Up until Wednesday’s game, the Cardinals offense had been struggling, or as Bernie Miklasz described it: “snoring.” As a result, the Cardinals went 1-5 over six games despite a rotation ERA of 1.28. In the same article, Bernie highlights some of the reasons this team has a “mediocre” record with the best starting pitching in baseball (3.06 ERA). Namely, a low on-base percentage from the leadoff hitter. How low you might ask? It’s at .302, which is good for 26th in the league.
Mike Matheny has used only three different players in the top spot of the order: Dexter Fowler (35 games), Kolten Wong (7 games), and Greg Garcia (1 game). Without question, when Dexter Fowler is playing well, he should lead off. After all, that’s what he was signed to do (in one of the biggest FA deals of the offseason). Not only did he play a key role in leading a Cubs team that combined for well over 200 wins in 2015 and 2016, but he also had an OBP of .393 last year — second only to Mike Trout (who might end up being better than Mickey Mantle). This year, Fowler’s OBP has dropped to .305 and his wRC+ has fallen from 129 in 2016 to 89 (For those unfamiliar with wRC+, 100 is average).
I’m not the only one thinking it might be time for a change; Matheny has hinted at it too. But he’s not ready to make a decision just yet. Here’s why he should be.
Kolten Wong is quietly putting together a solid campaign. In one of the early surprises of the season, with a slash line of .281/.376/.422, Kolten has provided more value than Fowler thus far. If we look at a recent, albeit smaller sample size, the results are even more shocking.
These results paint a clear picture: Wong has been the better player for the entire month of May. Although not an enormous difference, Wong’s 15 wRC+ advantage over Fowler is significant. As the splits become smaller, the difference only increases. This illuminates Kolten’s recent success and Dexter’s struggles.
While some may say Fowler is a natural leadoff hitter and Kolten is not, these two players have very similar plate-discipline profiles for 2017. Both players swing at about 26% of pitches out of the strike zone. To give these values some context, Matt Carpenter swings at 17% of pitches outside the strike zone, while Randal Grichuk swings at 35% of pitches outside the zone (plate-discipline profiles can be found here).
These next two tables show two things: the consistency with which Fowler has struggled, and the consistency with which Wong has excelled.
Fowler has been an average hitter against the four-seam fastball. Against all other pitches, he isn’t hitting above the Mendoza line. When we examine the same data for Wong, we see a different kind of consistency.
Kolten has excelled against most pitches. This is the profile of a complete major-league hitter. Of course, this isn’t the largest sample size. But a quarter of the way through the season, I’m sure many of you are as surprised as I was to see how consistent Kolten has been. Sure, he’s struggled with the sinker and doesn’t hit for much power, but I would argue that the Cardinals only need their leadoff hitter to get on base. In fact, Fowler’s pop would be a welcome addition with runners on base lower in the lineup.
The Cardinals have a few options for the leadoff position. The three players that have been used thus far (Fowler, Wong, Garcia), as well as Matt Carpenter. Because his power is needed in the 3-spot, Carpenter isn’t an option with this roster. Garcia isn’t an everyday player, so that option is not realistic either. And when it comes down to Fowler and Wong, the outfielder’s struggles have opened the door for the young infielder. It’s up to Matheny now.