The Cardinals need a solution to fill the leadoff spot in their lineup, and several candidates are in line. We’ll get to them in a couple of minutes. But first, let’s state the obvious: the No. 1 spot on manager Mike Shildt’s card was a serious problem over the past two seasons.
Since the start of 2019, and continuing through the shortened ‘20 schedule, the Cardinals leadoff men combined for a below-average performance.
- 24th in leadoff onbase percentage, .319
- 30th in leadoff slugging percentage, .345
- 29th in leadoff OPS, .664
- 28th in park-adjusted runs created (wRC+) at 18 percent below average.
This was a dramatic downturn from the industry-leading standard established by the peak-phase eminence of Matt Carpenter in the No. 1 spot from 2013 through 2018.
Over the six seasons, Carpenter made just under 70 percent of the plate appearances at leadoff. Along the way a few others received some turns at the top — Dexter Fowler, Kolten Wong, Tommy Pham, Jon Jay — but no one set up the St. Louis offense like Carpenter.
From 2013-2018, here’s how the Cardinals rated in leadoff-hitter success among the 30 MLB teams:
- 1st in onbase pct., .364
- 3rd in slugging, .452
- 3rd in OPS, .816
- 1st in park-adjusted runs created (wRC+) at 24 percent above the league average
- 2nd in runs scored, 2nd in doubles, third in homers, 4th in runs batted in.
The Cardinals have wheezed offensively over the last two years, and the defective work at leadoff is a significant factor. How can you effectively ignite the lineup with so many many dead-zone numbers at the No. 1 spot?
In fairness to Wong, he did a decent job of getting on base in 2020, with a leadoff OBP of .342. The problem: Wong’s poor slugging percentage (.324), which submerged his leadoff OPS to .666. Among 10 MLB hitters that had at least 200 plate appearances at leadoff last season, Wong’s OPS ranked 9th.
With Paul Goldschmidt in place, plus the arrival of offseason acquisition Nolan Arenado, the Cardinals have the makings of a bulwark in their No. 3 and No. 4 spots. But their RBI totals won’t sprout without a plentiful supply of runners on base.
Let’s get to the question:
Who should lead things off for the 2021 St. Louis Cardinals?
We don’t have to answer that question today. But we can take a deep-dive look at it, right?
THE TOP PROSPECT, DYLAN CARLSON
First, it’s advisable to toss out his rookie numbers. The switch-hitting Carlson had 119 plate appearances as a 21-year-old. The pattern was pretty familiar as big-leaguers go: struggles, struggles … then … we have liftoff. He was excellent late in the season and in the playoff series vs. San Diego. Carlson showcased the talent that made him the Cardinals’ No. 1 prospect and the darling of independent prospect evaluators.
Relevant is Carlson’s work in the minors and the strike-zone awareness that had the Cardinals’ baseball people and scouts from other teams fawning over his intelligence.
As a high-schooler entering the minors, Carlson was treated like a professional instead of a kid. The Cards didn’t view Carlson as a sensitive project that must be handled with caution and care. They plugged him in and let him play, and he usually competed as the youngest player (or close to it) in the league at each stop in the minors. The Cardinals were confident in Carlson’s maturity and baseball IQ and never wavered.
In rookie ball through the high-A minors, here’s a look at Carlson’s walk rate by age: at 17, an 8% walk rate … at 18, 11.5% percent … at 19, up to 12.5%.
At age 20 in 2019, Carlson spent much of the season at Double A Springfield and had a 12% walk rate. It was lower after his promotion to Triple A Memphis (8%), but that doesn’t mean much — Carlson had only 79 plate appearances there. (Besides: with a .418 OBP and .681 slug at Memphis, there’s nothing to crab about.)
Onbase skill + power is coveted in any lineup spot, including No. 1. But one thing to think about is Carlson’s selectivity. Of course that’s usually an appreciated trait, but the Cardinals believed Carlson needed to be more aggressive in swinging the bat last year. How that figures into the team’s thinking for 2021 … we’ll see.
But at age 22, Carlson should be even smarter in his plate approach this season; he was wise for his age during his fast rise through the system. He can make the pitchers work, get plenty of walks, and provide some power. He’s done that every step of the way.
If the Cardinals were confident enough in Carlson to throw him into the deep end of the pool at age 17, 18, 19 and 20 … well, there’s no reason to treat him like a goofy teen now. He could do the job at No. 1. Problem is, the Cardinals may want him batting second, or perhaps even fifth.
LIGHTNING IN A BOTTLE, TOMMY EDMAN
A switch-hitter who can run. And he can sting a baseball, having smoked 48 extra-base hits in 530 MLB at-bats.
But … Edman’s walk rate. It’s only 5.6% after 576 MLB plate appearances. His two-year batting line is good: .283 average, .337 OBP, .449 slug, .786 OPS. That computes to 10% above league average offensively in park adjusted runs created.
Another concern is Edman’s early-career splits against RH pitching: .272 average, .330 OBP, .412 slug, .742 OPS. That’s pretty good, but the positive numbers mostly were generated during his rookie season. Edman was 13% above league average in park-adjusted runs created vs. RHP as a rookie, and 19% below average against them last season.
Like Harrison Bader, Edman pounds LH pitching (career .929 OPS) but won’t see lefties very often.
