First things first: Carpenter ideal atop Cards lineup
Second baseman works long at-bats, reaches base at high rate in front of sluggers
For today's leadoff hitters, on-base percentage is king.
That's why, when Rafael Furcal opted for Tommy John surgery to repair the torn UCL in his right elbow in Spring Training and his replacement in the leadoff spot, Jon Jay, had a slow start to the season, the powers that be in St. Louis decided to give second baseman Matt Carpenter a shot at the top of the lineup, even though he had never hit in that spot before. In four years in the Minor Leagues, Carpenter had a .408 on-base percentage and a reputation for grinding out lengthy at-bats. In 2012, Carpenter's first full season in the big leagues, manager Mike Matheny saw his toughness at the plate firsthand, and he watched the rookie post a .365 OBP.
Among leadoff hitters this season, Carpenter's .392 OBP was second only to Cincinnati's Shin-Soo Choo, who logged a .423 success rate.
"I think I'm your new modern-thinking leadoff hitter," Carpenter says. "From the time that stats were recorded on me, I've always had a high on-base percentage. With this team, I know if I can just get on base, I have a chance to score. And if I can get to second, I have a really good chance to score."
Why? Because Carpenter sets the table for a Cardinals lineup that includes heavy hitters Carlos Beltran, Matt Holliday, Allen Craig and Yadier Molina.
"We were looking for somebody to ignite our offense, somebody to get things going and typically get on base," Matheny says. "He kept finding ways to get on, and obviously that played out in runs scored, when you have the kind of production we have in the middle of our lineup."
And with those bats behind him, there's no reason for Carpenter or the Cards to worry about him having to steal a base; he only swiped three this year, the fewest of any regular leadoff hitter in the big leagues.
"I think getting 90 feet is important from time to time, but what drives our decisions is what you do in that batter's box," says Cardinals general manager John Mozeliak. "I think hitters are evolving. Obviously, if you had someone with a high on-base percentage who was also a 60 or 70 [grade] runner, that would be great, but we just don't have it. I don't think you see a ton of speed in our game in general anymore."
It used to be that speed ruled; remember Rickey Henderson's three seasons with more than 100 stolen bases? But in the past 20 years, Toronto's Jose Reyes has had the most stolen bases in one year, 78 in 2007 while with the Mets. This season, Red Sox leadoff hitter Jacoby Ellsbury led the Major Leagues with a comparably lean 52. Only two other leadoff hitters -- the Mets' Eric Young and the Pirates' Starling Marte -- had more than 30 steals.
Stealing bases is certainly an art, but getting on base is a no less artful task. And the ability to battle pitchers in drawn-out at-bats that allow the rest of the team to get a good look at a pitcher's arsenal takes a certain skill, too. Carpenter averaged 4.12 pitches per plate appearance this season, but he is known for grinding out at-bats that are twice that long.
"You see a guy that gets in there and puts in seven, eight, 10-pitch at-bats every time he's leading off the game," says Matheny. "Pitchers are going to show everything they have, which gives our guys a little bit more of a look."
Driving the pitch count up also means Carpenter is often hitting with two strikes, but that, too, is one of his fortes.
"Carp has no fear of hitting with two strikes," Mozeliak says. "He has the inner confidence that if he gets two strikes, he can still do something with his bat, so he grinds out a lot of long at-bats, and has a lot of success."
Few leadoff hitters had as much success as Carpenter this year. While Choo was the only leadoff man to reach the benchmark leadoff numbers of 20 home runs, 20 stolen bases and 100 runs, Carpenter led the Majors with 126 runs, 199 hits and 55 doubles, and his 69 RBIs (of 78 total) were the most by any leadoff hitter.
All the while, his approach has stayed exactly the same.
"That's been the beauty of this," Carpenter says. "When Mike approached me with this idea, he said he didn't want me to change. He wanted me to go out there and be the same guy I've always been and stick with the same approach, and that's what I've done and it's worked out pretty well."
But if we're keeping a leadoff score in the World Series, the seven-pitch walk that Ellsbury drew off Cards starter Adam Wainwright in the bottom of the first inning of Boston's 8-1 win in Game 1 easily beats Carpenter's third-pitch groundout off Jon Lester leading off the game. Still, Carpenter later managed a fifth-inning single off Lester. And if the numbers hold true, it won't be the only time he runs the World Series bases.
Lindsay Berra is a reporter for MLB.com. Follow her on Twitter @lindsayberra. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.