St. Louis Cardinals: Why Matt Carpenter should lead off over Fowler

CHICAGO, IL - SEPTEMBER 17: Dexter Fowler
CHICAGO, IL - SEPTEMBER 17: Dexter Fowler /

St. Louis Cardinals manager Mike Matheny released his preferred top of the order. On the surface, it has one glaring flaw.

Mattheny slotted Dexter Fowler as the lead off hitter for 2018, while Matt Carpenter has been placed in the three hole. We saw how this worked for the St. Louis Cardinals last year.

Before we go into the players themselves, I think we should first start by addressing exactly what a lead off hitter looks like in modern baseball. It is clear the game is shifting away from the prototype that has been around for decades. Gone are the times where you needed elite contact ability and speed to be a great contact hitter. So what exactly do lead off hitters look like now?

In April of last year, FiveThirtyEight wrote a piece analyzing the evolution of the modern lead off hitter, and they concluded there are four categories that compose the modern-day lead off hitter: average, on base percentage, ISO, and stolen bases. While Fowler preformed well enough in these categories to rank as FiveThirtyEight’s number 9 lead off hitter with those metrics, here is a comparison between Fowler and Carpenter as a lead off hitter over the past three seasons:

As leadoff (Rank in MLB min 200 PA)AverageOBPISOSB
Fowler 2015.255 (34/42).350 (16/42).165 (12/42)20-27 (8/42)
Carpenter 2015.312 (3/42).389 (1/42).322 (1/42)2-4 (39/42)
Fowler 2016.277 (16/37).393 (4/37).173 (18/37)13-17 (13/37)
Carpenter 2016.276 (17/37).386 (5/37).251 (3/37)0-4 (37/37)
Fowler 2017.205 (37/38).308 (30/38).185 (12/38)3-3 (28/38)
Carpenter 2017.268 (16/38).418 (1/38).229 (7/38)1-1 (37/38)

While Fowler had an excellent 2016, the numbers FiveThirtyEight used to declare Fowler an elite leadoff hitter, Carpenter was essentially even in AVG and under 10 points off in OBP. What Fowler had in speed, Carpenter made up in ISO. Overall, there is no reason to think Carpenter was objectively less suitable as a lead off hitter than Fowler based on these stats. It should instead be more subjective, based on a team’s tendencies.

That being said, the St. Louis Cardinals have not been very aggressive on the base paths with their lead off hitters during Matheny’s time. While he sent Rafael Furcal on 16 steal attempts in 2012, the team has not mustered more than that as a whole out of the lead off spot since, ranking toward the bottom of the league in the major base stealing categories after 2012.

Steals from Leadoff in Matheny EraSBCSTotal Attempts
201221 (22)10 (T-20)31 (T-19)
20133 (30)3 (T-1)6 (30)
20145 (30)4 (3)9 (T-30)
20158 (30)8 (T-12)16 (T-29)
20162 (30)4 (5)6 (T-28)
20178 (28)1 (1)9 (28)

While this is in part due to Matt Carpenter’s lack of speed on the base paths, he was not the only lead off hitter in 2013, 2015, of 2017, meaning Matheny wasn’t much more aggressive with faster players such as Fowler, who only had 3 steal attempts out of the lead off spot in over 225 plate appearances. Historically, the St. Louis Cardinals and Mike Matheny don’t rely on base stealing from the lead off spot, or anywhere else for that matter.

Stolen bases aren’t the only part of the base running story, as what matters in the end is scoring runs. Despite the changing tides, the lead off role is still depended on as one of the highest run producers, as their role to empower the middle of the lineup by threatening to score is still there. Here is a comparison of how often Carpenter and Fowler were brought in through their teammates and their own base running abilities as a lead off hitter over the past 3 seasons.

Fowler Assisted Run Scoring as LeadoffPA – HRR – HRR%Team RPG
Carpenter Assisted Run Scoring as LeadoffPA – HRR – HRR%Team RPG

Carpenter has had an inferior offense around him as a lead off hitter, yet he scores at a slightly higher percentage when he gets on base, demonstrating similar effectiveness on the base paths in terms of overall scoring. While Fowler is unquestionably faster, it hasn’t translated to more effective run scoring than Carpenter at lead off, which is the goal. Overall, the St. Louis Cardinals’ lack of base stealing and similar run scoring make Fowler’s speed factor obsolete.

