Over the last three seasons, Matt Carpenter has been a tremendous leadoff hitter for the St. Louis Cardinals, reaching base nearly 38% of the time (.378 on-base percentage). However, given that Carpenter hit 28 home runs last season, the most on the team, despite never hitting more than 11 in a season in the past, many are calling for the 30-year-old third baseman to be slotted into a position in the lineup with more opportunities to drive in runs. So, if Carpenter does indeed move down to second, third, or fourth in the order, who will take over the leadoff spot?
Speedy second baseman Kolten Wong has already expressed interest in batting leadoff, but handing the top-of-the-lineup keys over to a hitter with a career .303 on-base percentage (in 1,108 plate appearances) seems dubious at best. Sure, Wong's speed will play a factor in either stealing second or going first to third on a single, but even last year's career high on-base percentage of .321 is less than desirable from a leadoff hitter. Without a proven change in approach, something that cannot be adequately determined in 20 or so spring training games, Wong is not a viable option at the top, not on a contending team with better leadoff options, at least.
Returning to Carpenter, his .378 OBP over the last three seasons was the 12th highest in all of baseball. Given the list of names ahead of him (i.e. Joey Votto, Miguel Cabrera, Paul Goldschmidt, etc.), this is quite an impressive feat. As impressive as this might be, though, one of his teammates ranks three spots higher on the list at .382, and his name is Matt Holliday. I know what some are probably thinking at this point, "Move the team's three hitter to leadoff? Isn't that counter-intuitive to what we are trying to do by moving Carpenter out of the top spot?" Let me explain by providing a chart of Holliday's numbers from 2010 through 2015:
As you can see, Holliday's power has been on a steady decline basically every season since becoming a Cardinal. This is not, in any way, meant to be seen as an indictment of Holliday's ability as a hitter because he has been the team's best hitter since 2010 (well, second best to two seasons of Albert Pujols, I guess). Rather, it is meant to show that Holliday, going forward, does not project to be the power threat we have grown used to over the years. In fact, per Dan Szymborski's ZiPS, Holliday's projected ISO (.162) and SLG (.430) fall short of Carpenter's projections (ISO: .170, SLG: .442).
Yes, Holliday is 36 years old with a recent history of significant quad injuries. Yet, if deemed healthy enough to bat third and play left field, as the designated hitter has not arrived to the National League just yet, shouldn't that also mean he is equally healthy to bat first and play left field? Sure, Holliday won't be seen as much a stolen base threat (12 for 15 from 2013-2015) from the top spot, but this should not be viewed as a deterrent considering Carpenter totaled only 12 stolen bases in 21 attempts (57%) over the last three seasons as the team's primary leadoff hitter.
The primary job of a leadoff hitter is to get on base, and this is something Holliday is really good at doing. And unlike his SLG and ISO, this is not a statistical category that has been on the decline each season. Now, will Holliday to leadoff ever happen? Considering manager Mike Matheny's reluctance to bat Holliday second in lineup, almost certainly not, but I hope that this article was able to point out that the idea is not as crazy as one might think. I am not certain if the club is even truly entertaining the idea of moving Carpenter out of the top spot, and frankly, if I was in charge, I wouldn't at this point, but as long as Wong is bringing it up publicly, I feel okay discussing the matter.