St. Louis Cardinals: Carp’s not a leadoff or third place hitter

JUPITER, FL - FEBRUARY 20: Matt Carpenter
JUPITER, FL - FEBRUARY 20: Matt Carpenter /

The raging debate in St. Louis Cardinals land these days is whether leadoff hitter Dexter Fowler and three-hole batsman Matt Carpenter should switch places in the lineup. That argument unfortunately misses the key point altogether, for at this point, Carp is not likely to be effective in either spot.

Matt Carpenter has been an invaluable part of the St. Louis Cardinals for the last half-decade. He’s often served as an uncharacteristic but effective leadoff hitter, balancing a line-drive stroke with an uncanny, walk-producing eye. His lack of speed was more than replaced by effective on-base skills.

But that Carp doesn’t seem to be around anymore. In fact, for those willing to point a critical eye at the stats, it’s fairly apparent that Carpenter 1.0 hasn’t been around for quite a long time. And if he’s unlikely to return, Carpenter’s playing time and batting order position are in serious question.

While it’s true that the lanky lefty hitter has performed better overall in the one hole during his major-league career, his hitting has been anemic overall since the first half of the 2016 season. Consider his batting averages for these three periods:

Second Half 2016: .229

All of 2017: .241

2018 to date: .185

Ugly, huh? In fact, the only thing keeping Matt’s OBP going has been his continued ability to get on base via the walk: He had whopping 109 of them last year.

Here’s another really scary figure: Carpenter’s batting average against lefties last year was barely over .200. Not pretty. And this year, while it’s admittedly early, he’s striking out almost 40 percent of the appearances in which he’s not walking. Ugh.

Some have said that Carpenter sacrificed batting average for power, as he had 23 dingers last season. That analysis isn’t really supported by the facts, as his doubles totals in 2017 were his lowest since 2012, and his home run totals weren’t particularly different from either 2015 or 2016.

No, the real issue here is that there’s now over a year and a half worth of evidence that the hits just aren’t coming back at any prodigious clip. Could that change? Of course it could; anything’s possible.

But what’s the job of a major-league manager, in this case Mike Matheny? It’s not to hope that things change; it’s to make decisions that balance personal observation with data. And right now, the sample size of almost a thousand plate appearances, reeks of a new and reduced hitting level for Carpenter.

So what does this mean vis a vis the lineup? Well, keep in mind that Carpenter is in the lineup most days supposedly because of his bat and most definitely not due to his defense. When he replaces either Jedd Gyorko or Kolten Wong at 3B or 2B, respectively, the Cards are surrendering glove.

But if all that Carp can effectively deliver right now is walks and occasional power, is it worthwhile to bump superior defenders for that kind of meager offense?

The answer for me comes in two parts: (1) Should Carpenter be in the starting lineup most days, and (2) if he is, where should he bat?

In his current iteration, one can make a better than fair argument that Carpenter should be filling in for others maybe a total of three times a week, along with a number of pinch-hitting appearances. That configuration would still get him somewhere in the 375-400 ABs range for the year, while picking the matchups most desirable for his bat.

And when he’s in the lineup, the second question above, namely, where should he bat, is readily answered — not in the top half of the lineup.

Carpenter’s not hitting enough to make a top-four, or probably top-five, difference for a contending team. The six hole seems like the highest place he ought be situated for now, with the caveat that he could be moved up if he shows forward progress.

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As for starting against lefties? Fuggedaboutit. Despite an unusual double off a southpaw Tuesday night, Carp’s been utterly hapless versus them since the start of 2017. That’s a pretty measly 22-for-109, .202 BA last year, and a 2-for-12 start this year, though again, with a mess o’ walks.

It’s much more likely than not, looking at a substantial amount of data, that Carpenter is a useful, but not intimidating, major-league hitter at this point in his career. That is not a profile for what you want in a three-hole hitter.

Moving both Marcell Ozuna and Jose Martinez up would increase their plate appearances and activate the offense in a meaningful way.

(While I was an advocate this spring for Paul DeJong moving up ahead of Yadier Molina, I admit to the folly of that analysis, and now publicly eat crow as a true admission to my fellow Rants writer and editor Tito.)

I don’t write these words readily, because I truly appreciate all that Carp has done as a Redbird. But I think one major reason we’re stalling out on offense is because there’s little at this point that acquits Matt as a three-hole guy, let alone as a replacement for much better defenders.

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Let’s keep Carp as a continuing, contributing part of what can be an excellent team. But in the longstanding tradition of challenging Matheny, let’s hope the manager actually looks at the facts before him, rather than the ones he wishes were so, and makes a change that’s sorely needed for this club.