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St. Louis Cardinals: Can Matt Carpenter Bat Third?

Matt Carpenter gets no respect

The departure of Matt Holliday and addition of Dexter Fowler will likely force Matt Carpenter out of the lead off spot, which he has occupied since 2013. Despite Carpenter’s stellar offensive profile, he struggled out of the lead off spot. In 511 plate appearances batting lead off in 2016, the TCU product slashed .276/.386/.527 , and posted a wRC+ of 142 (which means he was 42% better than a league-average hitter). His increase in slugging since 2014 (.375 in 2014 to .5o5 the last two seasons) created a desire to bat him in a run-producing spot, possibly third.

The reason Carpenter has remained the team’s lead-off hitter has been twofold: The Cardinals lacked another player with the OBP of Carpenter, and Carpenter has struggled batting 2nd or 3rd. The addition of Fowler and his .393 OBP mandated that Carpenter be moved down in the order.

Most of Carpenter’s plate appearances outside of the lead off spot came in 2015, where he logged 298 plate appearances in the two-hole. In those 298 plate-appearances, he slashed .225/.342/.357. He was hurt a little bit by a .275 BABIP, but that could also be attributed to a decrease in hard contact percentage (30.9 Hard% was down from 43.3 Hard% as a lead off hitter).

In 2016, Carpenter had 44 plate appearances batting third. His 25 k% was up significantly from his career average, and his Hard% was nearly cut in half. His overall .222/.364/.250 and 75 wRC+ were both well below career averages.

My first instinct was to look at splits with the bases empty and with runners on. I expected to see a sharp decrease with runners on base. If I could show that he has historically been a worse hitter with runners on base, that could be the cause of his struggles. Except, in both 2015 and 2016 Carpenter was a better hitter with runners on base than with the bases empty.

Derrick Goold cataloged Carpenter’s 2015 struggles, and Carpenter said he felt the slump began in earnest on June 9th in Colorado, where Carpenter struck out four times. I decided to look at Carpenter’s numbers before the four strikeout game when batting second. In 153 plate appearances between April 28 and June 8, he slashed .256/.373/.448 and had a 127 wRC+. While not quite his career numbers, they are still very good, especially considering his .307 BABIP was below his career average.

His 2016 struggles can be attributed to both a small sample size and the reality that he was just returning from an injury. In fact, 37/44 plate appearances batting third came between August 13 and August 23. Carpenter was activated from the DL on August 5 after missing a month with an oblique injury.

While Matt Carpenter’s overall numbers batting second or third are not good, it is not because he is mentally weak, or selfish in his desire to bat lead off, as some fans have suggested.  In 2016 he was not fully healthy, and 44 plate appearances is simply not enough to draw much of a conclusion. In 2015, the slump began with Holliday leaving the lineup and Carpenter’s stated desire to try to do more. If batting second was the reason for the slump, we should have seen a decline in production starting on April 28, when Matheny moved him in the lineup. Cardinals fans have reason to be optimistic that Carpenter post his typical numbers in 2017, regardless of where he bats in the lineup.

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  • Tito Rivera

    I’d also like to think his pitch selection mentality was also off. A leadoff hitter’s approach isnt and shouldnt be the same as your third place hitter. Carp would take pitches that normally a third place hitter would swing at. Should he hit third, which i think he can, he may only see one good pitch to hit and must be ready to do so.

    • Colin Garner

      That’s something I explored, but nothing really jumped out at me. However, it could still be a factor. I think a full season of batting third could allow him to refine his approach from the 3rd spot.

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