The St. Louis Cardinals lineup debate has been centered around the struggles of Matt Carpenter and Dexter Fowler. Both players have spent time in the leadoff spot for the majority of their careers, because of this the casual fan has this predetermination that they have to be at the top of the lineup to be effective. That isn’t what makes sense right now in the Cardinals lineup. During the two-game series with the Chicago White Sox, Mike Matheny decided to put Tommy Pham in the leadoff spot. While the offense didn’t explode, it could be the move that ends up making the Cardinals better offensively the rest of the 2018 season.
When the St. Louis Cardinals signed Dexter Fowler in December 2016, they were wanting a player with speed who could get on base at the top of the lineup. This would allow the Cardinals to shift Matt Carpenter to a more RBI-producing role in the middle of lineup that they believed he was better suited for. The Cardinals abandoned that approach early in 2017 more out of necessity than anything else. Opening the 2018 campaign, Matheny decided that it was time to put Fowler back in that role in order to accommodate his new toy Marcell Ozuna in the number four spot in the order. It did not hurt that the top four in the lineup would now feature switch hitter, right handed hitter, left handed hitter and right-handed hitter 1-4 in the lineup. The traditionalist that Mike Matheny is assumed this would cause problems for opposing managers late in games. Matheny’s plan made sense to start the season but with the struggles of Fowler much like 2017, Matheny has been forced to make a change to his lineup once again.
Matt Carpenter was not the leadoff batter for the Cardinals last season until June 7. Once June 7 hit, so did Carpenter. His xwOBA (Expected Weighted On-base Average) was a solid .368 and his wOBA (Weighted On-Base Average) was 20 points higher at .388, indicating Carpenter’s results might have been a bit lucky. In 2018, Carpenter has seen his luck change a bit even though most advanced statistics have stayed the same and some have improved according to baseballsavant.com. It took Carpenter awhile to find his groove in 2017, I look for him to turn it around as the season goes on. If he continues to barrel the ball at 17% rate he will eventually find the holes in the defense. The question is why not put Carpenter in the leadoff spot?
The answer is no, with Matt Carpenter in the two-hole Tommy Pham can feel free to take off whenever he sees an advantage. Carpenter famously likes to take pitches, at times seems to prefer to hit with a few strikes on him. Carpenter’s patience can be a virtue. The more he takes the better-read Pham can get on a pitcher which will allow him to utilize his speed. With Pham on the move, it can move the defense out of their lefty shift opening up more hitting lanes for Carpenter. The argument for Carpenter continues to be that he only hits while in the leadoff spot. His stats do prove the historically he is a better hitter in that spot. Is just that he can’t hit anywhere else or is it that he has never been given a chance to prove himself anywhere else for long enough?
The movement of Tommy Pham into the leadoff spot will allow the Cardinals to put their most productive hitter in a position to get more at bats. Pham’s .330 BA, .447 OBP both lead the club. Pham will also be able to move on the base paths more freely while hitting in the leadoff spot. Matheny has to find a way to spark the offense. Tommy Pham is the spark that can light the offensive fire. He can bring immediate energy to the team similar to the way he lead off the first game of the White Sox series. Mike has to continue to let this play out. Carpenter will adjust and Fowler will benefit from the move. Fowler will be able to let his swing loose and utilize his power from both sides of the plate. A free-swinging Fowler at this point in his career is his best option. Tommy Pham leading off makes sense for him and for the team as a whole.