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The Cardinals ideal lineup by the numbers

Going by The Book, what should the Cardinals lineup be?

National League Wild Card Game 1: St. Louis Cardinals v. San Diego Padres Photo by Rob Leiter/MLB Photos via Getty Images

When Blake posed the question on who should bat leadoff for the Cardinals, it got me thinking about the rest of the lineup. Namely, it got me thinking: purely by the numbers, what is the best lineup optimization. That’s right, folks. We’re going The Book old school on the lineup. What does The Book say about how the Cardinals should form their lineup?

Few things first for folks unaware on things The Book says about lineup optimization. The best hitters should bat 2nd and 4th. The 4th place hitter has a guaranteed important spot in their first plate appearance no matter what: they either bat with a runner or runners on or they lead off the next inning. The 2nd place hitter comes to the plate next in important situations, and the difference between them and 4th is made up for by the fact that 2nd gets more PAs over the long season.

Then it’s the leadoff spot, who get the most plate appearances, which makes sense. But the fourth most important spot is actually the 5th place hitter, because the 3rd place hitter comes to the plate with two outs and nobody on too often. Power should be key to the 3rd place hitter, not necessarily being a great hitter. Again, when you realize the 5th place hitter is in a similar spot to the 2nd place hitter, but with the added benefit of possibly coming to the plate with multiple runners on in their first PA, their importance makes sense.

After that, it’s the 3rd place hitter finally, and the rest follow the order they’re in. Except there’s a very small added benefit from batting the pitcher eighth, because an actual hitter being 9th will give the top of the lineup more potential opportunities to drive in runners. If there’s a DH, then you just bat the hitters 6 to 9th in order of performance.

Let’s start with most important. The Cardinals have two very clear most important hitters: Nolan Arenado and Paul Goldschmidt. And where to place them is actually extremely easy. Goldschmidt has a career OBP of .392 and a projection of .361. Arenado isn’t even kind of close to that with a career OBP of .349 and a projection of .331.* I want the higher OBP guy 2nd. Also Arenado is projected to have more power. His .209 ISO is better than Goldschmidt’s projected .196 ISO.

*(Ignore the slash line on Fangraphs, which isn’t updated to the fact that he’s playing at Busch now. Former VEB writer Ben Clemens has his Busch stats in his article about the Arenado trade.)

The third best hitter on the lineup is probably Paul DeJong, at least by projections. I certainly hope DeJong can truly break out as a hitter even though he’s a good player even if he’s average. It’d just be nice. Anyway, DeJong bats 5th. And can you think of a low OBP hitter with a lot of power who might bat 3rd? Tyler O’Neill’s projections seem designed to test The Book’s theory to bat a lower OBP, high power guy here, because he is actually tied with the highest projected ISO on the team with Arenado at .209. So Tyler would bat 3rd by The Book.

Leadoff hitter is... pretty tough actually. There are no hitters left with a good OBP. The only way to bat a hitter with a good OBP leadoff is to bat Goldschmidt or Arenado leadoff, but they should be in the two most important spots. Dylan Carlson has a projected OBP of .318 and Tommy Edman has one of .314. Harrison Bader has one of .317, but we all know about his RHP struggles, where his expected OBP is certainly lower than .317.

Let’s backtrack here though because if we’re going to get technical here.... Paul DeJong should bat leadoff by The Book. The #1 spot is the third most important spot. DeJong has a projected OBP of .320, better than the other guys. It’s an inconsequential difference, however DeJong is also a better hitter than those guys right now. And as for splits, DeJong has a career 109 wRC+ against RHP, 92 wRC+ against LHP. I’ll say it once, I’ll say it a million times: too small a sample to believe in that. I just point that out because he doesn’t actually have a problem against RHP.

Fun curveball, huh? The 5th spot is easy enough: Dylan Carlson. After that, especially against a RHP, it’s... pretty bleak. Harrison Bader has a career 83 wRC+ against RHP, Edman is worse against RHP and has a projection of an 88 wRC+, and Molina is worse against RHP and has a projection of a 79 wRC+. Basically, they’re all around the same level against RHP, even though Bader is gonna get the brunt share of criticism about it.

There’s no real smoking gun here either to make this easier. Bader actually has a career .317 OBP against RHP, but absolutely no power. Which yes, Bader against RHP actually has a very similar OBP to all the names above. I think you can rule him out at leadoff because he’s not even close to a good hitter against RHP, but from a purely OBP standpoint, he’s not a whole lot different than anybody else in the running.

