St. Louis Cardinals: Matt Carpenter, the lead-off hitter

Apr 30, 2017; St. Louis, MO, USA; St. Louis Cardinals first baseman Matt Carpenter (13) celebrates after hitting a double during the third inning against the Cincinnati Reds at Busch Stadium. Mandatory Credit: Jeff Curry-USA TODAY Sports
Apr 30, 2017; St. Louis, MO, USA; St. Louis Cardinals first baseman Matt Carpenter (13) celebrates after hitting a double during the third inning against the Cincinnati Reds at Busch Stadium. Mandatory Credit: Jeff Curry-USA TODAY Sports /

St. Louis Cardinals first baseman, Matt Carpenter, was expected to bat third this year, but after recent struggles he finally returned to the lead-off spot.

In the off-season the St. Louis Cardinals signed perennial lead-off hitter, Dexter Fowler, with the plan to move Matt Carpenter to the three hole in an effort to manufacture more runs. What expected to be a painless lineup change never panned out for the Redbirds.

Fowler, an on-base machine coming off his best year with the Chicago Cubs, was expected to man the lead-off spot. Aledmys Diaz would remain in the two hole, and Carpenter could anchor the Cardinals lineup in the three spot.

What sounded great on paper never came to fruition. The first week of the season Diaz picked up where he left off, but then tailed off and eventually was moved down in the order. Carpenter homered in three straight games against the Atlanta Braves in newly built SunTrust Park. Aside from those short offensive outputs there’s been little to show for from the St. Louis Cardinals lineup.

The offensive struggles continued and culminated with a seven-game losing skid. Enough was enough, and the St. Louis Cardinals made changes to the lineup to go along with overdue changes to the coaching staff.

In Carpenter’s first two games returning to the lead-off spot he hit two home runs against the Cincinnati Reds, and he has been on fire since.

Carpenter has no doubt been locked-in during those seven games. Driving balls to the right center field gap, beating the shift, and constantly squaring-up balls.

The confidence and comfortability in the lead-off spot for Carpenter cannot be ignored. He’s a different animal while batting first in the order.

Carpenter is a career .296 hitter in the lead-off spot with 2,235 plate appearances. What’s even more Carpenter-like is his .244 batting average with two strikes while batting first. His ability to work counts and draw walks makes him a special lead-off hitter even though he lacks speed.

St. Louis Cardinals
Oct 2, 2016; St. Louis, MO, USA; St. Louis Cardinals first baseman Matt Carpenter (13) hits a three run home run off of Pittsburgh Pirates relief pitcher Antonio Bastardo (not pictured) during the sixth inning at Busch Stadium. Mandatory Credit: Jeff Curry-USA TODAY Sports /

While batting third in a limited 241 plate appearances, Carpenter is a .226 hitter, and only .167 with two strikes. Whether it’s his mental fortitude or if he’s seeing better pitches in the three hole, Carpenter doesn’t grind out at-bats like he does in the lead-off role.

Additionally, Carpenter has struck out more while batting in the three hole. His K-rate while batting third rose to 22.8 percent. It stood at 17 percent while batting first. The increased strikeouts aren’t all that alarming because he is still walking at a high rate.

Another factor for the discrepancies in success from batting first and third in the lineup is BABIP, or batting average on balls in play. While batting third over the past two seasons Carpenter had a BABIP of .261 compared to a BABIP of .338 while batting first in his career.

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A BABIP that’s well below the average of .300 shows that Carpenter has run into some tough luck while hitting in the three spot. Other factors like hard-hit percentage and defensive positioning could also explain his low BABIP. Over time you would expect his BABIP to rise to the mean.

In seven short games, Carpenter has proven to be a much more dangerous hitter in the lead-off spot. He showcased his power in the three hole by hitting nine home runs, but outside of that he came up empty in many at-bats.

Carpenter seems to be a more complete hitter while batting first, but is it in the best interest of the team?

I’d say so. Carpenter is arguably the best hitter on the team, and can add immense value to the lineup in the lead-off role. The lineup move only becomes problematic if Fowler struggles in the two hole or if guys like Jedd Gyorko and Stephen Piscotty fail to produce in the middle of the lineup.

The Mental Game

St. Louis Cardinals
Apr 19, 2017; St. Louis, MO, USA; St. Louis Cardinals third baseman Matt Carpenter (13) watches from the dugout steps during the third inning against the Pittsburgh Pirates at Busch Stadium. Mandatory Credit: Scott Kane-USA TODAY Sports /

Multiple times on the Fox Sports Midwest Broadcast, Dan McLaughlin and Jim Edmonds have said Carpenter is a fierce competitor and takes losses hard. They added he puts a lot of pressure on himself, which is why manager Mike Matheny gave him a day off during an offensive slump.

Carpenter seems to have struggles within himself. I’ve seen some bat slams after a strikeout, but nothing too over the top, which is good. That being said, he still isn’t that mentally tough even though he has stoic, upfront post-game interviews.

It’s hard to believe the batting order impacts the performance of a great hitter, but his mental ineptitude may finally explain why it does matter where Carpenter hits in the lineup.

A popular Cardinals voice on Twitter, Zach Gifford, pointed out Carpenter’s mental flaws:

It’s remarkable to see the differences in Carpenter’s hitting prowess depending on where he bats in the batting order. I see a much-different, more-relaxed hitter when Carpenter is leading off.

Hopefully there are no repercussions for Carpenter taking Fowler’s long time spot, but the lead-off role seems to be the best fit for Carpenter. Fowler did chuckle at ex-teammate Anthony Rizzo who batted lead-off for the Cubs on Tuesday against the New York Mets.

Fowler seems to be indifferent about the lineup move for now. Let’s hope it stays that way to prevent any shakeups in team chemistry. The one-two-punch of Carp and Fowler could be a dangerous duo for the St. Louis Cardinals. Imagine if the Cardinals are able to add Marcell Ozuna, J.D. Martinez or another power bat at the trade deadline.

Next: Looking at the NL Central

Let me know where you think Carpenter should bat and what your lineup would look like on Twitter or in the comments.