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Let’s Talk About Leadoff Hitters

The Cardinals haven’t had great production from the leadoff spot so I dove into the options to hit there for the rest of the season.

MLB: Colorado Rockies at St. Louis Cardinals Jeff Curry-USA TODAY Sports

The St. Louis Cardinals offense has been something else this year. Nolan Arenado returning to Nolan Arenado levels of production has helped and so has Paul Goldschmidt’s MVP-caliber season. It’s been more than just those two, though, with rookies like Nolan Gorman, Brendan Donovan, and Juan Yepez raking while Albert Pujols has even turned back the clock and is hitting like it’s 2011.

The offense ranks 4th in wRC+ for a reason. The team ranks only behind the Dodgers, Astros, and Yankees, and is tied with the Mets. That’s great company to be in.

Now let’s look at production from the leadoff spot.

The Dodgers are the best in the league at the top of the order with a 153 wRC+. The Astros are next at 139 and the Mets round out the top three at 131. The Yankees are a measly 6th place with a 115 wRC+ out of the leadoff spot.

These four teams also make up the top four in OBP from the leadoff spot.

This all makes sense. Elite hitting teams have elite table-setters. They get on base and let mashers like Aaron Judge, Big Strong Guy, Yordan Alvarez, and Freddie Freeman drive them in.

That’s part of having a great lineup. Yet, let’s look at the Cardinals because although they rank 4th in wRC+ overall, they rank just 24th in wRC+ (83) from the leadoff spot. That sandwiches them between the Rangers and the Pirates. So, yeah, that’s not exactly great company.

In fact, there isn’t a single team below the Cardinals in leadoff production that is anywhere close to the playoffs. Considering all teams currently in the playoffs, the Padres have gotten the next worst production out of the leadoff spot with a 93 wRC+. That’s not even good but it’s 10 points higher than the Cards.

It’s not common for a playoff team to not have a consistent table-setter. So, with that being said, let’s look at how we got here and who the best option is going forward.

Tommy Edman

Every discussion of leadoff hitters must begin with Tommy Edman because he’s simply been the preferred choice. He has batted first in the order in 77 games this season and almost 75% of his plate appearances have come atop the lineup.

The results won’t surprise you. He has a .325 OBP and 98 wRC+. That’s not disastrous but a playoff team should certainly hope for more.

He does have 24 stolen bases and 15 doubles, meaning that he is capable of getting himself in scoring position, but it’s generally not a great idea to have a below league average hitter leading off.

Dylan Carlson

Here’s the weird thing with Carlson. He has a 54 wRC+ out of the leadoff spot. When he hits anywhere else in the order, he has a 129 wRC+.

He’s also the player with the second most plate appearances from the leadoff spot.

That’s...not great, but I actually think Carlson could be a good leadoff hitter. His 104 wRC+ on the season is a little low but he takes a decent amount of walks and hits a lot of line drives. He may not be the best leadoff hitter ever but I would at least expect him to be better than Edman.

I honestly don’t understand how there can be such a large gap. Sure, hitters may get pitched differently depending on where they hit and who is around them in the order but it shouldn’t make enough of a difference to take Carlson from all-star level production to 40-year-old Molina level production.

I don’t quite know how to handle this connundrum but it definitely seems fluky.

Brendan Donovan

Unsurprisingly, it’s Donovan, the rookie, who has the third most plate appearances as the first batter in the order. It hasn’t gone swimmingly, though, as he has reached base just 8 times in 33 plate appearances. That’s not ideal for a leadoff hitter and it’s led to a measly 26 wRC+ in a tiny sample size.

Lars Nootbaar

Noot has spent four games atop the lineup with three hits and six walks in those games. He hasn’t been put in that spot very often, but he has been leading off recently and he’s certainly an option I’m going to consider.

What Should the Cardinals Do?

None of these options have produced, but I know exactly what I would do. I would put Brendan Donovan in the spot. Definitely against righties but probably even against lefties too.

Instead of explaining why, I’ll start by narrowing the options down. Tommy Edman is an immediate no. That’s not because I don’t like him as a player but rather because I can’t stomach the idea of batting a below league average hitter at the top of the order.

He gets plenty of doubles and can steal bases and doesn’t strike out a ton and those are all valuable skills, but he’s simply not a leadoff hitter. He should bat closer to sixth or seventh.

The next candidate is Dylan Carlson and I’m not completely opposed to him leading off, but I don’t want him there right now. If he was the hitter that we all saw in 2021 then I would absolutely be fine with it. A .343 OBP and 113 wRC+ would be great compared to the production the Cards have received from the top spot.

He’s not that hitter this season, though. He has a .317 OBP as he’s seen both his batting average and walk rate drop from last season and he’s only slightly better than a league average hitter.

I love him as a potential leadoff hitter in the future, but for now, I’ll pass.

That leaves Donovan and Nootbaar and it’s close but I’m going with Donovan. Nootbaar has really come on strong but Donovan has an OBP over .400. Let me say that again. Donovan has an OBP of .403.

What more could you ask for atop the lineup?

Nootbaar and his 126 wRC+ and 15.3% walk rate makes a great option too, but Donovan has simply been better. I would love to have a leadoff platoon with the two players but they both hit left-handed. Still, batting them 1 and 2 against righties is something I could get behind.

