By Kevin Reynolds (@deckacards)
When the Cardinals signed Dexter Fowler to an $82.5 million dollar contract to serve as their new leadoff hitter, the last thing they expected him to lead the club in was strikeouts. But that’s exactly where he is, tied for the team lead with Randal Grichuk with 16 strikeouts on the season. That’s six more than the runner up, Matt Adams (10).
That’s just bad baseball, and Matheny can’t ignore it much longer.
Removing Fowler from the leadoff spot isn’t much of an option. His career .365 OBP – .393 in 2016 – suggests this is a momentary lapse, a temporary valley he’ll walk his way out of soon enough. And the only options the Cardinals have to replace him – Matt Carpenter, Aledmys Diaz, and Stephen Piscotty – are needed elsewhere. It doesn’t do much good to get a man on if no one is there to drive him in.
But that doesn’t mean a couple hitters can’t be moved to make things just a bit more comfortable for Fowler.
In Diaz’s case, he leads the Cardinals in hits with 12 and extra-base hits with six (three home runs and three doubles). But those gappers and dingers have produced just five RBIs, barely good enough for fourth-best on the roster (Carpenter and Jedd Gyorko each have four). And with three of those five runs driven in coming off home runs, that means the man that leads the Cardinals in hits and slugging percentage (.490) has only driven in two base runners other than himself. And that means men aren’t getting on base in front of him.
That leads back to Fowler and the conundrum slowly developing in the leadoff spot. Fortunately for St. Louis, the Cardinals’ former leadoff hitter may be able to take some of the pressure off the man signed to take his place.
Dropping to third in the lineup did not make Matt Carpenter forget how to get on base. In 47 plate appearances, Carpenter leads the team with nine walks and a .362 OBP, despite a .222 batting average to start the year. Only Piscotty has walked even half as much (5), and no Cardinals hitter has seen more total pitches than the first baseman’s 210 in 2017.
But with Piscotty’s ongoing battle to regain his RBI-swing and St. Louis’ perpetual swamp of seventh-place hitters hitting fifth, the men who get on base most frequently for the Redbirds – Carpenter and Piscotty (.393 OBP) – have scored just 10 combined runs, three of which were the result of their own home runs.
To put it simply, the men doing the walking for the Cardinals are left standing when RBI opportunities pop up.
I’ve written before that Carpenter is not a fit for the three hole because he becomes obsessed with driving in runs and extra-base hits and gets away from his picky, selective ways. That was true when the season started, but since getting an off day (mostly) April 11th, Carpenter walked more in his last 17 plate appearances (5) than he did in his previous 28 PAs (4). As a result, his on-base percentage rose from .310 to .362 in five games.
That OBP may not be the ideal statistic for a three-hole hitter, but it looks awfully good in the two-spot. Moving Carpenter to second in the order allows Fowler to find his way at leadoff while taking advantage of Carpenter’s most prolific skill – getting on base for run producers.
And no one produces more runs for the Cardinals than Aledmys Diaz and Stephen Piscotty, the two hitters easily stacked three and four behind a perpetually walking Matt Carpenter.
In 2016, Stephen Piscotty accounted for approximately 20% of St. Louis’ 779 runs (that’s RBIs + Runs Scored – Home Runs). Using the same formula, Rookie of the Year candidate Diaz accounted for 15% of those runs. Only Carpenter did better with roughly 16% of the Cardinals’ offensive run production.
This season, Diaz has produced nearly 22% of the Cardinals 42 runs scored hitting from the two spot behind Fowler. Imagine what he could do hitting third behind Carpenter and just ahead of RBI-maven Piscotty.
With Diaz, Carpenter, and Piscotty accounting for a combined 67% of the Cardinals total run production, there’s likely not an ineffective way to stack those three hitters in the Cardinals batting order. But with Fowler struggling at number one, it only makes sense to slot the team’s next best leadoff option behind him at number two. That’s Carpenter, and that means the team’s two best extra-base hit threats in Diaz and Piscotty get two chances to drive him in.
It may be a small move, but until the team’s pitching staff settles in and settles down, St. Louis needs to maximize their lineup and score as many runs as possible. And that means switching it up a bit and swapping Aledmys Diaz and Matt Carpenter in the order.
Kevin Reynolds has covered the Cardinals for About.com, Yahoo! Sports, and various other entities. He’s been writing and podcasting about the Cardinals since 2004 at Stl Cards ‘N Stuff. Follow him and chat baseball on Twitter (@deckacards), and check him out on Facebook.