The Cardinals slugged their way to the fourth-most runs in baseball last season by ranking second in home runs. Mike Matheny had little choice but to succumb to the allure of the long ball, employing lineups crafted to crush–but deficient defensively.
St. Louis missed the playoffs, and thus oriented its offseason toward a new direction–one designed with crisper fielding and more variety in production of runs. Speed, athleticism and base running savvy–all elements that played to John Mozeliak’s vision for his reimagined club.
New centerfielder Dexter Fowler embodied everything Mozeliak wanted. Still, he was the only noteworthy position player added to a roster prescribed to be transformed by the fresh ideals Fowler represented–a heavy burden for one man to carry.
Though Fowler wouldn’t be solely responsible for the galvanizing the culture within the Cardinals clubhouse, he would serve as a catalyst in the lineup.
Getting on base is one of Fowler’s best skills. Inserting that ability atop the batting order–and freeing former leadoff mainstay Matt Carpenter to embrace a spot in the lineup geared more toward driving runs in–was a bullet point in the dissertation on an improved Cardinals club for 2017.
In the first inning of the first spring training game of the year, Fowler and Carpenter showed that the idea doesn’t only work on paper.
Reaching base and coming around to score in his first plate appearance as a Cardinal, Fowler wasted little time in showing his value–even if it didn’t play out how he had intended.
“Not how I drew it up,” Fowler said, his two runs scored in an 8-7 loss to the Marlins resulting from a pair of walks. “You know it’s funny, I was going up to bat and the umpire looks at me and goes, like, swing the bat. Alright, I got you. And I didn’t swing. I got two swings today.”
As he had done 79 times with the Cubs in 2016, Fowler reached via base on balls. Anxious to further display the contents of his toolbox, Fowler stole second with Greg Garcia at the plate. His modest total of 13 steals last season would have paced the Cardinals with ease (Kolten Wong and Stephen Piscotty tied for a team-high seven steals in 2016).
Fowler didn’t stop there. With the concept of taking the extra base carrying such a complicated connotation for the Cardinals last season, Fowler elected to put on an early clinic in the practice. On Greg Garcia’s deep fly ball to center, Fowler tagged from second to third. He then rewarded Carpenter with his first run batted in of the Grapefruit League by tagging and scoring on a soft line drive to shallow center.
It may not have been how Fowler drew it up, but it had fans buzzing at the keen execution of the ‘Whitey ball’ blueprint. And it wasn’t just social media taking notice.
“You look at the at-bats that he put together and stealing the base,” Carpenter said of Fowler. “Just the threat alone that he puts on the bases and the ability to create runs in that fashion, it’s got a chance to be really special. I think you saw a small glimpse of that today, and hopefully that will continue and carry over as we progress through spring and all the way into the season.”
Fowler’s second run came on a Matt Carpenter home run the next time through the lineup. Carpenter, who swatted 21 home runs last year, will now be positioned as the primary run producer in the Cardinals’ order. In the past, Carpenter was adamant about being the leadoff man, but always maintained a willingness to move elsewhere if the Cardinals found someone else who could fulfill the role for the betterment of the team.
In Fowler, Carpenter sees a player who fits that description.
“This is the first time that I’ve been able to see a guy who, I feel like, is really close to me, in terms of the way we go about our at-bats,” Carpenter said. “It’s going to be a huge advantage to see how they approach him, what he’s taking, how they’re trying to get him out. That just gives me that much more info before I go up there.”
With a likely configuration of Fowler (.393 OBP last season), Diaz (.369), Carpenter (.380), Piscotty (.343), the Cardinals have a foursome capable of pestering opposing pitchers plenty before the first inning is through. Imagine a scenario where the NL’s second-ranked player in pitches per plate appearance for 2016 (Fowler, at 4.40 PPA) grinds out a lengthy at-bat just two spots ahead of the guy who ranked eighth (Carpenter, at 4.22 PPA) doing the same.
It would be feasible to routinely force an opposing starter to throw 12-15 pitches to escape the first inning–assuming nobody reaches base in the frame. Even that would be an unlikely result considering the elite on-base abilities of the top three batters. Based on their 2016 numbers, the combination of Fowler, Diaz and Carpenter would–on average–produce at least one base runner in a given inning. That advantage presents numerous potential benefits to the Cardinals offense each time the lineup turns over.
Talking about what the addition of Dexter Fowler at leadoff would do for the Cardinals all winter was nice; catching a glimpse of that gameplan in action was even better.
Copyright 2017 KMOV (Meredith Corporation). All rights reserved.