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Is Matt Carpenter actually better batting first?

Matt Carpenter is back to batting leadoff. Is this actually the correct move?

MLB: Milwaukee Brewers at St. Louis Cardinals Jeff Curry-USA TODAY Sports

History will view Matt Carpenter as historically significant in the annals of St. Louis Cardinals leadoff hitters. The two players with the most career plate appearances for the Cardinals while batting first in the lineup are two prototypes of the batting order spot—Lou Brock and Vince Coleman. Each of the left fielders is among the most prolific half-dozen base stealers in the history of Major League Baseball.

That neither was especially gifted at reaching first base in the first place was not considered nearly as major of a detriment to his case for batting leadoff as it is today. But even well into the modern era, a time marked by an increased understanding of how to most efficiently score runs (it seems silly that “give more plate appearances to guys who are less likely to record outs” took so long to catch on, but when conventional wisdom grows as widespread as it does, it makes some more sense that the wrong decisions would continue to be made), prioritizing on-base percentage to a point of mostly ignoring stolen bases is relatively new.

Before 2013, Matt Carpenter’s first season as an everyday starter for the Cardinals, the previous decade’s most common leadoff hitters for St. Louis were a collection mostly of fast (by the standards of the notoriously lead-footed Tony LaRussa-era Cardinals), gritty middle infielder types who uniformly did not fit the sabermetric orthodoxy that a leadoff hitter should be one of your lineup’s three best hitters (specifically, the one with the most comparative advantage at reaching base).

Carpenter, however, became an acclaimed leadoff hitter in the modern sense: he walked in 11.7% of his plate appearances, was armed with a .384 on-base percentage, and few seemed to care that he stole just eight bases over the two years. But in 2015, something happened which impacted his status as a leadoff hitter—he started to hit for power. This didn’t make him less qualified to bat first; it just made him more qualified to bat everywhere else.

2016 Matt Carpenter remained a home run hitter, but he also remained, by and large, a leadoff hitter. But in the off-season, with the addition of Dexter Fowler—a blend of the old-school prototype of being an efficient base thief with the modern desired attribute of drawing walks and getting on base at a well above average clip, and the subtraction of Matt Holliday, who inherited the #3 hitter role, long a spot of particular esteem for the Cardinals, from Albert Pujols, Matt Carpenter moved down the lineup.

It made sense in and of itself for Fowler to bat first: he has had less power than Carpenter. What did not make sense was to move Matt Carpenter from a high-leverage batting order spot to a much lower-leverage one. Batting him second made the most sense sabermetrically speaking—he was the best overall hitter in the lineup, and this is where teams would optimally put their best overall hitter. Batting him fourth, the spot for one’s best power hitter, would also make some level of sense, though the emergence of Jedd Gyorko as a legitimate power threat make this proposition a bit less exciting. Batting Carpenter third reeked of prioritizing perceived status over statistical evidence—batting one’s best hitter third has little-to-no tangible evidence backing it up, except perhaps the correlation between being a good hitter and being a #3 hitter (a correlation, of course, which was caused by the culmination of years of misconceptions about the value of the spot).

But Matt Carpenter struggled early in the season as the #3 hitter. Well, “struggled” is a relative term—through June 6, Carpenter’s most recent game of not batting first, he had a wRC+ of 99, which made him a rounding error away from league average. But his results on the season were undeniably disappointing, certainly a step behind what has been expected from Matt Carpenter. And while a 99 wRC+ might have been palatable during his days playing second base, Major League first baseman are expected to be more productive.

Through June 6, Matt Carpenter had a triple-slash line (batting average, on-base percentage, slugging percentage) of .209/.341/.396. The awfulness of the batting average surely caused his decline to be exaggerated a bit—his on-base percentage in this down year still equaled the career marks of Hall of Famers Tony Perez and Carlton Fisk—but Carpenter was certainly not his best self.

Since returning to the leadoff spot, Matt Carpenter has been on a tear. His triple-slash stands at .429/.500/.886, and the theory that Matt Carpenter, for whatever reason, is just a better hitter batting first, has gained traction. It is a theory which Carpenter himself has rejected, and which sounds condescending on first glance—the implication seems to be that Matt Carpenter doesn’t have the mental fortitude to adjust to new situations. But as Alex Crisafulli noted earlier this week, if Carpenter’s numbers batting first have been better, and they have been, does it really matter why?

In a sense, no. It makes sense to just do the thing that is working. But while Matt Carpenter has produced more offensive value as a leadoff hitter, much of this can be explained by his batting averages on balls in play. Leadoff hitters do have a slightly higher BABIP than other positions (and much of this can be explained by these batters still being disproportionately fast players), but the gap between Carpenter’s BABIP while batting first and batting elsewhere is rather extreme.

Throughout his career, Carpenter has a career BABIP while batting first of .340. Batting elsewhere, it stands at .292. Even this 48 point differential doesn’t quite evoke the difference between Carpenter leading off and otherwise during his time as a starting player, as he almost exclusively batted in spots other than #1 in 2012 and had a .346 BABIP—since 2013, Carpenter’s non-leadoff BABIP is .268.

Matt Carpenter has a .716 OPS batting outside the leadoff spot since 2013, but if we were to assume his normal career level of BABIP during these situations (.325), his numbers would dramatically improve. Even if one were to assume that all of his new hits stayed as singles, Carpenter’s OPS would jump from .716 to .793. His on-base percentage not batting leadoff, normalizing the BABIP of each split to .325, is lower than his OBP batting leadoff, but not by much. His non-leadoff OBP stands at .374; his leadoff OBP stands at .378. A four-point on-base percentage difference is trivia, not cause for drawing conclusion’s about a player’s ability to handle certain situations.

But it appears that Matt Carpenter will remain in the leadoff spot for at least a little while, perhaps until the next slump. Whether this is the ideal arrangement of the batters is arguable, but the emergence of Dexter Fowler as a legitimate power threat (ten home runs through 249 plate appearances is by far the highest rate of his career) might mean that, by keeping Carpenter away from the #3 spot seemingly out of superstition, the Cardinals will play three of the top four hitters by projected rest-of-season OPS per ZiPS in spots one, two, and four—Matt Carpenter, Dexter Fowler, and Jedd Gyorko.

It seems to be a coincidence, and Matt Carpenter may truly be the exact same true talent batting anywhere in the lineup, but it seems as though Matt Carpenter’s move back to first serendipitously put the team’s most talented hitter back, perhaps not in the exact spot where he belongs, but in a high-leverage spot which gives the Cardinals a more potent offensive attack going forward.