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“Matt Carpenter can only hit leadoff” is a garbage narrative

It looks like Matt Carpenter might hit third this year. That seems fine.

MLB: Pittsburgh Pirates at St. Louis Cardinals Aaron Doster-USA TODAY Sports

Where Matt Carpenter should hit in the Cardinals order is a fairly hot topic among Cardinals fans, and on this blog in particular. Don’t believe me?

  • Here’s Ben Humphrey after the 2014 season on whether Carpenter should move out of the leadoff spot.
  • Here’s Joe Schwarz before last season saying Carpenter should hit second.
  • Alex Crisafulli has no idea why Carpenter has better stats at leadoff and doesn’t really care.
  • John Fleming wrote about how the Cardinals lineup ended up better with Carpenter at leadoff basically through random chance, but that Carpenter ran some pretty bad BABIPs outside of the leadoff spot that might just be bad luck.

That’s a sampling from here at VEB, but it is a somewhat controversial subject among many Cardinals fans. Yesterday, Mike Matheny indicated that Matt Carpenter would likely not be hitting leadoff this year.

Jen Langosch wrote about the possibility last month. Langosch acknowledged what the stats said about Carpenter out of the leadoff spot, which isn’t very good, but this is what Carpenter had to say.

“A lot of times -- and Mike can vouch for me because we’ve had these conversations -- but a lot of the times when I’m hitting third or hitting second and it’s not going as well as I want, I can feel myself turning the corner,” Carpenter said. “It’s like the natural flows of a season -- you go up, you go down, you have highs, you have lows. Well, I felt myself on some of these lows and felt like I was trending in the right direction, and it just so happens that that day he’s made the move and I’m back in the leadoff spot, I take off. A lot of that is circumstantial. A lot of it just happens. So I don’t buy into, ‘He doesn’t hit as well in these other positions.’ I just don’t think I’ve had enough opportunity in those spots to really truthfully be able to give a good explanation for it.”

So are all the people who say that Carpenter has to hit leadoff correct? No. They are not. When Carpenter says, “A lot of that is circumstantial. A lot of it just happens,” the Cardinals first baseman is absolutely correct. I already had some of this discussion on twitter yesterday, but it might be helpful to go through some of it again.

The argument against moving Carpenter outside of the leadoff spot is fairly simple. His splits tell the story. Last season and in his career he has been very good at hitting when in the leadoff spot, and in roughly 1,000 plate appearances outside of the leadoff spot, he’s been below average. It’s probably pretty easy to look at the sheer number of plate appearances and think it is meaningful. That number is not in fact meaningful.

We can break those plate appearances down on FanGraphs’ splits tool. Of the 1044 plate appearances Matt Carpenter has taken, 442, or 42.3% took place in 2013 or earlier. It might be harsh to say that these numbers are absolutely devoid of meaning, but we are talking about seasons that are five and six years old. They have almost no bearing on what Carpenter might do in 2018, but even if they did, his 120 wRC+ during that time hardly supports the point that Carpenter can’t hit outside of leadoff.

Matt Carpenter only got three PA outside of the leadoff spot in 2014, and he only had 55 in 2016, which means we are really talking about two large chunks in 2015 and 2017 where Carpenter was outside of the leadoff spot. In the leadoff spot in 2015, Carpenter put up a 178 wRC+ in 355 PA, which is incredible. In 2017, Carpenter put up a 143 wRC+ at leadoff, which is also really, really good. Outside of the leadoff spot, his wRC+ in those years was 95 and 91, respectively in 543 total plate appearances.

So let’s break things down a little further. In that 2015 season, Carpenter was moved out of the leadoff spot on April 28 and remained elsewhere until July 29, after which he was moved back to leadoff. About a week into the non-leadoff experiment, Carpenter was sidelined with exhaustion. Perhaps it is mere handwaving to say this is the culprit of Carpenter’s down hitting.

Also, from Statcast, Carpenter’s xwOBA during that time was .377, about 60 points higher than his actual wOBA. On the season, his xwOBA was .388, only about 10 points higher than his actual wOBA. It’s entirely possible my exhaustion theory doesn’t hold water at all. By walks, strikeouts, and the contact Carpenter made with exit velocity and launch angle, it appears that Carpenter was actually just really unlucky.

On to last year. Matt Carpenter was not the leadoff batter for the Cardinals last season until June 7. Once June 7 hit, so did Carpenter. His xwOBA was a solid .368 and his wOBA was 20 points higher at .388, indicating Carpenter’s results might have been a bit lucky. Before switching to leadoff, Carpenter’s wOBA was a not-great .327 as Carpenter and the Cardinals struggled. His xwOBA, based on his walks, strikeouts and the contact he made based on exit velocity and launch angle was .377, even higher than when he was put in the leadoff spot later in the season.

Matt Carpenter is a fine leadoff hitter. He’s also a fine hitter for any of the first four spots in the lineup. He’s actually made solid contact and shown a good eye in his time away from the leadoff spot, but he’s hit into some bad luck. Given Carpenter’s success at the leadoff spot, his attempts at other spots are rarely given a full chance to succeed, leading to a change after a couple months of bad luck. There’s no reason to believe Carpenter won’t be successful in the third spot in the lineup this year, and pretending there is some sort of frame of mind of psyche issue with batting in different spots is nonsense unsupported by a good examination of the underlying data.