With apologies to Brett Cecil, the most impactful acquisition the St. Louis Cardinals have made this offseason has been signing Dexter Fowler. It’s one of the few things, as a country, we can all agree on, yes?
After a standout 2016 in which he vastly improved his defense, walked more than ever, as was just generally better than he had been at any previous point in his career, there’s little controversy in saying that Fowler will be an excellent fit in St. Louis, even if his contract could get a little onerous once he reaches his mid-30’s. That’s a few years away, though — short-term, you could hardly ask for a better fit in center field.
Besides patrolling the middle of the outfield on defense, Fowler also figures to slot in nicely at the top of the Cardinals’ lineup. We saw what he did last year leading off for the Cubs, finishing the season with a .393 OBP and 129 wRC+. He was the ideal table setter for the heart of Chicago’s order.
However, unlike their center field situation, the Cardinals did not have a weakness in the leadoff spot prior to signing Fowler. In fact, there’s any easy argument to be made that St. Louis was the only National League team who received more production out of the leadoff spot than Fowler and the Cubs.
10 most productive leadoff spots
Of course, saying Cardinal leadoff hitters were awesome is the same as saying Matt Carpenter is awesome. He hit leadoff in almost three-quarters of St. Louis’ games, after all. But even with that knowledge, it appears to be the Cardinals’ plan to insert Fowler at the top of the lineup and move Carpenter down to second.
That last sentence might sound a bit skeptical, but I promise you it’s not. Having Fowler hitting ahead of Carpenter in those first two spots is the best decision Mike Matheny could make. It’s what is going to give St. Louis the best 1-2 punch in the National League, and perhaps in all of baseball.
Let’s talk about why that is. First, since we presume that Fowler will be replacing Carpenter at the top of the lineup, let’s take a look at what the Cardinals got from their number two hitters in 2016, and compare it to Carpenter’s production over the past three seasons:
Matt Carpenter vs. 2016 no. 2 hitters for STL
|STL no.2 hitters||2016||743||7.4%||18.2%||0.272||0.336||0.478||116|
A quick look at those numbers will tell you that the average Cardinals’ number two hitter was quite good last year. By wRC+, they were ninth-best in the league. You may suspect that Carpenter himself batted second fairly often last year, but he actually only hit there once, going 0-for-3. Most of that damage came from Aledmys Diaz and Stephen Piscotty. Those guys are fine hitters, but they aren’t Carpenter.
The general sabermetric rule of thumb is you want the players on your team with the highest OBP at the top of the lineup to get on base and score runs. Furthermore, you generally want your second hitter to be your best hitter in order to maximize both his total plate appearances and his opportunity to drive in runs. Hitting Fowler and Carpenter 1-2 accomplishes all of that for the Cardinals.
If you combine their 2016 plate appearances, Fowler and Carpenter had a .386 OBP, a number that would have been far and away the best mark for any 1-2 combination in the majors, well ahead of the league-best Cubs (.374 OBP in 2016), obviously now without Fowler. In fact, it would be the highest combined OBP for any pair since at least 2002, which is as far back as Fangraphs’ splits leaderboard appears to go. The highest combined OBP for 1-2 hitters in that timeframe belongs to the 2009 World Series champion New York Yankees, primarily thanks to Derek Jeter in the leadoff spot and Johnny Damon in the two-hole. They had a .383 OBP.
Of course, it’s probably unwise to just plug that .386 OBP in and assume Fowler and Carpenter are automatically going to get on base that often in 2017. Both are entering their age 31 seasons, and Fowler, in particular, had never before performed as well as he did in 2016.
