St. Louis Cardinals

Why should the Cardinals bat Carpenter leadoff? History makes the compelling case.

Matt Carpenter

Matt Carpenter on getting first start of season at second base
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Matt Carpenter on getting first start of season at second base

When Matt Carpenter was the St. Louis Cardinals' leadoff man, he sure looked like he'd eventually be the perfect No. 3 hitter.

He hit for power (28 home runs in 2015) and average (.318 in '13), scored runs (126 in 2012) and drove them home (84 RBIs in '15).

Now that manager Mike Matheny has cemented Carpenter into the No. 3 hole of the Cardinals' lineup, it looks like he'd be of more help back at the top.

OK, I know what you're saying. You're looking at that robust .185 batting average through 16 games and thinking Carpenter should be batting below the pitcher. I'd suggest we wait out a more representative sample size before booking that one-way ticket to Memphis.

In the meantime, the Cardinals have struggled to score runs everywhere but Cincinnati's Great American Bandbox. They currently rank eighth in baseball in team batting average but just 21st in runs scored, and incumbent leadoff man Dexter Fowler is off to his own sluggish start.

It would be a good time for a lineup shuffle and there's a lot of history that says Carpenter is still Matheny's best bet up top.

Carpenter's career statistical splits make the compelling case. His production in the leadoff spot versus everywhere else in the lineup is, in fact, glaring.

Based on his 935 career at-bats in the second through ninth positions, this is what he would average over the 162-game season: a .238 average, .341 on-base percentage, 27 doubles, four triples, 14 home runs and 73 runs scored.

Now here are the same averages based on his 2,191 at-bats at leadoff: a .291 average, .391 on-base percentage, 48 doubles, five triples, 21 home runs and 116 runs scored.

Given all that's been written on the subject over the years, it probably doesn't shock you to see Carpenter hits 54 points higher from the top of the order. But look at his power numbers: His slugging percentage in the leadoff spot is .487 and just .391 everywhere else in the lineup.

Even his calling-card ability to reach base is notably better when he's at the top: His on-base percentage is .391 leading off and .341 elsewhere.

Last season, even when his average slumped to .241, Carpenter still had an on-base percentage of .384 thanks to a career high 109 walks. Of course we'd like to see him bat a few points higher, and his career splits in the leadoff spot suggest he would.

Even it he didn't, he's still probably the Cardinals' best option just because of the rate at which he gets on base.

Pretend your the manager for a second: Does it really matter if your leadoff batter reaches base on a walk or a single? Now what about your No. 3 hitter? Do you want him hunting and pecking for walks or moving base runners with liners to the gap?

Carpenter himself bristles at the ongoing narrative that says he can't hit anywhere but leadoff.

"I don't buy into, 'He doesn’t hit as well in these other positions,'" he says. "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.”

What explanation is needed? The numbers tell the story and the Cardinals have a need.

Fowler could be moved down to No. 2 while Tommy Pham bats third. Or Jose Martinez can move from fifth to third and Fowler could slide to the No. 7 or 8 spot until he catches on.

The Cardinals have several available options for filling that No. 3 spot in the lineup.

But there is only one obvious solution at leadoff.

Todd Eschman is the sports editor of the Belleville News-Democrat. He can be reached at 618-239-2540 or teschman@bnd.com.
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