH fastball from Mike Montgomery to his right hand and exited the game. The pitch broke Holliday’s thumb, and he was placed on the 15-Day DL. The injury forced Matheny to reconsider his lineup, and more specifically, his use of All-Star infielder Matt Carpenter.

Carpenter has been the leadoff hitter in St. Louis for the last handful of years, where he has developed into a household name. Despite an unconventional approach for a leadoff guy, he’s evolved into one of the most dangerous leadoff hitters in all of baseball.

In 2015 he cracked the top-3 in OBP for all leadoff hitters with at least 100 PA. But he managed only 2 stolen bases all year, and he struck out at a rate of 23.7%. That put him in the bottom-10 in K% out of those qualified players.

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Despite his strikeout percentage and his inability to steal bases, Carpenter lead all leadoff hitters in 2015 with a wRC+ of 177. So how does a slow player with a tendency to strike out become one of the most valuable leadoff guys in the league? He takes a lot of pitches, and when he finally does decide to swing, he crushes the ball.

Finishing in the bottom-10 for k% is concerning, but he was also ranked 8th in BB%, which helps explain his superb OBP. Carp strikes out so often because he isn’t at all afraid to take pitches. He likes to make the opposing pitcher work hard for that first out, and unlike most hitters, he almost prefers to hit from behind in the count.

The TCU alumni often finds himself in 0-2 & 1-2 counts, but his career batting average is above .240 in both scenarios. For reference: The league average in an 0-2 count last year was .158. A quick bat and comfort in poor hitter’s counts allow him to take pitches and work deep into at-bats

Matt performs at his best in 3-2 counts: Here, he strikes out only 15% of the time while batting .287 and walking at a rate of over 30%. His career average actually increases by .34 points when the count changes from 3-1 to 3-2.

Carpenter is willing to take pitches and even strike out to put a good leadoff at-bat together, but he can swing the bat. When he does make contact, the results are a large part of what separates him from most leadoff guys.

Last year, he outslugged all leadoff hitters with a SLG of .634. That’s a full .122 points higher than megastar Manny Machado produced in the same role. Carpenter was third in doubles, and he boasted a top-3 .OPS of 1.022. Who needs to steal bases or minimize strikeouts when they produce that many extra base-hits and walk so often?

With so much pop in his bat, many have questioned if leaving Carpenter in the leadoff spot is a waste. Surely a player who slugs at such a high rate would make a formidable hitter in the middle of the lineup. The numbers, however, show that the 30-year-old Texas native vastly prefers to hit from the leadoff spot. The numbers also show that the St. Louis Cardinals should prefer the very same thing.

While batting leadoff, Carp has put together a career slash line of .300/.391/.492 with a wRC+ of 144. When he hits anywhere else in the lineup his line is reduced to .255/.348/.397 with a wRC+:107. That looks like a home/road split for a Rockies’ slugger.

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Following Matt Holliday’s injury, the St. Louis Cardinals recognized that they would need to fill the void at the 3 spot. They tried to slide Carpenter into that spot for 8 consecutive games, but it was ugly. In 37 PA he managed just 7 hits, only one of them for extra bases, and he drove in 0 runs.

Matheny’s logic was easy to follow: With Holliday out of the lineup, someone was going to have to step up and produce in that spot. Given the injuries to Peralta and Diaz, Carpenter was the obvious next choice. The plan was to plug the hole at 3 and find a replacement at the top of the order later.

But moving Carpenter down to the third spot didn’t resolve the issue in the lineup, it created two. By moving him down you can expect to see his production drop, but you also weaken the leadoff spot, and in turn, create even fewer opportunities for an already uncomfortable 3-hitter. In those 8 games, the committee of replacement leadoff hitters combined for an on-base percentage of .282. Yikes.

The St. Louis Cardinals survived that stretch by going 6-2, but it was clear the approach would have to flip. Carpenter belongs at the top of the order, and rather than try to find a replacement leadoff, they should simply look elsewhere for solutions at 3.

This team relies heavily on its offense. That becomes the case more-and-more each day with the injuries to the St. Louis Cardinals staff. This team will go as far as its lineup carries it, this lineup will go as far as Matt Carpenter carries it, and leadoff Matt Carpenter is peak Matt Carpenter.

Since 2013 Carpenter leads all leadoff hitters in OBP, OPS, extra-base hits, runs scored, and RBIs. He’s also third in slugging and homers. Perhaps that’s why Matheny moved him back to the leadoff spot on the 24th, a game in which Carpenter went deep. Carpenter is back where he belongs and let’s hope this move is a permanent one.

Next: There's No Place Like The Road?

Injuries have forced Matheny to morph into half-manager, half-mad scientist. He’s had to experiment with his lineups and pitching staff as much as many skipper in the MLB. Determining what the ideal 2016 St. Louis Cardinals should look like has proved an arduous task, but this particular experiment has to end. Whatever the best version of this team is, it starts with Matt Carpenter at the top of the order.

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