Should Lars Nootbaar bat leadoff for the Cardinals in 2023?

Yes. And he will. But that doesn’t mean Noot will be a constant presence at the top of the lineup. I’d be surprised if manager Oli Marmol fastened one player into the leadoff role and kept him there.

Marmol is a matchup-oriented manager, and the Cardinals have several options for the No. 1 spot: Nootbaar, Brendan Donovan, Tommy Edman and Dylan Carlson.

Let’s walk through this. I’ll be using onbase percentage and park-and-league adjusted runs created (wRC+) as the primary measures. All you need to remember is that a 100 wRC+ is average. You want to be well above that. You don’t want to be under 100.

TOMMY EDMAN: With 1,152 career plate appearances in the No. 1 spot, Edman has the most leadoff-hitter experience among the Cardinals. But as much as we respect Edman, we can’t gloss over his mediocre career .315 OBP as a leadoff man. And he’s been below-average in the role with a 92 wRC+. When facing right-handed pitching as a No. 1 hitter, Edman’s wRC+ sinks to 87. One plus for Edman: his excellent stolen-base capability. But that can be utilized at virtually any spot.

Here’s another against using Edman extensively at leadoff: during his career he’s been significantly better when hitting elsewhere in the lineup, putting up a .334 OBP, .469 slug, and a .802 OPS. When not batting first, Edman is 18 percent above average offensively per wRC+. In 2022, Edman was 45 percent above average offensively when batting ninth. When Marmol went with the double-leadoff strategy – Edman batting ninth, and the actual leadoff hitter on deck – the plan was a success.

DYLAN CARLSON: The switch-hitting Carlson has a career batting average of .317 and a .377 onbase percentage when going against left-handed pitching. And his slugging percentage vs. LHP is a hefty .492. That makes Carlson a candidate to bat first when the Cardinals face a lefty starting pitcher. However: Carlson has never taken to the leadoff role. In 139 career plate appearances at the top of the lineup Carlson he’s 42 percent below average (wRC+) for his career – and surprisingly 21% below average when digging in against LHP. This doesn’t exclude Carlson from batting first vs. lefties. Much of this depends on Carlson’s offensive showing early in the season. Marmol will have an open mind.

BRENDAN DONOVAN: As a rookie last year, Donovan sculpted a .394 onbase percentage that ranked seventh in the majors among hitters with at least 460 plate appearances. That OBP is golden and makes Donovan an obvious factor as a leadoff candidate. In 113 plate appearances at leadoff in 2023, Donovan had a fine .363 OBP fueled by a 14.2% walk rate. But he supplied little power at the top spot, and posted a 100 wRC+ – exactly average – as a No. 1 hitter.

Donovan has turned up the power this spring, and that’s an interesting development in a couple of ways. If Donovan hits for more power in 2023 – and Marmol wants more punch in the leadoff role – then it could influence the manager’s outlook. Then again, if Donovan’s enhanced power carries over to the regular season, Marmol could be compelled to use him anywhere in the lineup to give him more opportunities to drive in runs. But whether Donovan hits for power or not, OBP skill is his top attribute.

Donovan had an intriguing profile last season. As a left-handed batter, you’d think that he’d excel against RH pitching. And no doubt, he fared well against righties last season, posting a .389 OBP with a 129 wRC+. This is a mini–sized sample, but against lefties last season Donovan had an 18% walk rate with a .421 OBP against. There was really no difference in his quality in taking on lefties and righties; he had a 129 wRC+ against both. One drawback with Donovan, especially as a leadoff man: according to Bill James Online, Donovan had a net base running gain of minus 3 last season. Speed is not his game.

LARS NOOTBAAR: Last season Noot wasn’t deployed as a leadoff man until Aug. 11. From that point, in 87 plate appearances batting first. Nootbaar was 38 percent above league average offensively with his 138 wRC+. He took to the role and combined power (..486 slug) and onbase skill (.345 OBP.) As a leadoff hitter Nootbaar finessed his way to a 16 percent walk rate and had more walks than strikeouts. Here’s a great stat: when Nootbaar batted first last season, 10 of his 15 hits went for extra bases (five doubles, five homers.)

