ST. LOUIS -- With spring training just weeks away, much of the news surrounding the Cardinals has subsided until players report in mid-February.
Instead, fans and media members have transitioned into the time-killing exercise of speculation, with much of the discussion centering around the lineup. Kolten Wong jump-started the idea at the Winter Warm-Up, saying he would love a shot at topping the order in 2016.
Who should bat leadoff for the Cardinals? Share your thoughts.
"I would love to be leadoff. Seeing what Carp did last year, the power numbers he put up, you have me in leadoff and I'll get into scoring position. If he hits one in the gap, I'm going to score (from first). It's definitely adding different things to the lineup where we can score more runs,” the second baseman said. “I think that would be a good thing to do. If Mike has me at eight, I'm more than happy to be at eight, too. So we'll see what happens. Hopefully, number one is the spot."
Wong certainly has the speed to bat leadoff, and may now be the fastest Cardinal on the roster. But speed is a small component of what makes a leadoff man valuable. The most important element is the ability to get on base consistently, something that has made Matt Carpenter a tremendous- if unorthodox- fit.
“If there are two things I know I can do consistently, it’s get on base and see a lot of pitches. That is the backbone of who I am as a hitter,” Carpenter said in January.
Last season, he also saw his power numbers explode, leading the team with 28 homers and 44 doubles. While having a leadoff man with home run power isn’t a bad thing, Wong makes a compelling point about moving the Cardinal third baseman lower in the order. How many RBI could a guy with 290 total bases put up if he had people on ahead of him?
For a demonstration:
Carpenter’s 290 total bases were ninth in the NL last year. Of the next 10 guys with fewer total bases (beginning with Andrew McCutchen at 276 and ending with Ryan Braun at 252), six had more RBI than Carpenter. Of the four that didn’t drive in more runs, three were fellow leadoff hitters.
RBI are always a product of opportunity, but opportunities are more plentiful when a hitter isn’t preceded by the weakest part of the order. According to the numbers, Carpenter belongs lower in the order.
Two issues arise when that discussion starts. The first is what happened last season when Carpenter moved to the second spot in the order. In 69 games batting second, he hit .225 and slugged .357. His on base percentage dropped more than 40 points. Carpenter insisted the drop in performance was coincidental, saying his box score tumble was due to physical issues.
“I’ve been told that part of what happened last year was because I moved into the two-hole. That had nothing to do with it. As a matter of fact, when I first moved into the spot, I was hitting really well and I got where I was at physically and it went downhill from there,” he said. “There is no place in the lineup I’m going to feel more comfortable in [than another]. I’m suited well for the leadoff role. I’ve always said that. I think who I am as a hitter suits very well as a leadoff hitter. And for the group of guys we had last year and in the past, it was best suited for me to be there. But that being said, it’s certainly not going to change me, and I can move anywhere else.”
Assuming that’s true (and there’s no reason not to, since switching one spot in the order shouldn’t disrupt a hitter as disciplined as Carpenter), the second issue with moving him still looms large: Who takes over?
Wong may be hitting the campaign trail, but his aggression at the plate could be a complication if he wants to top the lineup.
His .321 on base percentage last season was 41st in the NL, and his 3.72 pitches per plate appearance was outside the top 40 as well. For contrast, Carpenter was 14th in on base percentage and saw the third most pitches per plate appearance.
That’s not to say Wong would have to become an imitation of his predecessor for success. The Hawaiian uses aggression at the plate, and loves to jump on the first pitch of an at bat.
"I think it's definitely something to bring an element of surprise. I can definitely be that guy,” Wong said. “If there's someone out there you know is going to pound the strike zone, I can beat him to the punch and get on the board early or get into scoring position right off the bat.”
He’s had success swinging early, batting .303 with five homers and a .924 OPS when he goes after the first pitch. But aggression has its price.
Wong walked just 36 times last season, and found himself in 0-1 counts 279 times. Carpenter saw that count 365 times but hit .271 with 15 homers and 27 walks after falling behind. Wong went for a .251 average with two home runs in the same situation.
Carpenter is a counter puncher, content to weather a volley or two if it exposes a window for attack. Wong is more of a swarmer, looking to overwhelm his opponent with aggression before they can get in rhythm
"I can't be Carp. I know that. I can't take pitches like he does and hit a home run on 0-2," Wong said. "I'm that guy that's going to be aggressive still, but in certain situations I'm going to work my way on or give an at-bat so the guys behind me know what's coming up."
The number of those latter situations will need to increase if he wants to hold the leadoff spot. In his 234 plate appearances as the one hitter last year, he posted a .303 OBP and walked only 12 times (a number that projects to 30 over 600 plate appearances). Wong is still young, and can easily adapt his approach to increase his chances of success in the spot. However, if he's going to get his shot, he'd like to get working on that right away.
"If Mike does decide to put me at leadoff, have me lead off from Day 1 of spring training. It's not about the at-bats, it's about really understanding the strike zone to where I can work walks and work deep into counts. If I can really start buying into being a leadoff batter from the beginning, I feel like that will help me and help the team come this season," he said.
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