Greetings. The Cardinals didn’t play ball on Monday so I’ll dig into an issue that fans are talking about.

First Up: Who Should Bat Leadoff?

There’s no obvious answer, and so I won’t pretend that this is an easy call. Among other things, two of the candidates have small sample sizes as leadoff men. I’m referring to Lars Nootbaar and Brendan Donovan.

But as of now – subject to change pending new developments – I’d go with switch-hitter Tommy Edman in the top spot but play to his strength and stay away from his weakness by primarily using him at first in the lineup against left-handed pitchers.

For his career Edman has a .297 average, .330 onbase percentage and .434 slugging percentage against lefties when slotted at leadoff. The corresponding stats aren’t as hot since the start of last season, but he’s still slightly above average as a leadoff man vs. LHP, and options are limited.

It makes sense to bat the left-handed swinging Nootbaar at No. 1 when opponents start a right–handed pitcher. For the season Nootbaar has a .338 OBP vs. RHP in 139 plate appearances, but that OBP vs. righties is .372 since June 1, and .451 since July 1. Again, this is small-sample stuff and much of it is unsustainable. But Nootbaar has been mostly outstanding after finally getting a chance to play regularly, and he should bat leadoff against RH until pitchers show they’ve found a way to cool him down and keep him down.

Can Nootbaar do the job against left-handed pitchers? Let’s not get carried away here. In limited opportunities to face lefties, Nootbaar has a .265 OBP against them in 34 plate appearances this season including a .280 OBP vs. LH since July 1.

A platoon with Edman and Nootbaar is the best bet for now but I’m intrigued by another option: a platoon featuring Dylan Carlson and Nootbaar – using Carlson against left-handed throwers.

Carlson has strong career numbers vs. lefties, batting .321 with a .379 OBP and .514 slugging percentage in 244 plate appearances. His OPS against them is .892, with a wRC+ that’s 46 percent above league average offensively. The problem? His obvious skill vs. lefties hasn’t carried over to the leadoff spot; in 60 career plate appearances vs. the lefts as the No. 1 hitter Carlson has a .232 average and .283 OBP, with OK power. He’s capable of doing better than that but his inconsistency is baffling and frustrating.

With the Cardinals in a tight race for the NL Central title, can manager Oli Marmol remain patient and continue to use Carlson as a leadoff man without getting results – hoping that the young outfielder will get comfortable and confident in the No. 1 spot? This season Carlson is batting only .157 with a .231 OBP and .259 slug in 121 plate appearances at leadoff. Needless to say, this is detrimental to the health of the offense.

Another downside to this idea: how can Carlson develop as a leadoff man if he’s only facing left handers? At some point, Carlson has to improve his performance against RHP, and I’m surprised that he’s still failing against them this season, batting .212 with a .286 OBP and .639 OPS.

On the other hand … Marmol is playing the long game here; if Carlson figures this out and grows confidence and becomes smarter through experience at handling the leadoff assignment, the payoff could be huge.

Here’s another set of quick thoughts on Carlson: He’s been effective at other lineup spots during his career, posting above-average metrics as a No. 2 hitter, a No. 5 hitter, a No. 6 hitter, and a No. 7 hitter. His best spot has been in the six hole, with Carlson batting .315 with a .893 OPS there. Point is, he can provide at least solid (if not better) offense at several spots on the lineup card. So why not go with it?

Next question: Is rookie Brendan Donovan a candidate? I guess so, but playing time is a factor. How often will he start? With Edman moving back to second base to make room for Paul DeJong at shortstop – and with Nootbaar earning increased playing time in right field – Donovan’s workload is down … at least for the time being.

Donovan, who bats left, has had only seven plate appearances as a leadoff hitter this season; he’s 1 for 7 with no walks and two strikeouts. That isn’t enough to go on, his onbase skill is well developed. And that’s true against RH pitchers and LH pitchers. In 55 plate appearances vs. lefties Donovan has a ridiculous .455 OBP. Against RH pitchers, his OBP is a very fine .384. His onbase rate has been dropping, but it’s still .363, which is well above the MLB rate of .312 this season.

Donovan will still play – but probably less than he did earlier in the season. But Donovan’s positional versatility is an obvious plus, and he’s a valuable tool for this team for multiple reasons.

I’ve seen fans suggest that Donovan take over for Tyler O’Neill in left field, and maybe that becomes a consideration later on this season. But I can’t see the Cardinals doing it. Unless O’Neill suffers another injury, the Cards won’t give up on the idea that his power explosion is coming. Accordingly, they’ll stick with O’Neill and hope he gets going.

Marmol may be onto something by using O’Neill as a No. 2 hitter. This is a sliver-sized sample, but I’ll offer it anyway: in 29 plate appearances batting second this season O’Neill is hitting .280 with a .379 onbase percentage and .560 slug for a .939 OPS. Those kind of numbers would be a fantastic fit in the second spot. But will Marmol ride with the Bro at No. 2? Or just use him there against lefty pitchers?

The Cardinals have a team .293 onbase percentage at the leadoff spot; it’s one of the poorest OBPs in the majors this season. It wasn’t so hot (.313) last year, either. And the OBP was a disappointing .308 in 2019.

This makes me appreciate the peak years of Matt Carpenter even more. In 3,115 plate appearances as the Cardinals’ No. 1 batter in the lineup from 2013 through 2018, Carpenter led all MLB leadoff men – (minimum 1,500 PA – with a .389 onbase percentage, was second in OPS (.884) and third in slugging (.495.)

It was easy to take that for granted at the time, but not now. Not with the Cardinals lagging at 27th in the majors and 14th in the National League in leadoff onbase percentage (.311) since the start of the 2019 season. The leadoff man’s job is to get on base as frequently as possible, to set up RBI opportunities for the likes of Paul Goldschmidt and Nolan Arenado. That’s been a challenge – and a problem – so far in 2022.

Thanks for reading …

–Bernie

Bernie invites you to listen to his opinionated sports-talk show on 590-AM The Fan, KFNS. It airs Monday through Thursday from 3-6 p.m. and Friday from 4-6 p.m. You can listen by streaming online or by downloading the show podcast at 590thefan.com or the 590 app which is available in your preferred app store.

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All stats used here were sourced from FanGraphs, Baseball Reference, Stathead, Bill James Online, Fielding Bible, Baseball Savant, Brooks Baseball Net and Spotrac.

 

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.