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Leading off with Matt Carpenter

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Matt Carpenter has historically been a better hitter when leading off. I have no idea why and that’s fine.

St Louis Cardinals v Atlanta Braves Photo by Mike Zarrilli/Getty Images

In 2014, Jason Heyward started 94 games at leadoff for the Atlanta Braves and later was candid that being nestled atop the order caused him to change his approach at the plate, re-directing his focus from power to working counts and reaching base. The results weren’t overwhelmingly positive. True to form, his slugging hit a then-career low but his on-base percentage rose just two points from his previous season (Heyward ended that season with a .736 OPS in 428 plate appearances batting leadoff). Whether it was these stats or that he joined clubs with an established leadoff hitter (Matt Carpenter in St. Louis, and then Dexter Folwer and now TBD in Chicago) after leaving Atlanta, he’s only seen 18 plate appearances at leadoff in the almost two-and-a-half seasons that have followed.

If we take Heyward at his word, and there’s no reason not to, then we know it’s possible for a player in the highest league of professional baseball to fundamentally change his batting approach on account of simply where he’s penciled into the lineup. This leads into one of the oddest - arguably silliest - debates currently going in Cardinals circles, and that’s whether for whatever reason, Matt Carpenter can will himself to be a better baseball player when leading off.

Heading into Sunday, Carpenter was slashing .375/.412/.813 since supplanting Dexter Fowler at the top of the lineup on June 7 (he also went 1-4 with a double yesterday). That’s in so few plate appearances that it wouldn’t even be fair to call it a trend, but it’s received decent attention because it came after Carpenter endured one of the worst slumps of his career (.136/.220/.222; 21 wRC+ in the 91 plate appearances prior to June 7) while batting mostly in the third spot.

To give it more of a visual, and to understand why there is a contingent of people who believe that Carpenter needs to hit leadoff to truly excel, here are some of his relevant stats at the leadoff spot since he first emerged as a superb hitter in 2013 (heading into yesterday):

Carpenter batting leadoff (2013-2017)

2013-2017 PAs BB% K% ISO BABIP AVG OBP SLG wRC+
2013-2017 PAs BB% K% ISO BABIP AVG OBP SLG wRC+
Matt Carpenter 2,221 12.2% 17.1% 0.192 0.338 0.295 0.386 0.487 142

And here are Carpenter’s same stats when he’s penciled into the lineup at any spot but leadoff:

Carpenter (not) batting leadoff (2013-2017)

2013-2017 PAs BB% K% ISO BABIP AVG OBP SLG wRC+
2013-2017 PAs BB% K% ISO BABIP AVG OBP SLG wRC+
Matt Carpenter 676 13.9% 21.3% 0.15 0.268 0.226 0.34 0.376 99

Pretty remarkable, right? Carpenter fluctuates from one of the best hitters in baseball to one who is about league average, with an OPS difference of 157 points. And interestingly enough, Carpenter’s walk rate has a slight bump during this span in games when he’s not leading off.

To be clear, no one argues that Carpenter’s a bad baseball player when he’s not at the top of the lineup, so can you blame anyone for thinking that it’s a no-brainer for him to be a fixture at the top while the above-stats exist? I certainly don’t. But I’m also not sure these stats offer the best context. For one, before this season, only once had Carpenter logged more than 85 plate appearances in a season at spots other than leadoff. That was 2015, when he had 355/310 splits for plate appearances at leadoff versus elsewhere. And that’s when I believe the “Carpenter must bat first” meme was born because of other relevant splits like this one: 177 wRC+ (at leadoff) versus 94. Again, I don’t blame anyone who found that tough to ignore, but so far 2015 is the only season when there’s been comparable sample sizes.

As for Carpenter’s slump this season that was highlighted above and may (or may not) be over, here are some other notable slumps throughout his career:

  • 2013: April 12-April 30: 67 PAs, 66 wRC+
  • 2014: June 5-June 28: 90 PAs, 77 wRC+
  • 2015: May 26-July 29: 224 PAs, 73 wRC+
  • 2016: July 7-September 15: 161 PAs, 78 wRC+

You might remember that Carpenter was returning from an oblique injury when he went through that tough stretch last season which might have been the culprit there, but the point is just like anyone he’s gone through slumps throughout his career, whether leading off or not. There’s no telling if Carpenter’s stretch that lasted into this month was simply 2017’s version.

I, for one, can’t imagine a hitter who has evolved and willfully changed his approach as much as Carpenter, would be affected by where he’s hitting in the order. And I’m not wild about the idea of him leading off with Fowler now on the roster, who’s been one of the better leadoff hitters in baseball the last few seasons and has done just fine with the bat this season after a slow start. Moving Carpenter to a spot more befitting his power was one of the reasons acquiring Fowler was so enticing, after all.

But the stats highlighted above are there. Deferring to them as to why Carpenter shouldn’t bat anywhere but leadoff seems reasonable enough. And anecdotally, if Carpenter is still going to be picky about the zone and insistently lay off that low and away pitch - a call that’s gone against him in the past more often than not - it’s probably better if he’s bringing that approach from the leadoff spot and not with a couple of runners aboard.

Lastly, I don’t know why Carpenter has typically been a much better hitter when leading off. Maybe it is psychological, maybe it’s sheer coincidence. I have no idea and I don’t need to know. There’s no rule that this stuff has to always make sense. A good 1-2 punch from Fowler and Carpenter at the top of the lineup is what most of us wanted this season anyway, so it matters not who’s batting where and why so long as it’s working.

Credit to FanGraphs Splits Tool for most of the stats in this post.