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Should Matt Carpenter bat leadoff for the St. Louis Cardinals?

The Cardinals brass are considering moving Matt Carpenter out of the leadoff spot in an attempt to improve the offense. Is this a good idea?

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Jeff Curry-USA TODAY Sports

For the majority of the past two seasons, Matt Carpenter has batted leadoff for the St. Louis Cardinals. However, Carpenter might not be batting first come 2015. Derrick Goold of the St. Louis Post-Dispatch reports that the Cardinals are considering moving Carpenter from the leadoff spot in an attempt to improve the club's anemic offense. The idea is in its infancy:

He could hit No. 2, where some members of the organization believe the best hitter should bat, or give the middle of the order a different look by batting third with Matt Holliday at cleanup. Mozeliak said this week at the general manager meetings, which concluded Thursday morning in Arizona, that such a change could be a way to jolt the offense in addition to any acquisitions the team makes this winter.

"One thing we have talked a little about is when you think about optimizing your lineup, what does that do for Carp?" Mozeliak said. "And clearly he’s been so successful in the one hole. He gets on base and along with that all of the positives of a leadoff hitter. But moving him deeper into that lineup is something that Mike has thought about in terms of implementing. It’s just he and I talking out loud right now."

First, we should note that batting order doesn't really matter too terribly much in an individual game. However, over a 162-game regular season, it can help or hurt a team's offensive attack on the margins. Lineup order is fun for fans to argue about but it has an outsized importance in our running baseball dialogue. This is not to say that lineup construction is meaningless, just that it's less important than folks think. That being said, it's odd that the Cardinals apparently believe one of the ways in which to improve the offense is to move Carpenter from the leadoff spot, as opposed to moving Matt Holliday from third to second.

Those in the Cardinals organization who believe that a club's best batsmen should hit in the lineup's second slot are correct per The Book: Playing the Percentages in Baseball by Tom TangoMitchel Lichtman, and Andrew Dolphin. If that is one's belief then Carpenter shouldn't bat second. Holliday is the club's best hitter—or at least he was in 2014 and it wasn't particularly close: Holliday posted a 132 wRC+ in 2014; the next highest Cardinal was Jhonny Peralta at 120. Last winter, Craig broke down why Holliday should bat second for the Cards and not much regarding Holliday's performance relative to his St. Louis teammates has changed to undermine his analysis. For a few weeks early in the season, Matheny bumped Holliday up to second in the order but ultimately wound up ending the experiment and returning Holliday back to the three hole for the remainder of the regular season and postseason. It's a shame that moving Holliday up in the order is apparently not among Matheny and Mozeliak's ideas for improving the offense.

Last season, Carpenter saw his production fall off in terms of batting average and power. After a 146 wRC+ in 2013, Carpenter's production sagged enough to equal a 117 wRC+ in 2014, which was a nose ahead of Matt Adams (116) and Jon Jay (115). Carpenter's batting production ranked third on the team last season, but just barely. The best batsman should bat second and that player was not the Carpenter we saw in 2014, even though he was still a good hitter.

The contours of Carpenter's drop in production further reveal him to be a poor fit for further down in the order.





















































Carpenter had a career year in 2013, the likes of which it seems unlikely we'll see again from him. His Batting Average on Balls In Play (BABIP) of .359 was well above the major-league BABIP for non-pitchers of .299, ranking tenth in the majors (and, for what it's worth, four spots behind Allen Craig). Carpenter is skilled at barreling the ball and produces a lot of liners, but even that skill couldn't sustain such a high BABIP in 2014. And the ripple effect of his lower BABIP was felt in his BA, which fell 41 points, and his OBP, which fell by 17 points. Carpenter's keen batting eye was further refined in 2014, causing his walk rate to jump from 10.0% to 13.4% and allowing his OBP to remain elite despite his lesser BABIP.

The other area in which Carpenter's hitting numbers deflated was in the power department. Carpenter led the league with 55 doubles in 2013; in 2014, he rapped out just 33. Further, Carpenter's home run total fell from eleven to eight. This caused is Isolated Power (ISO), a stat that excludes singles and focuses solely on extra-base hits, to fall from .163 (which was comfortably above the 2013 MLB non-pitcher ISO of .146) to .103 (which was well below the 2014 MLB non-pitcher ISO of .138).

The Carpenter of 2014 was a punchless on-base machine. Such a batting profile is ill-suited for the No. 2 spot but, as Sky Kalkman wrote at Beyond the Box Score, summarizing The Book, is ideal for leadoff:

The Book says OBP is king. The lead-off hitter comes to bat only 36% of the time with a runner on base, versus 44% of the time for the next lowest spot in the lineup, so why waste homeruns? The lead-off hitter also comes to the plate the most times per game, so why give away outs? As for speed, stealing bases is most valuable in front of singles hitters, and since the top of the order is going to be full of power hitters, they're not as important. The lead-off hitter is one of the best three hitters on the team, the guy without homerun power. Speed is nice, as this batter will have plenty of chances to run the bases with good hitters behind him.

Carpenter may not have speed, but such a skill is nothing more than a fringe benefit for a leadoff man. What Carpenter does have going for him is possessing an elite ability to reach base safely, which is the foundation of him being one of the Cardinals top three batsmen. This makes him a perfect fit for leadoff.

Goold shares that Matheny likes Carpenter batting first for an intangible reason:

Matheny has often said that he likes the "tone" Carpenter sets for the lineup in the leadoff spot. Carpenter is routinely working deep into counts and he is unafraid of hitting with two strikes. Few hitters do it as often as Carpenter.

Carpenter's 4.37 pitches per plate appearance (P/PA) in 2014 ranked third in all of baseball behind Mike Trout (4.45) and Brett Gardner (4.44). His .375 OBP tied him for 15th in MLB. Carpenter is a grinder who gets on-base. That's a pleasant tone in the leadoff slot.

Then, of course, the question of who would replace Carpenter in the leadoff spot. That player might not presently be on the St. Louis roster. The current members of the Cardinals who might be options, as identified by Goold, are Kolten Wong and Jay. Wong posted a bad .292 OBP in 2014 and shouldn't sniff even sixth in the order until it comes up. For comparison: Wong made an out in 70.8% of his PAs in 2014; Carpenter, 62.5%.

Jay, on the other hand, posted a .372 OBP in 2014 that was nearly as good as Carpenter's while somehow hitting for less power (0.75 ISO) and posting a walk rate less than half of Carpenter's (13.4% to 6.0%). How did Jay manager such a high OBP? RB covered it earlier this offseason: getting hit by pitches and BABIP. Jay's BABIP of .363 was a career high that sits 18 points above his career .345 BABIP and 38 points higher than his .325 BABIP in 2013. Those feel like useful bookends for what to expect from Jay in 2015: a BABIP between .325 and .363. Because Jay hits for no power and walks at a rate well below average, his value to the team is based largely on his BABIP. If Jay posts a BABIP closer to .325, he probably shouldn't play over Peter Bourjos, let alone bat in the lineup's top half. But, if Jay manages to reproduce his batted-ball fortunes of 2014 (or come close to it), he might be a viable leadoff man. Is that a bet worth making on opening day?

The Cardinals' idea of moving Carpenter from the leadoff slot isn't the best way to improve the lackluster offense—moving Holliday to the No. 2 slot is. The skills Carpenter showed in 2014 make him an ideal fit for the first spot in the order. Carpenter should bat leadoff on opening day.