The St. Louis Cardinals have one of the most balanced attacks in all of Major League Baseball. Their pitching staff leads in earned-run average, the defense has the fewest errors in baseball and the lineup is ranked fourth of the 30 teams, but every power-producing engine needs a spark plug.
For the Cardinals, that’s Matt Carpenter.
Carpenter began the season as a post-Tony La Russa version of Skip Schumaker. Originally a third baseman, manager Mike Matheny wanted him to move to be the starting second baseman in 2013 in a move similar to 2009 when Schumaker, now with the Los Angeles Dodgers, moved from the outfield to second base.
Carpenter has committed four errors through 58 of the team’s first 61 games while playing a combination of second base and third base, but he has quickly become an incredibly valuable asset.
Centerfielder Jon Jay began the season as the leadoff hitter, but he struggled to get his season started at the plate (his batting average was .204 in April). Matheny had enough of starting every game with one out, so he moved Jay to the seventh spot in the order May 2 and replaced him in the leadoff spot with Carpenter.
Carpenter was hitting .288 when he became the full-time leadoff hitter, and he’s since gone on a tear. He’s raised his average to .333, including 17 multi-hit games since Matheny moved him to the leadoff spot full time.
His rise to the top of the lineup coincided, not coincidently, with a Cardinals hot streak. The team compiled a 20-7 record in May and has won five of eight games in the first week of June.
They also had baseball’s best batting average (.289) in May, meaning the hitters behind Carpenter also hit well.
Catcher Yadier Molina led the team with a .394 average, but rightfielder Carlos Beltran, third baseman David Freese and shortstop Pete Kozma all hit .267 or better, not to mention Jay’s .284 average and 15 runs batted in, which tied him with Beltran for second most on the team in May.
“I feel like every time I get on there someone drives me in,” Carpenter told the St. Louis Post-Dispatch after Monday’s 7-1 win over the Arizona Diamondbacks, in which he went 3-for-5 with three runs scored.
In addition, the move down in the order has been as beneficial to Jay as the move up has been for Carpenter. The Cardinals had their cake and ate it, too.
Jay’s batting average improved from .204 May 1 to .286 May 21 before a recent slump that included consecutive hitless two-game series against the Kansas City Royals.
But certainly, the leadoff spot is what makes the rest of the game go. Carpenter gets on base, and Beltran, Molina and Matt Holliday drive him home to establish crucial early leads, which in turn allow pitchers to be more aggressive early in games.
But it all starts with Carpenter, who is quickly putting together one of the most impressive seasons of any Cardinals leadoff hitter since David Eckstein hit .295 with 90 runs scored, eight homeruns, 61 RBIs and 11 stolen bases in 2005 on a team that won 100 games.
He’s also tough. Diamondbacks pitchers hit him three times Wednesday, and he came back the next night with four hits in five at-bats.
Carpenter has done exactly what any team needs from a leadoff hitter. He is the ignition that has put the Cardinals on pace toward another historically good record.