Every game day, a few hours before first pitch, the Cardinals publicly announce their lineup. Like every other team, it’s a necessary daily ritual and I’ll assume like almost every other team, it’s immediately followed by handwringing from the fans. Whether a product of injuries, Mike Matheny playing the hot bat, or swapping in “Mike guys” at the expense of “non-Mike guys,” I’d imagine a Matheny lineup on average is more fluid than others. For an organization that has been a bedrock of stability, the lineups are anything but.
The importance of the lineup likely doesn’t rise to the level of vitriol it sometimes induces but it still matters. In 2016, the leadoff spot for the Cardinals saw 123 more plate appearances than the 8th spot and it doesn’t take a baseball savant to know that it’s ideal for the better hitter to get those extra swings. That’s pretty obvious.
But are the Cardinals getting the most from their lineup construction this season under Matheny? Well, below is a look at how the Cardinals lineup has produced from leadoff to the 8th spot. (Pinch hit appearances notwithstanding, Matheny has made it clear that the 9th spot is reserved for the pitcher and most teams follow suit so I left that spot out.) These are stats through June 25th, so yesterday’s offensive-fueled win over the Reds is not included.
2017 batting by lineup
Without yet looking at how this compares to the rest of the National League, the Cardinals have benefitted from solid production at leadoff. Dexter Fowler and Matt Carpenter have taken 71 percent of those overall plate appearances so that shouldn’t surprise you. Most teams would gladly take either player to fill that role.
In recent years, the intelligentsia’s ideal leadoff hitter has evolved from being a guy who is quick on the bases to a guy who is really good at getting on base in the first place, quickness be damned. That new school of thought hasn’t entirely taken hold though. So far in 2017, leadoff hitters in the NL have 79 more stolen bases than any other lineup spot and have only the fourth highest on-base percentage (.329) behind the third spot, fourth, and then second (perhaps this is skewed by Kyle Schwarber getting 171 plate appearances this season at leadoff while OPSing his way to AAA). So the old-school still permeates through the league but the Cardinals have defied it, whether by design or not.
After that, things get ugly. In the second spot, argued by some to be the most important spot in the lineup, the Cardinals have an overall wRC+ (69) that is worse than every qualified hitter in the NL save for seven. Most of that is attributed to Matheny sticking with Aledmys Diaz in that spot for 105 plate appearances worth of games even while he struggled with a wRC+ of 41. Carpenter and Randal Grichuk didn’t help either with a combined .095 batting average in 45 total plate appearances between them.
However, rather than fight the forces of magic, Carpenter has been returned to the leadoff spot. That bumped Fowler down to number two where he has excelled and will hopefully continue to do so upon returning from the 10-day DL. Perhaps the Cardinals found a suitable answer for their second hitter sort of by way of accident.
At the third spot, the best hitting spot for the NL in 2017 (although a lot of the unconventional wisdom believes the third spot to be of lesser importance than 1, 2, or 4), the Cardinals have fared okay with the Carpenter (197 PAs) and Stephen Piscotty (96 PAs) timeshare, but have been dragged down by the getting only three hits in 34 plate appearances spread out between seven players. Jedd Gyorko has gotten 61 percent of the plate appearances at cleanup this season and his wRC+ of 113 has the team right around league average at that spot.
Yadier Molina has been a below average hitter this season yet has gotten a majority (59 percent) of the place appearances at the fifth spot in the lineup, which has meant below overall hitting from the team in that spot. And that means of the first five spots in the lineup, the Cardinals have below league average hitters at three of them (second, third, fifth). And their overall 94 wRC+ for lineup spots 1 through 5 is 13th worst in the NL, in front of only the Padres and the Phillies.
Diaz has done his best at the plate this season batting sixth (113 wRC+ in 110 PAs). The Cardinals haven’t found anyone to stick consistently in the 7th spot, but Grichuk and Paul DeJong, who have combined 140 plate appearances, have just 28 hits between them to show for it so it hasn’t been a strength. And Kolten Wong’s improved approach at the plate has meant the 8th spot in the order for the Cardinals has been third best in the league by wRC+ behind the Dodgers and Nationals. Overall, the Cardinals are getting better production from lineup spots 6 through 8 than most of the NL.
And here’s how the Cardinals’ lineup spots 1 through 8 compares with the NL average by wRC+:
The NL (the green line) looks almost as you’d expect it to, right? A steady increase reaching its peak at the third spot before decreasing by each spot and leveling off at 7 and 8. Now look at the Cardinals line, which more closely resembles a heartbeat. Their uneven, poor production from lineup spots 1 through 5 - which has amounted to almost 60 percent of their total plate appearances to date - is one of the reasons why the team is where they are in the standings.
How much blame to attribute to Matheny here I’m not sure. Molina shouldn’t be batting fifth. When Wong returns he should be consistently batting higher (personally, I like him at 6th). And the team likely stuck with Diaz too long at a pivotal spot in the lineup. Matheny should fix that and try to consistently stick his best hitters where they’ll get the most optimal at-bats and see if that might be the shakeup this team actually needs.