Leading up to the season, excitement stemmed in part from the lineup’s anticipated 1-4 with Dexter Fowler, Tommy Pham, Matt Carpenter, and Marcell Ozuna. With all of them producing, we would expect a solid if not dangerous lineup. Yeah, anyway, this is baseball and that doesn’t happen. All but Pham have been lackluster at best, with sub-.300 wOBAs and high strikeout rates (though bad luck has also played a role). Working around these struggles, Matheny has tinkered with this 1-4 over the course of nearly two months. The most notable, and perhaps the most natural, has been moving Pham to the leadoff spot. Is he the right choice?
There’s a reason Pham is appealing at the top. Former leadoff hitter Matt Carpenter is turning things around but has so far provided poor numbers: .310 wOBA, batting .204 (for all of batting average’s flaws, it says something about his hitting). He’s still walking at a good rate, which tells me he should be fine. I’ve rallied around Carpenter as the leadoff hitter for his selective approach in the past, and in my defense, the man is good at getting on base. Still, a leadoff hitter who struggles to run the bases poses problems, and Carpenter’s skillset is well suited for potentially second or third in the lineup. Dexter Fowler has overwhelmingly been a leadoff hitter throughout his career, and it made a great deal of sense to boot Matt Carpenter and place Fowler there when the Cardinals landed him. He has yet to come around this season, sporting a .257 wOBA that’s almost too painful to type. His strikeout and walk rates don’t jump off the page in any way. Those along with his incredibly low BABIP (.164) would suggest some bad luck. Regardless, the other candidates aren’t performing in a way that suggests they should be at the top.
On an important note, I’m all for Pham batting second when he’s producing. It’s a critical location: two-spot hitters take more trips to the plate over the course of the season than hitters below them, even if that makes a minute difference from game to game. I get the sense Mike Matheny follows a different approach when constructing his lineup, but putting Pham is the second spot has been a good move. The two-spot is important, and it’s crucial to put a top hitter there. Pham has been the most productive among qualified hitters. Notably, he’s been much more productive than Fowler and the next best leadoff candidate, Carpenter:
His numbers are good all around. Not only is he walking at a high rate, he’s hitting too—creating runs better than anyone else. He’s providing power. For comparison, his walk rate is just a bit better than Carpenter’s, and he’s hitting far more than Carpenter is. And beyond those two, Fowler simply isn’t producing enough to bat leadoff, but… that’s obvious.
The next critical component is base running. This is where the Cardinals run into trouble (no pun intended). For one, speed is an issue. Despite evolving schools of thought on lineup optimization, speed remains an important factor in leadoff. It puts pressure on both the pitcher and the defense, forcing them to move and react faster. Speed means more stolen bases and more bases on balls in play, which translates to more run opportunities. Here’s a look at sprint speeds among qualified Cardinals, per Statcast:
There isn’t a lot of speed when it comes to this team, and those who have had the numbers to justify hitting at the top of the lineup—Fowler and Carpenter—fall short. Fowler (27.2) is just above the league average of 27 ft/sec, and Carpenter is below average at 26.4 ft/sec. Pham is by no means elite at 28.4 ft/sec, but he fares much better in terms of speed than his counterparts.
Of course, there’s more to base running than speed alone, even if it’s a critical underlying factor. Another tool of comparison is FanGraphs’ BsR stat, which accounts for stolen bases, caught stealings, and events like being thrown out and taking extra bases. It attempts to account for the various elements of base running. While it takes multiple seasons of data to get an accurate reflection of a player’s abilities, I’ve gathered a brief snapshot of 2017 BsR numbers for the players in the table above:
To put this in context, BsR operates like WAR in that zero is league average, and contributions are in terms of runs. Therefore, Carpenter was roughly an average base runner in 2017, while Fowler was good for 1.9 runs at the top end of the average range. Pham is somewhere in FanGraphs’ vast “above average” zone (2-6 BsR), again making him the Cardinals’ most solid choice in terms of base running.
Suppose 2017 numbers aren’t enough to persuade you. From 2015-2018, this is how qualified hitters on the active roster have fared in terms of BsR:
Since Pham’s rookie season, he’s been the most productive on the basepaths overall. Fowler has been an above average to great base runner throughout his career, but Pham has performed better in recent seasons.
All of this is to say, simply, that Pham is one of the Cardinals’ best base runners, if not the best. On top of that, he’s also been one of the Cardinals’ best hitters this season, if not the best. He’s a massive contributor to this lineup. Given his speed, base running abilities, and on-base prowess, he makes a good leadoff hitter on paper. At leadoff, he’s getting more plate appearances and more opportunities to contribute as well.
Still, it speaks more to the Cardinals that Pham has been batting leadoff. He doesn’t quite have the same speed as regular leadoff hitters across the league, and at least in my opinion, his ability to hit makes him better suited for the two-spot. None of that matters in the Cardinals’ current situation, though. By their standards, Pham is the best choice at leadoff right now. He has a combination of skills that the Cardinals don’t normally see: speed, power, aggressiveness on the basepaths, walking at an excellent rate (strikeout rate aside). He’s not quite a leadoff hitter, but he’ll have to do. Hopefully Fowler comes around soon.
Numbers as of May 23, 2018.