Cardinals' Carpenter, a two-time All-Star, has become even better leadoff man

Some stats are down for Matt Carpenter after his stunning 2013 campaign, but several that define the best top-of-the-order hitters are up. And Carpenter, an All-Star third baseman this year after being selected at second base last season, brings the Cardinals great defensive versatility.

Matt Carpenter has been the NL's best leadoff hitter and brings a handy versatility to the field.

Kim Klement / USA TODAY Sports

ST. LOUIS -- Ask Matt Carpenter to learn second base and, practically overnight, he becomes an All-Star second baseman.

Put him at the top of the batting order and, by the end of the season, he's become as productive as any leadoff hitter in the game.

Move him back to third base and, like he never left, he makes another All-Star team.

"I like being known as just a baseball player, a guy who can do a few things around the diamond," Carpenter shrugs.

Geez, maybe the Cardinals should ask him to become a 50-homer cleanup hitter and while he's at it, slot him in the rotation behind Adam Wainwright and ask him to eat up some innings on the mound. While that's pushing beyond the realm of reality, there seems to be little else the 28-year-old, freshly named two-time All-Star can't accomplish on a baseball field.

Just look at how he continues to emerge as a top-of-the-order hitter. Though he isn't likely (and was not expected) to match some of his monster numbers from last year -- namely the 126 runs and 55 doubles -- Carpenter in many ways has become an even better leadoff hitter.

For example: Leadoff hitters are expected to see a lot of pitches, right? Well, Carpenter is watching more pitches than any player in the NL and has improved from seventh in the NL last year to first in the majors this year in pitches per plate appearance (4.3). He has increased his walk rate by nearly 20 percent to rank fifth in the NL (50). No other NL player has walked more than 36 times out of the leadoff spot. Carpenter also has dramatically reduced the number of times he swings at the first pitch to an NL-low 7.7 percent.

While you might wonder why he is striking out more (once every 6.2 plate appearances compared to once every 7.3), even that increase is a result of his changing focus as a hitter. Carpenter admits there are times he won't swing at a borderline two-strike pitch if he doesn't think he can put the barrel on it. He feels his chances of reaching base are better if he leaves his fate to the umpire rather than attempting to hit a pitcher's pitch. Considering his batting average on 1-2 counts is a mere .118, down from .279 last year, he looks to be right.

Cardinals manager Mike Matheny says he doesn't want his hitters worrying about their approach based on where they slot in the batting order, but Carpenter clearly has adopted a leadoff hitter's style.

"Since I've been put into that role, I've really tried to mold into something I'm trying to get as good as I can at. I feel like I've done a good job of that," Carpenter said Monday. "It's something I take a lot of pride in, being our leadoff guy and setting the table, doing what I can to get on base."

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He's is doing just that, too, reaching base 152 times in 89 games. Carpenter's .282 batting average pales in comparison to last year's .318, but he's just another hot streak away from matching the stat that matters most to a leadoff hitter -- on-base percentage. After walking three times Monday night, including to lead off the ninth ahead of Matt Adams' walk-off homer, Carpenter's OBP sits at .378, not too far off last year's .392.

The folks in Miami and elsewhere can quibble all they want that Carpenter was selected to the All-Star team because his manager was doing the selecting. But Carpenter does not need to apologize to anyone. He has been the NL's best top-of-the-order hitter -- he leads leadoff hitters in runs, OBP and hits -- and he brings a versatility to the field that could come in handy in late-game substituting. "He's able to play two spots on the infield, possibly a third spot (first base), and also in the outfield," Matheny said. "It plays in."

Matheny certainly hasn't forgotten what Carpenter accomplished last year, but the manager said that Carpenter's 2014 stands on its own.

"I was trying not to do too much of that, just watching what he's done this year," Matheny said. "It depends on where you put your weight statistically but to me, I'm honored to be able to put him on this team."

Carpenter said that like last year, he had "no idea" Matheny would call his name when he gathered the team Sunday to reveal its All-Stars. Carpenter figured it out when, after Yadier Molina and Adam Wainwright were named, Matheny said, "And making his second straight appearance ...."

"When you hear your name, especially in front of your teammates, it's a special moment," Carpenter said. "Something that's really cool."

And, the way his career is trending, something he'd better get used to hearing.

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