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St. Louis Cardinals: Batting Carpenter 3rd Makes Too Much Sense

Matt Carpenter

With the Cardinals 2018 Winter Warm Up in the rear view mirror, spring training is just around the corner. It’s that time of year where we can start to envision how this team will look when opening day arrives. Part of that is obviously trying to figure out what the lineup will look like for the majority of the season, given health.

One of the more notable pieces of information that came from the Winter Warm Up is that Mike Matheny is considering trying Matt Carpenter in the middle of the order again. Most likely third, ahead of Ozuna. It feels like we’ve seen this before doesn’t it? Every time Carpenter has been moved out of the leadoff spot he has struggled. Just take a look at his wRC+ totals from each of the top three spots in the lineup.

 Batting Order wRC+
1st 142
2nd 102
3rd 103

I ignored the rest of the spots in the lineup because he doesn’t have nearly enough plate appearances anywhere else to draw any sort of conclusions. As you can see, he has been significantly better at leadoff. There are plenty of theories out there about why this keeps happening, however, I haven’t seen any that make much sense to me. During the Winter Warm Up, Carpenter got a chance to speak about this strange phenomenon.

Lack of opportunities outside of leadoff.

The main thing that Carpenter talked about regarding his unusual numbers at leadoff was just his lack of a decent sample size at other spots in the lineup. Here’s what he had to say:

“This is something that, really, I chalk up a lot of it to coincidence. I don’t have a ton of experience in other positions and you don’t have to believe it but I know it to be true. A lot of the times, and Mike can vouch for me because we’ve had these conversations, but a lot of the time when I’m hitting third or hitting second and it’s not going as well as I want I can start feeling myself turning the corner and just like the natural flow of a season, you go up, you go down, you have highs, you have lows. I felt myself on some of these lows and I was feeling like I was trending in the right direction and it just so happens that day he’s already made the move I’m back in the leadoff spot and I take off.”

It feels like we’ve seen Matheny try to hit him in the second or third spot in the lineup a lot, so this took some investigating for me. It turns out, though, that Carpenter is exactly right. He’s had 2,594 plate appearances at leadoff, 534 hitting second and just 245 plate appearances hitting third. When I saw this my initial thought was that over the course of 534 plate appearances hitting second we should expect him to have been his normal self. That’s a large enough sample to draw conclusions from. The issue is that those plate appearances are spread out over the course of his entire career. The only season that he didn’t hit second at all was 2014. This can skew the numbers because, like Carpenter claims, he could easily have just been slumping at the time he was hitting in other spots.

Carpenter has the best power profile of their top three.

We know all about Carpenter’s ability to get on base. At this point, his OBP skills are almost a worn out topic. What goes under the radar is his ability to hit for power. This is a skill of his that I believe has been masked by injuries the past two seasons. I wrote a piece back in May discussing how his flyball%, pull%, and hard hit rate had all been at some of the highest rates of his career. At the time of the article he had 7 home runs in just 132 plate appearances which is over a 30 homer pace over the course of an entire season.

This time I’m using Statcast to get a better idea of how much his shoulder injury had an impact on his hard hit rate. Statcast defines a players hard hit rate as the percentage of batted ball that are hit 95 mph+. Since we don’t know exactly when Carpenter started suffering from his shoulder injury last year, I’ve used the all-star break to split up his 2017. I’ve also given the overall results as well as the results on only fly balls and line drives as those are what will drive his power numbers.

1st Half Avg. EV Hard Hit % xwOBA
Overall 89.5 42.0% .406
FB/LD 93.9 52.8% .553
2nd Half Avg. EV Hard Hit % xwOBA
Overall 87.8 28.8% .333
FB/LD 90.1 34.0% .384

As you can see, the injury was a massive drain on his ability to hit the ball with authority and his production suffered as a result. If you recall, it looked like he was almost afraid to swing the bat toward the end of the season. He was up there trying to take a walk more than anything.

The Matt Carpenter that we saw in the first half of 2017 is the perfect player to hit ahead of Marcell Ozuna in the lineup. There’s at least 30 home run power to go along with a great walk rate. It would lead to a ton of opportunities for Ozuna to hit with men on base.

Other players profile well at leadoff.

There was several years where Carpenter was the only player on the team that truly profiled as a good leadoff hitter. Everyone else in the lineup just lacked the really high on base percentage that is necessary for the role. That isn’t the case anymore. Dexter Fowler was signed last season to be the leadoff hitter and we know that he has the skills to do it. They even have options on the days that Fowler isn’t playing in Kolten Wong and maybe even Tommy Pham.

I believe it makes a ton of sense to hit Carpenter third again. His combination of power and OBP profiles perfectly behind high OBP guys like Fowler and Pham, and he also fits well ahead of Ozuna. This is the year for the narrative that Carpenter can only hit leadoff to die.

Thanks for reading!

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