Another reason Fowler should be deeper in the lineup to start the season is his incredible inconsistency. Before this season, Carpenter has been relatively consistent for the past 3-4 seasons, with a change in style shifting the numbers a bit. However, Fowler has always had inconsistent numbers, and this is even more pronounced since Fowler left the thin air, hitter friendly confines of Coors Field after the 2013 season.

Fowler Since leaving ColoradoAverage (Change from Previous Season)OBP (Change from Previous Season)ISO (Change from Previous Season)
2014.276 (+.013).375 (+.006).122 (-.023)
2015.250 (-.026).346 (-.029).161 (+.039)
2016.276 (+.026).393 (+.047).171 (+.010)
2017.264 (-.012).363 (-.030).224 (+.053)

As you can see, Fowler has been consistently inconsistent at the plate, but one thing has developed nicely. Fowler is seemingly learning to hit with power after leaving Colorado. It should also be noted that this last season, his first with the St. Louis Cardinals, Fowler’s ISO was significantly lower than his season average out of the lead off spot. In fact, while Carpenter has a better career SLG, Fowler actually outperformed him this season despite slugging a paltry .390 in 229 lead off PA’s.

Therefore, gauging Fowler lower in the lineup while keeping him in a spot to possibly produce is optimal. So, while I disagree with having either of them in the three spot, if I had to make the choice, it would be Fowler, considering his slugging later in the line up this last season. In concluding this, the individual’s performance and comfort in that role must be considered, and the stats over their careers back it up. Despite it’s small sample size, I believe it is definitely worth considering.

Batting 1st32772793.264.363.429.792.334
Batting 3rd352300.273.372.380.752.361
Carpenter’s CareerPAABBAOBPSLGOPSBAbip
Batting 1st25942191.291.391.487.878.334
Batting 3rd245199.221.355.397.752.254

Related Story: Putting together the 2018 lineup

Despite having an equivalent OPS batting third, the average and BAbip difference most certainly stand out, especially when considering Carpenter’s superiority to Fowler in many stats as a lead off. 2017 was also a great argument for any proponent of Fowler in the three hole, as he slashed .271/.361/.447 in 97 plate appearances as a three hitter. Carpenter was not quite as productive there last season, slashing .221/.353/.429 in 201 plate appearances as the three hitter.

Another interesting stat is the .334 BAbip that the two share hitting out of the lead off spot. As players with very solid numbers when they put the ball in play, the easiest way to punch them out is in a way that prevents them from putting the ball in play, which is a strikeout. In this regard, and in terms of discipline in general, Carpenter has been for the most part better.

Fowler’s DisciplineK’sK%BB’sBB%
Carpenter’s DisciplineK’sK%BB’sBB%

While Carpenter did strikeout more than Fowler in 2015, he has since proven it to be an anomaly by bringing hit K rate back down closer to his 18.1% career rate. While Fowler’s K numbers went down in 2017, he still strikes out 22.1% of the time in his career. This makes Carpenter’s BAbip just a bit more effective in the lead off spot despite the even numbers.

The other thing that many people tend to put Fowler in the lead off for is his walk drawing ability. However, Carpenter has drawn walks at a slightly better rate both over the past three seasons and in their careers as a whole. In this case, the drop off is not as dramatic, with Carpenter having a career walk rate of 13.1% while Fowler sits at 12.7%.

As a whole, Carpenter sports superior numbers as a lead off hitter, while Fowler’s main advantage is essentially cancelled out by the St. Louis Cardinals’ tendencies. On top of that, Fowler is a better career hitter at the spot Carpenter currently resides, and his only consistent upward trend is his ISO, which can also be useful later in the lineup to drive guys like Carpenter in. If Matheny is truly set on having those two be the lead off and three hitter, it’s clear Carpenter should be the former.

Next: Which starting pitcher is most important

Do you agree or disagree? What other parts of Matheny’s lineup are you questioning? Feel free to put your thoughts in the comments below.