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Cardinals Swap at the Top, But Big Lineup Issue Lingers

Yadier Molina

The St. Louis Cardinals are searching for any kind of traction on offense. Far from alone, the most notable, and most surprising, struggles on the team have come from should-be catalysts Matt Carpenter and Dexter Fowler. Having two of the most prolific lead-off hitters in baseball over the past few years holding 2 of the top 3 lineup spots was an exciting proposition. Almost 60 games into the season, it has been more “no go” than “we go” for the Cardinals bats.

With continuing struggles Mike Matheny has begun to alter the look of the lineup. With the demotion of Randal Grichuk, the hot bat of Tommy Pham took on a regular role. Then we saw Matt Carpenter shifted from #3 to #2, a position filled chiefly by Aledmys Diaz and then Piscotty. Stephen Piscotty was then injected into the 3 spot. Now in Cincinnati, Carpenter has swapped spots with Dexter Fowler, resuming his former role as lead-off hitter. This churn in the top 3 spots is fine, encouraged in fact as they look for a spark. However, an easy and obvious fix is being ignored by the manager.

Yadier Molina continues to consistently bat 5th (or higher) in the Cardinals’ lineup, and he shouldn’t be.

With All Due Respect…

Allow me to preface this by saying that I have a ton of respect for Molina. His career speaks for itself and he has put himself a Hall of Fame conversation. Most players never come close to that kind of talk. That said, in 2017 he is not a #5 hitter. He has, during he peak offensive seasons of 2011-2013, earned a few looks in the middle of the lineup. However, the level of production that earned him such consideration ended with the 2013 World Series.

Mike Matheny didn’t get the memo.

How Long…Has This Been Going On?

Looking back at Molina’s career, it’s really a tale of two managers. Between his debut in 2004 and the end of 2011, Molina hit 5th a total of 47 times, batting 6-8 90% of the games he played. Granted, Molina was a bad hitter until 2007, so for the first few years batting him 5th would have been a laughable proposition. Still, overall his place in the lineup matched his production. If he was hot he could hit 6th, but typically he hit 7th and provided perfectly acceptable numbers for both a catcher and that spot in the lineup.

Now, turn to the Mike Matheny chapter. Although Molina did not immediately begin to see bulk at-bats in the 5 hole in 2012, did set a career high for games there with 40, almost doubling his career total there. Most telling is that Matheny immediately dismissed the notion that Molina was a 7 hitter, batting him there just once in 2012, and would not bat him seventh again until 2015. Now, in the midst of a career year in which he hit 22 homeruns, 40 games in the middle of the lineup is justified and seems about perfect. The problem is that Matheny has continued to bat Molina in the middle since then (53% of the time starting in 2012) despite his production continuing to decline. Here is how Matheny has deployed him since 2012:

Matheny has batted Molina 5th in the lineup more than any other spot

And keep in mind, the 2012/2013 teams had Matt Holliday, Carlos Beltran, peak Allen Craig and David Freese all worthy of batting ahead of Molina. Those guys alone should have pushed him to 7th, yet he hit there just once those two years.

Has It Really Been An Issue?

When the overall lineup is extremely productive, as they have been in the past, where Molina hits makes little difference. Also he has had some very good seasons, so he has been a part of that production. But this season, when they are scratching and clawing for every run, it does matter. Mind you, Molina’s .253 and .293 AVG and OBP through Wednesday night are in line with his 2005, .252/.295 numbers, and nowhere close to his peak form of 2012 or those of a middle of the order hitter. The fact that this season is comparable to his early career, when he was a bad hitter, speaks volumes.

For reference, here is how he stacks up to other hitters in the 5-7 spots since Matheny took over:

Molina has had good seasons, but is now in the twilight of his career

Other than those two peak years and the 2nd half of 2016 (he had a post-All Star avg of .365 and OPS of .926, fueled in part by luck with a .388 BABIP) he has not been at the level of a league average 5 hitter since 2013. He is a solid hitter, don’t get me wrong, but he is a 6 or 7 place hitter, not a middle of the order bat.

What Are You Proposing?

The Cardinals could benefit from lineup optimization right now as they search for any possible advantage on offense, however slight it may be. Simply, the idea behind lineup optimization is to order your hitters in the way that can lead to the most runs. It puts priority on different spots in the lineup and does differ slightly from the tradition “Best-hitter-bats-third” philosophy. Here is the order of importance, based on the leveraged value of the out, according to Beyond the Box Score:

#1, #4, #2, #5, #3, #6, #7, #8, #9. Meaning the best three hitters should occupy the 1, 4, and 2 spots.

Based on wRC+, this is how the Cardinals regulars rank within themselves:

Tommy Pham, Jedd Gyorko, Stephen Piscotty, Matt Carpenter, Kolten Wong, Dexter Fowler, Aledmys Diaz, and Yadier Molina

I’ll spare you the details as I order them (using OBP and SLG), but this is the lineup that would be produced:

1 Piscotty 2 Pham 3 Wong 4 Gyorko 5 Carpenter 6 Fowler 7 Diaz 8 Molina

Taking reality and the manager into consideration, this isn’t a lineup that John Ulet will be announcing at Busch Stadium any time soon. But to my point, do we see where Molina lands? 8th. Now, Yadi can’t hit 8th because he is far too difficult to bunt over if you choose to sacrifice with your pitcher. You leave yourself vulnerable to a double play. So that bumps him to 7th, but that’s as high as he should go. My focus is really on the bottom half of the lineup, so we’ll just assume the top 4 continues as it looked on Thursday, and rearrange the bottom to produce this lineup:

1 Carpenter 2 Fowler 3 Piscotty 4 Gyorko 5 Pham 6 Wong 7 Molina 8 Diaz

Obviously Wong is on the DL right now and we hope to get him back soon. In the meantime Diaz would bat 6th and DeJong 8th. Is that really such a far fetched, wild looking lineup? I think it’s the order that gives them the best chance right now.

Closing Thoughts

Now, if it seemed like I was piling on Molina or putting all the blame on him, that was not my intention. I’m simply saying that he is not a middle of the order hitter and the numbers back it up. So many of the Cardinals issues come down to player performance, and therefore are not controlled by Mike Matheny. The lineup is. Why not help yourself with something that is an easy fix, and totally controllable? It will not be a cure all, but fixing the back half of the lineup, starting with dropping Molina down, would be a step in the right direction.

Thanks for reading! Follow me on Twitter for more Cards talk!

This topic and many other covered by Adam Butler and myself in our first episode of the Bird Law Podcast, featured on the Redbird Daily.

Rusty Groppel
I'm a diehard Cardinals fan that feels privileged to write about his favorite team in this corner of cyberspace. I'm also the bass player for the best damn band in the 618, Tanglefoot. Check us out some time.
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