But neither are they likely to fall off a cliff. While a combined .386 OBP may be a tad unrealistic, Fowler and Carpenter still figure to give St. Louis a dynamic duo at the top of their order. Let’s take a look at their 2017 Steamer projections to get a better baseline for what we can expect out of them next season, courtesy of FanGraphs:
Fowler & Carpenter 2017 Steamer Projections
Not a ton of power, but otherwise this is basically the ideal way to start a lineup. Let’s plug them back into last year’s top 1-2 combinations to see how they compare:
Fowler/Carpenter ‘17 projections compared to 2016’s best 1-2 combos
Now, I should note a couple of things here. First, you’ll notice that I left both the Cubs and the Cardinals 2016 numbers in so that you’ll be able to get a better feel for how good those teams already were with just one of Fowler and Carpenter. Two, you’ll notice that this chart is sortable. I’ve chosen OBP as the default because that’s generally the stat you’d look at first when searching for the ideal top-of-the-order hitters.
Fowler and Carpenter’s combined 2017 projections rank them third by that measure, but they’re behind the 2016 Cubs, again, now without Fowler, and the Rockies, who play half their games in Coors Field. Basically, when adjusting for offseason moves and ballparks, we should expect these two to do a better job of getting on base than any other combination in the majors.
Fowler and Carpenter’s projections don’t mark them as the best in every category, of course. They’re not the most powerful, nor are they projected to hit for the highest average, and they don’t have the lowest strikeout rate. But again, this is comparing them to the top third of 1-2’s in 2016.
Either way, they’re paid to get on base above all else, and if my math is correct, St. Louis can expect them both to reach base about 13 percent of the time they bat back to back. It basically means the Cardinals have a good shot at starting ballgames with two on, no outs (or better) upwards of 20 times this coming season. That’s a hell of a way to start, and should give way to plenty of early Cardinal leads.
Slotting Fowler and Carpenter into the top of the lineup has other, if lesser, advantages, as well. That combined 13 percent walk rate not only means they’re getting on base without making a sacrifice to the BABIP gods, it means they’re working deep counts.
In 2016, Fowler saw the fourth-most pitches per plate appearance of anyone in baseball, while Carpenter ranked tied for 14th. They’re going to get opposing pitch counts up early in the game, and that’s a nuisance whether you can avoid putting either or them on base or not. The way they do it is pretty simple: they do not chase outside the zone:
2016 O-Swing% Leaders
|Jose Bautista||Blue Jays||20.2%|
|Russell Martin||Blue Jays||21.4%|
There’s Fowler at the top, swinging at the lowest percentage of pitches outside the zone of anyone in baseball. And there’s Carpenter in tenth, also with one of the most disciplined approaches in the game. When you play the Cardinals in 2017, you better have your command, or else you’re going to find yourself in one of those two-on, no-out situations pretty quickly.
And as if that weren’t all, if you do put Fowler on, you can’t exactly count on Carpenter to get you out of a jam with a double play. Last year, Carpenter had the 11th-lowest double play percentage of anyone in baseball, among batters with at least 300 plate appearances. Even if you control for the fact that he mostly led off for the Cardinals, and therefore never came to the plate with men on in the first inning, by only measuring from the second inning onwards, that only drops him to 21st among the 268 players to meet that 300 PA threshold.
Basically what I’m trying to say is that even with expected regression from both players, there’s really not going to be anywhere out for opposing pitchers when they face St. Louis in 2017. They’re going to have to find the strike zone early and often and risk either Fowler or Carpenter doing damage with their bat instead of their eyes. Otherwise, it’s death by 1000 cuts, where you enter the second inning behind and with your pitch limit at about a quarter of where you’d like it to be for the entire game.
The Cardinals still play in a division with the Chicago Cubs, of course, so adding Fowler to the lineup doesn’t make them the favorites in the NL Central or anything like that. But the Cardinals missed the playoffs, and as a native St. Louisan, I can confidently tell you that their fans did not handle that well. 2017 offers a more optimistic outlook, however, and slotting Fowler and Carpenter into the 1-2 spots just might be the biggest reason the team’s playoff drought ends at one.
. . .
Joe Clarkin is a featured writer for Beyond the Box Score. You can follow him on Twitter at @Joe_Clarkin.