After three days of relative silence, the St. Louis Cardinals finally made their splash on the fourth and final day of the Winter Meetings — signing outfielder Dexter Fowler to a five year, $82.5 million deal. While we sometimes learn about random quirks placed in the official wording of contracts, we do not yet know much about Fowler’s, other than the inclusion of a typical full no-trade clause. However, I would imagine Fowler’s representatives didn’t agree to a deal without first informing the Cardinals front office of their client’s intention to bat leadoff — his place in the lineup for ~70% of his career plate appearances.
Admittedly, lineup conversations are recycled on a biannual basis, usually during the offseason and often after an addition or a subtraction has taken place. The third reason for coming up is when a team’s offense is struggling, and the fan base urges the manager to shake up the batting order in hopes of improving outcomes. Well, two of the three boxes were checked on Friday, so we might as well start the conversation.
As stated above, Fowler — who possesses a career on-base percentage (OBP) of .366 — will bat leadoff for the Cardinals. This was all but confirmed by manager Mike Matheny during the center fielder’s introductory press conference on Friday. Subsequently, where will Carpenter — the team’s primary leadoff hitter in each of the last four seasons — fit into the 2017 lineup?
Well, ever since Carpenter’s emergence as one of the National League’s top hitters, a not-insignificant fraction of Cardinals fans has pleaded to move Carpenter off leadoff and into a more “run-producing spot.” Unfortunately, up until Fowler’s signing, the Cardinals did not employ a better option for the leadoff spot, so the role rightfully remained with Carpenter, and even those wholly opposed to the decision at the very least understood its reasoning. Now that the Cardinals have a viable option at leadoff — I must note that Carpenter still projects to have a higher OBP — that same fraction can now get their wish of Carpenter being moved to a more “run-producing spot.”
Conventional wisdom puts third and cleanup as a lineup’s primary “run-producing” spots. Between Tony La Russa and Mike Matheny, the three spot in the lineup has been reserved for the Cardinals’ most dangerous hitters (also known as “run producers”) since essentially 2013, with Albert Pujols handling the role through 2011 and then Matt Holliday — when healthy — up until last season. Yet, with the introduction (and at least partial acceptance) of advanced statistics, we have learned that the three spot is not nearly as important as we originally thought, and no, this is not new information (easy, straight-forward read), either.
Best case scenario, the three hitter comes to plate in the first inning with no one on base only 40% of the time. In other words, many of the three hitter’s first-inning at bats come with two outs and zero runners on base. With this in mind, does it make sense to have one of your team’s best hitters up in such an unfavorable scenario, or would he better served as the fourth hitter, either leading off the second with zero outs or batting in the first with runner(s) on base?
At this point, I have essentially made the point to bat Carpenter fourth — and not second, as the title suggests — but no one seems to be arguing for Carpenter to be placed in the cleanup spot. Instead, I have been reading, hearing, and seeing Carpenter listed as the number three hitter all over the internet and TV (including a projected 2017 lineup on Fox Sports Midwest during Fowler’s press conference). So before making the point that Carpenter should actually bat second, I had to first convince those why he certainly shouldn’t be limited to the three spot.
Now that the roundabout is behind us, let’s pull up on the original point of this article: batting Carpenter second. Since becoming a full-time player in 2013, Carpenter finds himself with the seventh highest OBP in the National League at .378. Not surprisingly, he has possessed the Cardinals’ highest OBP in each of these four seasons as well.
One of the best ways to produce (team) runs is by first getting runners on base. It does not take complex math to show that stacking your team’s best OBP guys one-two in the lineup provides the best environment for scoring runs. If you believe Aledmys Diaz is a true-talent .369 OBP guy, then he could absolutely fill in as an admirable two-hole hitter. Yet, we have a grand total of 460 MLB plate appearances in which to make this determination, and that nowhere close to a big enough sample size. Even if Diaz exceeds his current projections (.282/.342/.453), it is a good bet his 2017 OBP will still be lower than Carpenter’s.
Of course, I know that Mike Matheny likes to alternate batter handedness in his lineups. With Fowler (switch) and Carpenter (left) paired at the top, a southpaw would have to be on the mound for alternating handedness to happen. Heck, some teams don’t even have a left-handed starting pitcher (i.e. the Cardinals). With a righty on the mound — the much more common occurrence — Fowler would open the game left-handed, and Diaz, batting right handed, would naturally conform to Matheny’s lineup preference.
However, let’s reconsider what I just wrote for a second, and frankly, point out how silly it actually was. The majority of starting pitchers are right-handed. This is a fact. This is why left-handed pitchers seem to pitch forever. Lefty-righty splits, from a pitcher’s standpoint, often exist — even if they feel like a bigger deal for relievers. Thus, why not pair two left-handed hitters — who both reach base and possess power at an above-average clip versus RHPs — at the top of a lineup when facing a right-handed starting pitcher?
Bottom line, without any more additions to the lineup, the 2017 Cardinals project to be less reliant on the home run when it comes to scoring runs. I simply cannot think of a better way to set up the lineup than by pairing the team’s two best on-base guys at the top, alternating batter handedness be damned.