Where it stops, nobody knows.
I’m not typically one to harp on lineup construction. An individual complaint here or there, sure. Twitter tends to take care of the rest, anyway. But with the recent return of Matt Carpenter to the leadoff spot, combined with the never-ending merry-go-round of placement for guys like Jason Heyward, Kolten Wong, and Randal Grichuk, I can’t help but wonder how establishing some kind of “normal” might impact the consistency of other hitters, as well.
Wong is capable of being one of the most electrifying Cardinals on the 2015 roster. He’s proven his “pop,” and shown off his range. But for a kid with so many tools, it seems Mike Matheny and company aren’t always quite clear on how to best utilize those skills.
With tonight's lineup, Kolten Wong over the last 7 games will have batted 1st, 3rd, 7th and 8th.
— Brian Hoffman (@b_hoffman11) August 5, 2015
He spent 51 games in the top spot, where he hit .249 with a .710 OPS. Thirteen of his 20 doubles, and six of 11 home runs on the year came while hitting leadoff. But, so did 39 of 67 strikeouts.
With 15 starts at the opposite end of the order, Kolten has hit .364 while slugging .473 with three doubles, a home run, and eight RBI out of the 8th spot.
And, in two of the last four games, he’s started in the spot formerly occupied by proven middle-of-the-order bats like Matt Holliday and Jhonny Peralta.
So, is Kolten Wong a table setter? A power hitter? An RBI man? A keep-the-line-moving guy?
What about a guy like Jason Heyward?
One of the major benefits to John Mozeliak bringing Heyward to St. Louis was the flexibility he provided in the lineup. His slow start at the plate contributed to some questions about how viable he might be at the heart of the order, but he’s silenced the doubter with his strong second half numbers.
He has started at least one game in eight of nine spots in the order (Matheny should go ahead and hit the pitcher 8th and Heyward 9th, just to complete the sweep!). Peralta filled the #3 spot while Holliday was out the first time, but this time around it’s been a shared mission by both Wong and Heyward.
So, has Heyward made himself a better 2-4 hitter, as opposed to the 5-7 role he’s played most of the year? And how does that, coupled with Carpenter’s return to the top of the order, impact Wong’s positioning?
Arguably the most valuable and surprising addition for the 2015 Cardinals, Randal Grichuk has found himself floating through the order, too. For 50 of his 62 starts this season, he’s hit between 5th-8th. And yet, since the All-Star break, he’s second only to Heyward in hits and on-base percentage, while leading team frame with 12 RBI and five home runs (tied with Carpenter) to go along with a 1.109 OPS.
Where does Grichuk and his undeniable power fit into a lineup that has more “all or nothing” hitters than Matheny knows what to do with? Does that power compensate for his propensity to strike out? And where is it most effectively utilized in conjunction with what Wong and Heyward have to offer?
Certainly the injuries to Holliday, Matt Adams, even Jon Jay have played their part in the musical lineups Matheny has sent out to play. But, there’s something to be said for stability, right?
Back to Matt Carpenter – much was made about the responsibility he’d allowed himself to shoulder in the absence of the team’s heavy hitters. While trying to maintain his on-base skills, he also attempted to channel the post-season version of himself, increase his power numbers, drive runs in, score runs himself, and generally become the kind of hitter both the team and the fanbase believed he ought to — and needed to — be, all while knowing his greatest success had come as one of the best leadoff hitters in the game. A .190 batting average in the month of June, and just a .224 average in July would indicate all that trying backfired.
Put him back in a defined, simplified, and consistent role, and what happened?
Matt Carpenter, reborn.
The Cardinals have been the best team in baseball — based on record alone — almost all year. But, don’t let that fool you into thinking they’ve been the most consistent. In fact, that consistency is the very thing that’s eluded them in their quest to hold off the Pittsburgh Pirates in the NL Central. Carpenter’s consistency returned when his role became more defined, his skill set being put to its most productive use.
Could the same be true for Wong? Would giving him a more defined role simplify his approach and increase his consistency, too? Might solidifying his role do the same for Heyward and Grichuk?
Matheny has shown himself willing to try new (yet, often questionable) things with the batting order. However, with 56 games to go, he’s had more than enough time to settle on who this team can be, and how best to get them there. It’s high time to decide how to utilize Wong’s stills, and then let him find the kind of comfort that Carpenter has.
A comfortable Kolten is a dangerous Kolten. And that is precisely the guy the Cardinals need him to be down the stretch.
Follow Tara on Twitter: @TaraWellman