The Winter Warmup is fun, harmless event where fans get to interact with players, and for many of the players, it is their first major interaction with the media since the season ended. A lot of attention is paid to what the players have been doing in the offseason as well as goals for the next year. One goal that made a bit of news came from St. Louis Cardinals second baseman Kolten Wong, who has said he want to bat leadoff.
"I would love to be leadoff," the second baseman said. "Seeing what (Matt) Carpenter did last year, the power numbers he put up, man, you have me in leadoff, I'll get to scoring positions, and if I get to first and he hits it into the gap, I'm going to score. It's definitely adding different things to the lineup.
Cardinals Manager Mike Matheny appreciated Wong's enthusiasm, but was understandably non-committal at this point.
"For me to hear that from Kolten is just kind of him looking at the landscape of our club and thinking how can I jump into this and help us more. He thinks being at the top of the order could allow us freedom to do other things. I'm excited to watch what he does. So now we go and compete."
"There will be opportunities that come up all time, especially in spring training, where we have guys bouncing in and out of the lineup all the time. There will be opportunities for Kolten.
"But, once again, we have to keep looking at what's best for our club and not try to draw it all up."
It does not take much to shoot down Wong's aspirations if you were inclined to do so. A leadoff hitter should be two things, which often go hand in hand: 1) He should be one of the best hitters on the team because he gets the most plate appearances, and 2) He should be really good at getting on base. Of the players expected to be in the Cardinals' Opening Day Lineup, here are their on-base percentages from last season.
For several of these players we are dealing with small sample sizes so if we want to get a fairer picture of what to expect, we can look at the Steamer projections from FanGraphs. We will be able to add to these projections ZiPS, which should be coming out shortly, but for now, we will use just Steamer. This is what it has to say about the Cardinals for this season.
Based on the above charts, Kolten Wong does not appear to be either one of the Cardinals best hitters or someone who will excel at getting on base. While it remains to be seen if Matt Holliday can defy his age one more time or if Carpenter's power spike is for real, the objective projection still has Matt Holliday as the Cardinals best hitter with Matt Carpenter close behind followed by a big gap with the rest of the team all close to average hitters (which is not a bad thing).
While statistical lineup construction based on the above is going to put Matt Carpenter first in the lineup and Matt Holliday second, we know that Matt Holliday is very likely to bat third in a Cardinals lineup. That leaves Matt Carpenter for first or second. Carpenter is an ideal leadoff, but as the best hitter on the team, it might make sense to move him to second and give him more opportunities with runners on base. It only makes sense if the team has a viable leadoff hitter. Based on the above statistics, they do not.
However, we could envision a scenario where perhaps Stephen Piscotty could reasonably outperform those projections and lead off. If he is outperforming his projections, particularly in the power department, it might make a lot more sense to bat him cleanup. Every other player has real issues to contend with. Peralta, Molina, and Moss are all slow, and Grichuk strikes out so much he does not get on base at a reasonable clip.
If the Cardinals want to move Carpenter down the lineup, Wong is probably the most reasonable choice to leadoff. A look at his projections say no. The league-average on-base percentage for all hitters is .317, and for leadoff hitters it is .328, which Wong has been below thus far in his career. In order to justify Wong as a leadoff hitter, or even a player worth putting in the top half of the lineup, we need to find something that says he is capable of more than he has shown, and that the projections are wrong. We can do that with almost any player and take the rosiest outlook possible, but there is some merit to that exercise with Won considering the last few months of last season, he was so bad, that it is possible our recency bias is fooling us a bit.
The first thing to remember is that Wong has had just two full seasons in the big leagues after only two full seasons in the minors, and he is just 25 years old. Despite Wong's miserable second half, with baserunning Wong was still an average player offensively. In the first half of last season, Wong hit .280/.343/.434 while walking 6.5% of the time, striking out just 15% of the time, with a non-inflated .310 BABIP and a wRC+ of 115. On this Cardinals team, that might make Wong one of the better hitters on the team.
Through August 1, Wong still sported a .334 OBP, and if you looked at Wong's stats from July 1, 2014 to July 1, 2015, you would see .277/.325/.454 with 20 home runs and a wRC+ of 115 in 571 plate appearances. Ben Markham took a long look at a potential Kolten Wong breakout, and saw that the league adjusted to Wong, giving him fewer pitches to hit in 2015, and Wong did not make the necessary adjustments. It is possible that Wong will make those adjustments heading into next year, and if he does, he has the potential to surprise. As he said at the Winter Warmup:
"It's not about getting the (extra) at-bats, but it's about really understanding the strike zone, where I can work walks, where I can work deep into the count."
Heading into this 2016 season, the Cardinals have a well-rounded lineup without holes, but they also have very little when it comes to elite production. The Cardinals will need players to step up and outperform their projections if they are going to be a good offense. When it comes to hitting leadoff, the Cardinals already have one of the very best in the game in Matt Carpenter. If the team chooses to move him down a spot, Wong might be the only reasonable alternative. It is easy to dismiss the idea based on his overall past performance, but the idea is not as crazy as it sounds.