clock menu more-arrow no yes mobile

Filed under:

The Cardinals need Matt Carpenter in 2016 more than ever

Whether batting leadoff or elsewhere, the Cardinals will need Matt Carpenter to continue to produce in 2016.

Dennis Wierzbicki-USA TODAY Sports

I don't need to convince anyone that Matt Carpenter is a very good baseball player (other than the MLB Network) but he's been more valuable than a lot of people probably realize.  Measuring by fWAR, he's been worth 16 wins since 2013 which places him fourth in the National League behind Andrew McCutchen, Paul Goldschmidt, and Buster Posey in that order, and ahead of the likes of Bryce Harper, Jason Heyward, Joey Votto, A.J. Pollock, and Anthony Rizzo.

If the fundamental idea of baseball is to go the entire trip around the bases and give your team a run in the hopes that you score more of these runs than the various teams you are playing then Carpenter has been as valuable as anyone.  Since 2013 he has scored 326 runs - far and away more than anyone else in the NL.  Goldschmidt is second with 281.  The distance between Carpenter and Goldschmidt is about the same as that between Goldschmidt and Todd Frazier, whose 233 runs during this timeframe places 8th.

Carpenter, whose hitting has evolved dramatically in just a short period of time, is also one of the more disciplined hitters in baseball.  His 4.22 pitches per at-bat in 2015 was third in the NL behind Curtis Granderson and Votto.  And only Votto, Goldschmidt, and McCutchen have drawn more walks since 2013.

Carpenter has also benefitted from having more opportunities to maximize his production.  Since 2013 he leads all of the NL in plate appearances with 2,091, with McCutchen and Rizzo tied for second at 2,007.  This is largely due to Carpenter spending a bulk of his time batting leadoff and being far and away the most potent hitter at that spot in the NL.  By fWAR, the next closest player for those who have logged at least 1,000 plate appearances at leadoff in the NL since 2013 is Denard Span, who has been worth 8.8 wins.  Using those same parameters, here's where Carpenter ranks in the following categories:

  • PA - 1,693 (1st); Span is second with 1,552
  • Hits - 437 (1st); Span is second with 409
  • BB - 197 (1st); Dexter Fowler is second with 139
  • OBP - .386 (1st); Fowler is second at .360
  • SLG - .472 (1st); Charlie Blackmon is second at .456
  • Runs - 275 (1st); Span is second with 198
  • 2B - 111 (1st); Span is second with 79
  • 3B - 11 (5th); behind Dee Gordon, Span, Blackmon, and Ben Revere
  • HR - 39 (tied for 1st with Blackmon)
  • wRC+ - 141 (1st); Fowler is second at 111

On a recent Best Podcast in Baseball short, Carpenter told Derrick Goold that there is an art to batting leadoff - a flow to it - and that he believes he is pitched to differently vs. other spots in the lineup.  This gives credence to the meme that Carpenter, for whatever reason, hits better at the leadoff spot than anywhere else, and the stats in 2015 - again, for whatever reason - bore that out.










Batting 1st









Batting 2nd









That he was actually better at drawing walks and had a slightly lower strikeout rate while batting second suggests he might have a more aggressive approach at leadoff, but that still doesn't explain why such profound splits exist.  For a bit more context, here's how Carpenter hit for each month in 2015:




































Carpenter began the season hitting leadoff and didn't relinquish that spot until April 28th.  From that date on, Carpenter batted second until he was inserted back into the leadoff spot for a few games starting on July 10th, before more or less returning permanently to leadoff on July 30th.  (Whether it was managerial malfeasance that Kolten Wong saw 234 plate appearances in 2015 in the top spot of the order while maintaining a .303 OBP is probably for another day.)

Coincidence or not, Carpenter produced the highest in months spent primarily at the top of the order.  After a scorching start to the season - on April 27th, the day before moving to the second spot, Carpenter was hitting .388/.438/.672 and was on pace for an absurd 95 doubles - his hitting regressed in May and plummeted in June.  It hit a low point when he struck out four times vs. the Rockies on June 9th.

Of course, on May 8th, Carpenter was scratched from the lineup for a few days with exhaustion.  His diminished bat in the middle of the season could have had more to do with lingering effects from that unusual diagnosis than with his batting spot in the order.  So it's near impossible to determine if Carpenter's slump was a result of the psychology of batting second (although that seems unlikely), or if batting second just happened to coincide with Carpenter's fatigue and slump, or if it's a little bit of both.

Even so, and as Carpenter made clear to Goold, the recent returns show that he is the best leadoff hitter in the NL and it's not particularly close.  This could seem like a conundrum if he is also arguably the best power threat on the team, but it's his combination of max plate appearances and production that have made him so valuable and I'd argue the most irreplaceable player on the roster.  The fear, I suppose, is that same combination led to his bout of exhaustion but that was hopefully a fluke occurrence.

Heyward is gone.  Jhonny Peralta, who, as I noted on Monday, has been the most valuable Cardinal by fWAR (behind Carpenter) since his arrival, is on the shelf for a couple of months.  And Matt Holliday's slugging has regressed every year since 2010 and hit a career low last year.  The promise of the Cardinals' offense in 2016 is built more on potential rather than experience, and that's not necessarily a bad place to be.  The Cardinals have finished in the bottom half of runs scored in the NL the last two years and full seasons from the likes of Randal Grichuk and Stephen Piscotty might help to reverse course.   For that premise to work, however, it seems imperative for Matt Carpenter - whether at leadoff or batting second - to continue to be one of the best in baseball at getting on base and scoring runs.