And I don’t have the breakdown of splits in batting order, but he has a 10.7 BB% batting 8th and an 8 BB% batting everywhere else combined. That does however include him batting 2nd, which I’m guessing only happens when Cards face a lefty, where he has a minuscule 3.5 BB%, but also a 156 wRC+ (57 PAs). He has an 8.8 BB% not including the 2nd or 8th spot, and a 10.3 BB% batting 1st in 58 PAs. All I’m saying: his patience against RHP seems genuine and not a product of batting before the pitcher, although he does get a boost there.

Back to who gets the 6th spot. Honestly, I think I’m going Edman just because I think he has more potential than Bader. The 88 wRC+ projection seems a bit low and related to his not particularly high standing as a prospect. And honestly, in the spirit of The Book, Bader would bat 9th, because he actually has a good OBP for a 9th place hitter, as far as backhanded compliments go. Yadi gets 7th in the order. There is a downside which is that pitchers can sometimes pitch around batters before the pitcher and well, Yadi doesn’t really play that game and will end up swinging anyway. Sometimes.

And in the games where Bader doesn’t start against a RHP, Justin Williams should bat 6th instead of Edman and Edman bats 9th. He has a not particularly great 83 wRC+ projection, but when you take into account splits, his RHP projection is certainly greater than Edman and Molina’s. Plus, the potential argument fits here. Williams has a higher potential against RHP than the other two.

Against LHP, you can take a different approach. The 2-5 hitters, oddly enough, do not change at all. They are all either right-handed or switch hitting, and as such, their numbers should be expected to be better against LHP or the same. O’Neill, like DeJong, has shown reverse splits so far in his career, but his sample is certainly not anything resembling reliable with less than a full season of total PAs in the majors. Leading off, however, I would go with Bader. Bader has been a .264/.336/.517 hitter against LHP in his career for a 125 wRC+. I would probably take the under on that being his true talent, but you’d have to take the way, way under for him not to be a strong choice to leadoff.

I hesitate to rely too much on a concept I don’t really believe in (reverse splits) without a much larger sample than I have, but I think I would bat Edman in front of DeJong against LHP. I looked at Edman’s minor league splits and he has fairly consistently raked against LHP and is clearly better against them. It’s so extreme that part of me wonders if he’d be better served to just... bat right-handed all the time. He doesn’t seem to get much benefit from batting left-handed. But there must be a reason he’s not.

Against LHP, I’d probably just bat Yadi 8th. I don’t see a whole lot of benefit to him batting 9th. He’s a singles hitter primarily and you’d need essentially two hits to drive him in, unless it’s a home run. With someone like Bader or Edman, any double usually scores them. With Molina, you’d need an outfielder to misplay the ball essentially.

So to recap, here’s the lineup against RHP

And here’s the lineup against LHP:

I already presented the alternative on days when Bader doesn’t start and Williams does, but when O’Neill doesn’t start, it’s not quite as cut and dry. Austin Dean has a career .140 ISO against RHP and I don’t really expect Thomas to have enough power to make batting him 3rd worth it. But on the other hand, both guys will probably have more power than any of Bader, Edman or Molina against RHP so maybe it is just as easy as plugging them at 3rd. Williams batting 3rd could be an option too on days O’Neill sits.

This is all according to The Book of course and won’t happen. Honestly, this is a pretty ideal lineup... if we just had a guy with a good OBP against RHP to bat leadoff. That’s pretty much all it’s missing. Yes, the back half of the lineup will be weak, but one of them is a catcher, one of them is one of the best defensive centerfielders in the league, and the other is a solidly above average defender at 2B.

People will assuredly complain, but on days where there is a DH and the Cards are facing a RHP, Matt Carpenter should be leadoff. It’s not close either. Even the bad version of Carpenter last year had a .325 OBP - better than anybody’s projected OBP. His projected OBP is .338... and that presumably is higher against RHP. It’s no contest. It’s somewhat risky - Carpenter might be done done - but he’ll at least walk a lot and make the other pitcher throw a bunch of pitches. For the start of the season, Carpenter makes sense to leadoff when he plays.

But for now, there is no DH so this is the lineup to roll with - by the numbers at least.