When Marmol filled out his lineup card for the wild-card playoff series against Philadelphia, Nootbaar was his choice as the leadoff man in both games. Nootbaar responded by getting on base in four of his eight plate appearances, with two hits and two walks. When so many other Cardinals got small under pressure in that series, Nootbaar was fearless in his two assignments against Philly co-aces Zack Wheeler and Aaron Nola. Yes, it was only two games, but Nootbaar impressed.

In 91 career plate appearances as a leadoff man, Nootbaar has a .341 OBP and .474 slug – and 10 of his 16 hits have gone for extra bases. For what it’s worth, Nootbaar was Japan’s choice for a leadoff hitter in the World Baseball Classic, and so far he’s 6 for 14 with four walks for a .429 average, .579 onbase percentage, and 1.008 OPS. Team Japan needs no inspiration, but Nootbaar’s teammates are charged up by his work as a set-up man.

Nootbaar bats from the left side. Can he be effective against left-handed pitching? Or are we looking at a platoon arrangement, with another Cardinal taking Nootbaar’s place against lefties?

Not so fast. I don’t know if this will hold up over time, but so far in the majors he’s been more effective against left-handed pitchers. Here are the overall career numbers, no matter where Nootbaar hits in the lineup:

Nootbaar vs. RHP: 323 OBP, .732 slug and a 113 wRC+.

Nootbaar vs. LHP: .379 OBP, .481 slug, and a 137 wRC+.

A note of caution: Nootbaar has had only 95 plate appearances against lefties compared to 376 PA vs. righthanders. There’s a legitimate question over Nootbaar’s ability to sustain his superb numbers against lefties over an extensive period of time.

Nootbaar can handle the leadoff role, and I love the combination of plate discipline, a huge walk rate, OBP scope and dangerous power in the No. 1 spot. Nootbaar takes so many pitches and wears pitchers down, and that can benefit the dudes who hit behind him.

Really, it comes down to sustainability. From July 5 through the end of the 2022 regular season, Nootbaar was 51 percent above league average offensively per wRC+. His damage over that time included a .376 OBP, .514 slug, .890 OPS, 14 doubles, three triples and 12 home runs.

That imposing set of statistics put Nootbaar in exclusive company. Starting with July 5, among hitters with at least 260 plate appearances, Nootaar had a higher onbase percentage than Mike Trout and Carlos Correa, matched Kyle Schwarber’s slugging percentage, out-slugged Pete Alonso, and posted a higher OPS than Manny Machado, Mookie Betts and Juan Soto. Nootbaar’s Isolated Power number (.257) bested Shohei Ohtani, Austin Riley, Julio Rodriguez, Paul Goldschmidt and Nolan Arenado.

I’d like to see Nootbaar used as a leadoff hitter. Instant offense. Instant excitement. Patience and power. Truth is, the Nootbaar skillset can fit into any of the top five or six lineup spots. There is no wrong answer here. But if Noot bats first, his personality, energy and edge can set the template for the STL offense. We could see a 1-2 punch of Nootbaar, followed by Donovan, at the top of the lineup. Or vice versa. But there are other ways to go. This much is certain: Marmol will have a lot of fun in setting his lineup every day.

Thanks for reading …


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All stats used in this column were sourced from FanGraphs, Baseball Reference and Bill James Online.


Bernie Miklasz
Bernie Miklasz

For the last 35 years Bernie Miklasz has entertained, enlightened, and connected with generations of St. Louis sports fans.

While best known for his voice as the lead sports columnist at the Post-Dispatch for 26 years, Bernie has also written for The Athletic, Dallas Morning News and Baltimore News American. Bernie has hosted radio shows in St. Louis, Dallas, Baltimore and Washington D.C.

Bernie, his wife Kirsten and their cats reside in the Skinker-DeBaliviere neighborhood of St. Louis.