The leadoff spot is very up in the air with Matt Carpenter’s 2019 struggles. With that in mind, who fits best in that spot for the St. Louis Cardinals?
The leadoff position was really a bad position for the St. Louis Cardinals in 2019. While it didn’t seem that bad on the surface, the Cardinals ranked 29th in the MLB by wRC+ from the leadoff spot.
The 79 wRC+ the Cardinals got was only better than the rival Chicago Cubs and really is a microcosm of what the entire issue with last season’s offense was. It started off bad and didn’t get much better from there.
The majority of the year’s leadoff at-bats came from Matt Carpenter (270 at-bats) and his 79 wRC+ on the year, but just behind him was Dexter Fowler (194 at-bats with an 89 wRC+) and Tommy Edman (136 at-bats and a 75 wRC+). While other players had chances at leadoff, nobody else cracked 30 at-bats and so we will keep 2019’s analysis to these three players.
When thinking about the leadoff position, what is the goal? Traditionally, a player who is fast and can steal bases was used at the leadoff spot. Matt Carpenter has challenged that stereotype for the entirety of his career. Carpenter’s largest stolen base tally in a single season is six, but yet, he has been one of the most productive leadoff hitters of the past decade.
This new type of leadoff hitter utilizes one tool: on-base percentage. It makes sense too. The more a player gets on base, the better set the table is for the thumpers batting in the middle of the order. It doesn’t need to be much more complicated than that.
For the purpose of this breakdown, OBP is going to be the best predictor of a good leadoff man, but those classical traits can’t be ignored. In a perfect world, a player who can both get on base at a high level and steal bases would be best.
With that in mind, who are the best leadoff candidates for the Cardinals in 2020?
Kolten Wong was one player in 2019 who really broke out. Wong finally put all of his talents together, batting for a slash line .285/.361/.423 while stealing a career-high 24 bases. This offense gave him enough notoriety to win his first career Gold Glove as well.
Down the stretch, Wong was moved up to the second spot in the lineup and sparked the offense in the second half with a .432 OBP in July and .460 OBP in August. He sputtered some in September, putting up just a .315 OBP, but having an OPS of .904 and 1.020 in two of the final three months of the season was great to see from the second baseman.
The important thing is the speed and the OBP skill that make Wong a good choice for leadoff. He had just 18 plate appearances from the leadoff spot in 2019 but would be my first choice to leadoff in 2020.
Edman was the breakout player of the year for the Cardinals after he led the team with an .850 OPS after just playing half the season. His entire minor league body of work suggests that regression is probably coming for Edman in 2020, but how far is the magic question.
Edman’s 2019 slash line of .304/.350/.500 was way more than anyone expected, and the biggest regression will likely be in power. His 4.6% walk rate isn’t a great look for a leadoff man, but in his sophomore season, Edman could continue to mature at the plate and fix that batting profile. He puts a ton of balls in play (just a 17.5% strikeout rate) and has elite sprint speed.
While his 11 steals weren’t close to Wong’s total, Edman put up those numbers in just half of a season.
If Edman is anything like the player he was in 2019, he would be a great choice for leadoff in 2020.
Carpenter has manned the leadoff spot for the Cardinals for the majority of the last decade and will definitely be given the chance to rebound off of his awful season last year, but that chance shouldn’t be given at the leadoff spot. Carpenter should start the year further down the order until he can prove that he can be a consistent producer again.
From 2015-2019, Matt Carpenter has a 140 wRC+ from the leadoff spot. That is elite-level production and he’s not very far removed from that. Even with his 95 wRC+ on the season last year, Carpenter still had a .334 OBP. you can do a lot worse than that.
Carpenter had a low .285 BABIP in 2019 and his xWOBA was 17 points above his WOBA, suggesting a bounce back in 2020 is coming.
If Carpenter comes back strong, he’ll get a chance to be back in the leadoff spot.
The name I’m not going to discuss is Dexter Fowler here. Fowler got a lot of chances there in 2019 and really is proving that he’s declining fast with age. His days of being a productive leadoff hitter are likely over and Fowler shouldn’t have many chances at the leadoff spot in 2020.
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For any player who doesn’t make the cut at leadoff, the requirements for a 2nd place batter are usually very similar. Any combination of these players at the top two spots of the lineup would set the table well for those batting behind them. The leadoff spot will definitely be fluid in 2020 and I would expect all these players to get chances at one point or another.