Edman’s work as a MLB leadoff hitter consists of only 187 PA. For what it’s worth, Edman has a .316 OBP and .358 slug (.674 OPS) when batting leadoff … and in the top spot he’s 17% below league average in park adjusted runs created. That’s a small sample, but it’s also discouraging.
Here’s the thing about Edman: we aren’t sure what to expect. The short 2020 season was so radically different, it turned some stats upside down and left other numbers fuzzy. As a rookie in 2019 Edman had an .850 OPS; last year that tumbled to .685.
If I had to offer a conclusion, it would be this: Edman has shown enough potential to get a shot at batting leadoff, but it will be up to him to ratchet up that walk rate, and get on base at a higher rate. And if Edman can’t do that, then it’s up to manager Mike Shildt to explore alternatives. But just thinking about this a little … if Edman can handle leadoff, Shildt can go with Carlson in the No. 2 hole. And that’s an enticing arrangement with Goldschmidt and Arenado waiting to hit.
THE PLATOON POSSIBILITY, HARRISON BADER
The sane people among us value his range and plus defense. He chases down baseballs about as well as any center fielder in the game, and that’s supported by multiple metrics. And Bader is fast; watching him fly around the bases makes for enjoyable entertainment.
Yeah, but … batting leadoff?
Maybe against LH pitching.
In 292 plate appearances vs. lefties Bader has a .336 OBP and .517 slug for an .853 OPS. (Applause.) But there aren’t many LH pitchers in the NL Central or other parts of the major-league territories. Over the past five seasons hitters have faced RH pitchers in 76% of their plate appearances.
The results of Bader’s 758 plate appearances vs. RHP can make you wince: 31% strikeout rate, .223 average, .669 OPS. Against righthanders Bader is 17 percent below league average in park-adjusted runs created and has gotten worse each season. In 2018 Bader was 9% below average vs. RH; that fell to 13% below average in 2019, and 18% below average in ‘20.
On the plus side … when he calms down and stops swinging at everything, Bader has done a nice job of finessing walks. In that context I could see Bader written in at leadoff when a lefty starts against the Cardinals. These limited auditions would be harmless, and Bader would have a chance to show he can thrive in an unofficial platoon at No. 1.
FOR AULD LANG SYNE, MATT CARPENTER
For the sake of old times … but can Carpenter do it again?
I respect Carpenter and know how much he yearns to enliven his bat and reverse a late-career slide. A lot of things are working against him, including age (35.) And with Arenado at third base, Goldschmidt at first, and Tommy Edman’s superior range and arm set for second base … where does that leave M-Carp?
Unless there’s a late change and the owners and players reach an agreement, the National League won’t be using a designated hitter this season, save for interleague road games in AL ballparks.
Carpenter has two problems: limited opportunities at the plate and his late-career decline.
Carpenter was a superb leadoff man for a long time. His numbers for onbase percentage and power rated among the best, all-time, among leadoff hitters.
From 2013 through 2018, here’s what Carpenter did as a leadoff hitter: .286 average, .389 onbase percentage, .495 slug, .884 OPS. Translated into park-adjusted runs created (wRC+) Carpenter was 42 percent above the league average offensively over six seasons overall when leading off, and 51 percent above average when facing RH pitchers.
Ah, but the age thing. Carpenter faded in 2019. In 492 total plate appearances he had an OK onbase percentage (.334) but slugged only .392 and was, overall, five percent below league average offensively. And in 316 PA as the No. 1 hitter, Carpenter batted .204 with a .310 OBP. Meanwhile, his strikeout rate continues to escalate.
Though Carpenter didn’t bat leadoff, it was even worse in 2020, with a .186 average, .640 OPS and 28.4% strikeout rate. He was 16% below league average offensively.
Carpenter’s ZIPS forecast for 2021 isn’t hideous, and even offers a little bit of hope in the form of a .732 OPS. Optimistic eyes can see a reason to sense that a comeback is possible.
That’s because Carpenter can still work counts and earn a healthy amount of strolls to first base. But other than that — at least there’s something, right? — it still comes down to his performance and giving the Cardinals a reason to give him plenty of at-bats.
“He understands that he’s going to be given opportunities but those are also going to have to be earned,” president of baseball ops John Mozeliak said Thursday, via ZOOM. “I know he worked extremely hard this offseason to prepare for this season and he’s really excited to show us where he’s at from a physical standpoint. Probably one of his favorite places to stand anywhere is the batter’s box, so obviously he’s hoping to get that opportunity.”
Never forget: the front office has a soft spot for Mr. Carpenter. Manager Mike Shildt has a soft spot for him too. But that doesn’t mean they’ll have a place for Carpenter in the lineup. Unless, of course, the bosses want to move Edman to the outfield and go with Carpenter at second base. (Shildt says Carp won’t be used in the outfield.)
But if Carpenter plays a lot, it means: (1) MLB goes with the universal DH at the last minute; (2) His bat s alive and his OBP is at high tide; (3) The outfielders are failing to hit, which puts Edman in play out there; (4) Edman isn’t hitting, and it opens a platoon at second base, with Carpenter getting swings vs. RHP.
“I think we can be creative,” Mozeliak said. “There’s an old adage in baseball — if you hit, you play. I think we have to approach this camp being very open minded to that. I do not think we’re solely handcuffed by the DH for his opportunities.”
Thanks for reading.
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