It Ain’t Broke … Or Is It?

DSCN0509 - CopyEven before John Mozeliak pulled off a four-player deal that brought the Braves’ leadoff hitter and superstar right fielder Jason Heyward to the Cardinals for 2015, there were rumblings that Mike Matheny was considering moving Matt Carpenter down a spot or two in the lineup. Such a move would be an attempt to jump start an offense that ranked 23rd in runs scored in Major League Baseball last season without having to change much at all. While not an entirely new concept (at least not for many who proposed this very idea throughout the 2014 season), many maintain that, as the saying goes, “If it ain’t broke…”

You know the rest.

And they have a point, to some degree. Matt Carpenter ranks among the best in baseball in the leadoff role, with a .375 On Base Percentage, thanks in part to drawing 95 walks on the year — 45 of those coming when leading off an inning. In 2013, after taking over the leadoff role somewhat by necessity, he put together an MVP-worthy season, making Mathey look like a genius in the process for putting him in a place to succeed.

Matt Carpenter, leadoff man, ain’t broken.

But, the rest of the offense is.

Again, the Cardinals ranked 23rd in runs scored and in slugging percentage, 27th in extra base hits, and 29th in home runs in 2014. Meanwhile, they hit into 140 ground ball double plays, behind only the Texas Rangers (148) and the Miami Marlins (143). Heavy hitters Matt Holliday and Yadier Molina had down years. Matt Adams had persistent problems facing lefties. Kolten Wong had high highs and low lows. Jhonny Peralta started slow, but made up ground toward the end of the year. And we all know what happened with Allen Craig.

So while Carpenter’s OBP (and, thus, his leadoff value) may not be broken, if there’s a way to get better production out of the pieces the Cardinals already have, why not give it a try?

The argument has been made that if the two spot should be reserved for the best hitter on the team, Carpenter isn’t that guy. His run production dropped from 2013 to 2014; everything from his K% and BABIP to SLG and OBP went down from that magical 2013 season to last year. But he still ranked 4th on the team in doubles and runs batted in … from the leadoff spot.

His exceptional awareness of the strikezone certainly makes him a seemingly natural fit at the top of the order, but it’s valuable to remember that he didn’t start out as an obvious leadoff guy.

In 2012, he earned most of his ABs (40%) batting second, where he posted a .385 OBP, with 12 walks and 19 RBI. That year, he had just one at bat from the leadoff position.

In 2013, Matheny took advantage of Carpenter’s good eye, but no one predicted that he’d put up All-Star numbers like a .398 OBP with 47 doubles, 9 home runs, 65 walks and 69 RBI as the table setter. But, he did. And in doing so, he took such a firm hold of the all-important spot in the order, that taking it away now sounds ludicrous.

Except for when it doesn’t.

Carpenter became the leadoff guy out of necessity. But, there’s part of me that believes the Cardinals are only utilizing a portion of his potential by having him play one, such narrowly defined role.

Just get on base.

Right? That’s the leadoff guy’s job. Get on base and let the guys behind you drive the runs in. But, what about Carpenter’s proficiency for hitting doubles? What about the home run pop we saw in the postseason? What if he took advantage of a few more close pitches and knocked in a few more first-inning runs? Just think of all the times Carpenter himself was left stranded in scoring position in what could have been a big first inning. What if, instead of simply getting it started, he did a little bit of finishing this time around?

It was hard to imagine such scenarios without a suitable, top of the order replacement. At times, Kolten Wong showed promise. Jon Jay had a moment or two where he looked like the guy who could swap spots with Matt “Doubles Machine” Carpenter. But, no one on the 2014 roster could do what Carpenter does — get on base.

For John Mozeliak, the offseason to-do list included finding a solution to the right field dilemma, and a way to create more offense.

Enter, Jason Heyward.

“But, his power numbers are down, too! He’s never lived up to the hype created by his stellar rookie season! He doesn’t project as a middle-of-the-order guy with the numbers he’s put up lately!”

Sure. He may not be the heart of the order bat many were hoping for. But, there are other ways of energizing a lineup.

Heyward, much like Carpenter, was pushed into a leadoff role when the Braves struggled to find a better on-base guy in the 2013 season. And, again like Carpenter, Heyward succeeded.

The similarities between the two don’t stop there. Take a look at a few situational statistics from 2014:

Carpenter vs Heyward

Heyward’s .351 OBP in 2014 was just shy of Carpenter’s .375 mark. While Carpenter averaged 4.1 pitches per at bat, Heyward sneaked in just below that at 3.91. Heyward’s K% was 15.1%, compared to Carpenter’s 15.7%.

Perhaps Heyward doesn’t fit the stereotypical leadoff guy mold. But, he does a lot of things well, and has found some level of success being the on-base guy. That’s certainly not the only place he’s been successful in a lineup, and there’s no guarantee that he’ll set the same kind of tone that Carpenter has for the last two years, if given that chance. But, he’s a guy that has been there, done that as a leadoff man tasked with sparking a sagging offense.

Moving Carpenter out of the leadoff spot was never a viable option … until now. If Heyward can continue to put up numbers similar to those of Carpenter last year (oh, and add another baserunning threat, as he swiped 20 bags last year), why not allow Carpenter to explore the rest of his skill set? We know he can hit. We know he can drive in runs. Maybe, just maybe, he can provide a little pop, a little power, and a little more production.

Sure, I’m imagining a perfect scenario — one where Heyward continues to get on base regularly, and Carpenter swings the bat like he did late last year. I can see the first inning runs piling up, with Heyward setting the table for a classic Carpenter double, then letting Holliday hit with a runner at second base and nobody out.

In a perfect world, it’s a beauty of a plan. And sure, batting order only makes a small difference a portion of the time. But, Carpenter adapted to role change and became a spark plug before. Why not give him the chance to do it again? What if there’s more value #13 can bring to the table beyond just setting it?

And hey, nobody says it has to stay that way, if it doesn’t work. To me, it’s worth a shot.

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