It’s time for the St. Louis Cardinals to move Matt Carpenter from the 3-hole in the lineup. To be honest, it feels as though this article has been written before. And quite frankly, it has been. This issue seemed to be recurring at different times last season after manager Mike Matheny remained adamant about utilizing Carpenter’s extra-base power to drive in more runs in a middle-of-the order spot. But now might be the time to put the experiment to rest for the final time.
Let’s first reestablish how this situation even rose to prominence. All the way back in 2013, the lack of a true high on-base guy at the top of the lineup led Matheny to try Carpenter at the leadoff spot. Despite being noted as a run producer in his collegiate career at TCU and early in his minor league career, Carpenter absolutely never looked back in the 2013 season, giving his manager little reason to move him from the top spot in the order. As atypical of a leadoff hitter as he may have seemed, Carpenter subsequently batted almost exclusively out of the leadoff stop from 2013 through the 2016 campaign, during which he established himself as one the perennial league-leaders in on-base percentage due in large part to his excellent batting eye/high number of walks.
Any time Carpenter did not bat leadoff, he found himself batting second, a spot in the lineup that many would now argue should belong to the best hitter in the lineup to grant them the most at-bats and run-creating opportunities. However, in very limited action from the 2-slot, Carpenter noticeably struggled at the plate and was rather quickly reinstated to his customary spot atop the lineup. But after a sudden power surge following the All-Star break in the 2015 season carried over into the 2016 season (although an oblique injury midseason in 2016 dampened his second half), Matheny again became tempted to move Carpenter down in the order a few slots to drive in more runs.
Fast forward to the departure of Matt Holliday and the addition of Dexter Fowler in the 2016-17 offseason. Holliday, one of the more dependable bats for driving in runs during his tenure in St. Louis, was essentially a shoo-in for the 3-hole when healthy. His departure meant finding a bat to assume his spot and production. Meanwhile, the Cardinals added Dexter Fowler in the same offseason to add long-term production to their outfield. Up to that point, Fowler was almost exclusively a leadoff man in his career, including the year prior as a catalyst for the World Series Champion Chicago Cubs. It made perfect sense in theory: add Fowler as a mainstay at the top of the lineup and simply slot in Carpenter into the 3-hole where he could use his new-found power to drive in runs. But the eventual reality of the 2017 campaign quickly exposed this as a very flawed concept.
Both Fowler and Carpenter struggled in their respective spots in the order in the first half of last season. With the exception of maybe a few weeks for Carpenter in early May where he went on a torrid home run tear, the veteran was almost ice cold and saw his walk numbers go down, his strikeout totals go up, and his batting average take a huge dip in the wrong direction. On the flip side, Fowler also struggled in his first few months as a Cardinal, coming nowhere close to the .393 OBP he recorded in his last year with the Cubs. However, Matheny, stubborn as ever, continued relentlessly to bat Carpenter in the three-hole and Fowler at leadoff, all while insisting that both would come around if they trusted their abilities (which, to be fair is an understandable point for veteran players). And although Fowler eventually began to turn around his season, Carpenter continued to scuffle and have consistent unproductive at-bats with runners on in front of him. Matheny finally obliged to the fan base’s pressure to move Carpenter back to the leadoff spot, despite Carpenter’s public insistence that his approach in the 3-hole was no different and that there was no psychological reason for his struggles. He responded rather predictably by having a solid second half and once again becoming a high on-base guy at the top of the lineup. Fowler, who essentially swapped spots into the three-hole, flourished as well and put up unexpected power numbers for the first time in his career. He even responded to this new-found success as an RBI man by gaining weight this past offseason to coincide with his move to right field, in hopes that he could become more of a consistent power threat like his often-credited mentor Barry Bonds predicted he might become. But Mike Matheny had other plans.
Without a single pitch being thrown in spring training, Matheny announced that he would pencil in Fowler as the every day leadoff man and Carpenter as the every day three-hole hitter. Matheny used the excuse of Carpenter “being injured” at parts of last season, a narrative that fits Carpenter’s claim that his struggles were merely coincidentally timed with when he was in the 3-hole. And yes, Carpenter was hurt at times last year, and it’s been well documented that his shoulder issues have affected his swing. I also don’t deny the advanced batted ball data that suggest Carpenter was highly unlucky at times during his early-season struggles. But for those who used these advanced numbers to say “See, you’re wrong!” to the viewers like me who’ve clearly watched the quality of Carpenter’s at-bats slowly deteriorate in the past few seasons when batting down in the order, the simple response is to point out where Carpenter sits once again. Carpenter’s .160 average and 19 strikeouts to 14 walks once again have led to many squandered scoring opportunities. Staunch defenders will claim “small sample size” and that his abbreviated spring training are to blame, but I’d argue that the time is now to give Carpenter a different look. Everyone knows the potential that he possesses and nobody should be calling someone so versatile and reliable during his Cardinals’ career a “selfish player” for needing to bat leadoff or potentially somewhere even lower in the lineup. The time is now for Matheny to accept that the Carpenter in the 3-hole experiment needs to be buried before the team once again suffers long-term from it like they did a season ago.