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St. Louis Cardinals: Carpenter, Fowler, and the Lineup Card

Matt Carpenter

There’s is no need for me to rehash what everyone has already been told, or said themselves. Matt Carpenter can only hit when batting leadoff. That’s the narrative. It’s false.

The fact is, Carpenter has had a very good career, and has happened to spend 70% of that career (as well as his peak seasons) in the leadoff spot. His approach fits there, but I don’t think the two are mutually exclusive. I think he can hit anywhere in the lineup given time for the numbers to level out. However, he has spent such small samples in other spots in the order, he has never had the time for this to happen. A cold stretch could get him shifted from 2 to 3 to 1 in a matter of 10 days (See: May 28th – June 7th, 2017).

And the reason I mention that is simple. Matt Carpenter is a streaky hitter.

We think of Carpenter as a consistently good player, and from year-to-year he is. But he, just like most hitters, is prone to terrible slumps. His on-base percentage typically stays high, because he always draws walks, but sometimes the hits (and more importantly, extra-base hits) aren’t there.

2017, the year that absolutely proved that Carpenter cannot hit 3rd and can only hit leadoff (sarcasm), is the ultimate example of a streaky season.

Peaks and Valleys

Batting average is in no way the best statistic to use for measuring performance. However, it does tell you when a player isn’t getting hits. Matt Carpenter’s batting average was the focus of fans for much of last season.

So I looked over Carpenter’s game log for 2017, and found the peaks and valleys of his batting average. Below I have provide the chart of these stretches. For indication of the rise and fall, I showed his season average at the end of each period. I also have the number of games played, to indicate sample size. The important part of this is the slash line, and that’s what you need to study the most.

So here is what I see:

  1. When Carpenter’s average is down, so is his slugging percentage. It’s one thing if he is trading singles for walks, but he has to be driving the ball for extra bases.
  2. His very best 10-game stretch of the season coincided with the move to leadoff. It also coincided with facing the pitching staffs of Cincinnati, Philadelphia, and Baltimore and included an insane series against Milwaukee in which he went 8/15 in a four-game set. He was just hot. He followed that with his worst stretch for average, 2nd worst for slugging, although he kept a healthy OBP. We probably didn’t notice that cold streak, because that initial hot streak cemented the perception that he should exclusively hit leadoff. And that ridiculous stretch meant that scribes could cite his numbers since moving to leadoff and they would eternally look good. Even after the bad 11-game stretch, you could say he was hitting .286/.445/.608 in 21 games since moving to leadoff. Relative to his early season that looks incredible, but it ignores that half of the games being cited weren’t all that good. Perspective is everything.
  3. Through 32 games last year he held a slash line of .268/.425/.546 as the number 3 hitter. Perfect. But then he completely tanked for 23 games and the switch happened. Some how those 23 games trumped the 20 fantastic games that preceded them and the switch was made.

I will admit, he was able to maintain his OBP at a higher level after moving back to leadoff. But I contend that he wasn’t in the 3 hole long enough to allow that to level out, because Matheny reverted after one really bad stretch of hitting. You’ll have people tell you that Carpenter had an OBP over .400 in the leadoff spot last year. And that’s true. However, I think he could have posted that out of the 3 spot as well, if he had been allowed to.

Dexter Fowler: The Other Side of the Coin

The other argument that is being made, along side of citing Carpenter’s history in the leadoff spot, is Dexter Fowler’s performance down in the lineup. First of all, Fowler had a horrible start to the season in 2017. Through April 17th he was just 7/53 with a .207 OBP. However, from April 18th to June 6th, he held a line of .256/.356/.529 as the leadoff hitter. His career line is .266/.365/.427, so he was just a few steps behind that, with more slugging.

Now, I won’t deny that his .299/.399/.541 line after being replaced in the top spot is fantastic. It is incredible. However, I’m hearing the argument that he truly settled in as a power hitter after moving down. I disagree with that.

In 39 games (35 starts) prior to being moved out of the leadoff spot, he had 8 HRs, 4 3B’s, and 6 2B’s in 218 PA’s. Thats a rate of 27.25 PA/HR and 12.1 PA/XBH. In 66 games lower in the lineup he had 10 HR’s, 5 3B’s and 16 2B’s in 273 PA’s. That’s a rate od 27.3 PA/HR and 8.8 PA/XBH. See, the homerun rate didn’t increase at all (in fact it slightly decreased) but he hit a lot more doubles to account for the boost in slugging. But doubles don’t really indicate a power bump, as a well placed 120 footer can go for 2 bases.

Besides that, Fowler had a line of .276/.393/.447 out of the leadoff spot for Chicago in 2016. Other than the uptick in slugging, that’s pretty close to what he did over his final 66 games in 2017.

And if Fowler can carry a .399 OBP in the 3, 4 and 5 spots in the lineup, so can OBP master, Matt Carpenter.

You just have to leave them be.

Unfortunately, both are off to slow starts again this year, but they will get rolling soon enough. Fowler is showing signs of snapping out of it and Carpenter’s walk-off homerun can certainly serve as a confidence boost.

Give it time, and don’t buy the narrative.

Thanks for reading.

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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