It works even better because Noot is much more of a power threat than Donovan. That makes him more suitable to hit second while Donovan slaps singles and takes walks ahead of him.

That would be two guys who get on base a lot hitting in front of two MVP candidates. That sounds a lot better than putting Tommy Edman at the top of the order.

Here’s the thing, though. I want to see Donovan hit leadoff every day, against both lefites and righties. That might seem weird considering that Marmol has favored playing the matchup game all year, but Donovan is matchup-proof.

Let’s take a look at the numbers.

Brendan Donovan Splits

Pitcher Handedness Plate Appearances Walk Rate (%) OBP wRC+
Pitcher Handedness Plate Appearances Walk Rate (%) OBP wRC+
RHP 215 10.7 0.391 129
LHP 42 21.8 0.455 143

Notice Donovan’s walk rate against lefties. Is it unsustainable? Absolutely. But the point is that he will still draw walks against lefties and because of that, he’ll still get on base.

This isn’t just a one-year, small sample thing either. Take a look at his minor league numbers against left-handed pitchers.

Donovan vs. LHPs

Season Plate Appearances Batting Average OBP Slugging OPS
Season Plate Appearances Batting Average OBP Slugging OPS
2019 76 0.309 0.382 0.441 0.823
2021 114 0.286 0.360 0.449 0.809

I understand platooning and I’m generally a fan of it, but Donovan seems to be about as platoon resistant as it gets. He should be playing more against lefties and I would be fine with seeing him in the lineup every day, regardless of who is on the bump.

This isn’t the case for Nootbaar.

Nootbaar has a 182 wRC+ and .445 OBP since the start of July. That makes him an enitcing leadoff choice. In that same timeframe, though, he only has a 92 wRC+ against lefties. On the season, he has a 75 wRC+ against southpaws. He is not platoon-resistant like Donovan, and he should bat at the bottom of the order against lefties.

Regardless, most pitchers are right-handed and that means that the typical lineup should have Donovan and Nootbaar at 1 and 2. I would prefer them to be in that order but I won’t complain if it’s flipped.

The problem is that this isn’t the everyday lineup.

There is one person who stands in the way of Donovan seeing the field more and that’s Paul DeJong. Since rejoining the team, DeJong got really hot and then really, really cold. In fact, the shortstop is 0 for his last 18 with 12 strikeouts.

(After I wrote this DeJong hit a grand slam, so good for him!)

The team clearly wants to give him the chance to reclaim his old starting job, but he shouldn’t have a long leash, and especially not when Brendan Donovan and Nolan Gorman have been hitting the ball well.

DeJong really shouldn’t be in the lineup against righties. At all. Edman should be at short with Donovan or Gorman at second and the other at DH. Since most pitchers are righties, DeJong should be on the bench most days.

Against lefties, it’s fine to play DeJong. He hasn’t had a good season, but his 129 wRC+ against lefties makes him a fine platoon option. Regardless, I’m not yet ready to relegate Donovan to being a righty-only platoon guy.

Even though I want Donovan playing against lefties, I don’t like in a fantasy land. I know he’s probably going to be someone who gets platooned so I want to consider what the Cardinals should do when neither Donovan or Noot are in the lineup.

That doesn’t leave a ton of enticing options. Edman has been equally average against righties and lefties this year so I don’t want him hitting anywhere near the top of the lineup ever.

This leaves us with Dylan Carlson. And he is really crushing lefties this year.

Dylan Carlson Splits

Pitcher Handedness Plate Appearances Walk Rate (%) OBP wRC+
Pitcher Handedness Plate Appearances Walk Rate (%) OBP wRC+
RHP 262 9.1 0.296 87
LHP 93 5.9 0.376 154

The problem, if you remember what I wrote earlier in this piece, is that Carlson has really struggled when batting leadoff.

The problem here isn’t easily identifiable. Dylan Carlson has a 63 wRC+ when batting first in the order against left-handed pitchers, so it’s not like he has only hit leadoff against the wrong arms.

Maybe this is just a fluky stat. I’m completely open to that possibility and I’m leaning into that conclusion. I mean, it’s only a sample size of 131 plate appearances and he has hit the ball well at most other spots in the lineup.

It’s a little bit of a red flag, but I feel perfectly comfortable batting Carlson leadoff against lefties. He hits lefty pitchers really well and there aren’t any other enticing options outisde of Donovan, who I think should still bat leadoff against LHPs.


Brendan Donovan is the ideal leadoff hitter. He doesn’t have a ton of pop but his near-.400 OBP is tailor-made for the leadoff role. Even better, he can hit both lefties and righties. His bat is too good for him to be a part time player. He should be playing everyday, and leading off everyday, either at second base or DH with DeJong only playing when Gorman isn’t.

The Cardinals best leadoff hitter should not be on the bench as much as he has been.

Nootbaar is the next best option to hit leadoff, but he doesn’t hit left-handers very well, so he’s more a leadoff platoon option. If the Cards can’t hit Noot leadoff against lefties and won’t hit Donovan leadoff against them either, then Carlson is the best option.

He’s better as a right-handed hitter, and though he has struggled as the number 1 hitter, I think that’s more fluke than real.

Thanks for reading. Enjoy your Sunday! Also enjoy the glorious Brendan Donovan photo. From now on, I’m going to use this photo any time I write about Donovan. Much like Donovan, it’s too good to leave on the bench.