photo: Paul Goldschmidt (Charles LeClaire/Imagn)
This is the time of the year (and the decade) for “Best of” lists. They are seemingly everywhere. Yet, the more subjective they are, the more worthless they are, in my assessment. The laziest among us create column fodder by reinforcing pre-determined opinions rather than undertake thoughtful analysis.
That is NOT what The Fielding Bible is about. The folks at Sports Info Solutions (formerly Baseball Info Solutions) have run an annual process since 2006 to select the best defenders at each position in Major League Baseball. This is considered by many to be more accurate than the Gold Glove Awards, which are 75 percent based on ballots sent to managers and coaches.
On New Year’s Eve, The Fielding Bible announced its All-Decade Team – the best defenders across the game from 2010-2019, backed by the annual votes.
— Sports Info Solutions (@SportsInfo_SIS) December 31, 2019
Behind the plate, Yadier Molina beat out Buster Posey and the other catchers. One-year Cardinal Jason Heyward received the nod in right field.
Another one-year (to date) Cardinal, Paul Goldschmidt, has been recognized as Major League Baseball’s top-fielding first baseman. While Goldschmidt has just the one season under his belt with St. Louis, I want to explore his importance to the Final Four Cardinals of 2019.
Offensively, it was a mixed bag for him. On one hand, Goldschmidt led the Cardinals in home runs, RBI and slugging percentage, but his overall contribution (as measured by OPS+) was the lowest of his career. Still good, but not Goldschmidt good.
Not because it is not important, but because I already wrote an entire article about Goldschmidt’s lagging offense (along with Matt Carpenter), am I not going to go into more detail about that here. (If you missed it before, check this article out.)
My focus today is on Goldschmidt’s play in the field, and specifically how it improved the Cardinals as a whole. Again, I devoted an entire article to the impact of the amazing defensive improvement to the success of the 2019 team, so I do not want to repeat all the details here. Suffice it to say that defense moved from a 2018 liability to a component that helped carry the Cardinals into the playoffs. (See below.)
I am writing this because I believe that many do not fully appreciate how important adding a rock at first base was to the overall improvement of the 2019 Cardinals.
Think about it. What other player (after the pitcher and catcher) touches the baseball more often than the first baseman?
In fact, across all positions across all of MLB in 2019, Goldschmidt made the second-most putouts, 1,256. Among MLB first basemen, his assist total was fifth. He committed just five errors, tying for the lowest total among all qualifying first sackers and his .996 fielding percentage was first. Of those five miscues, only three were on fielding plays.
In Ultimate Zone Rating (UZR), Goldschmidt was third at his position and in Defensive Runs Saved (DRS), he ranked sixth. (All per Fangraphs data.)
Many already know that Kolten Wong won The Fielding Bible award as MLB’s top second baseman in 2019. He was first at his position in UZR and first in DRS. His assist count was second-highest at his position, just four off a share of the MLB lead. Wong was third in double plays and committed just nine errors during 2019 for a seventh-place fielding percentage showing.
At short, Paul DeJong was also strong – tops at his position in UZR and fourth in defensive runs saved. In more traditional measures, DeJong was only one assist off the MLB lead among shortstops and committed just seven errors all season long, translating to a .989 fielding percentage that led MLB. His double play count of 104 was 20 more than any other MLB shortstop.
(At third base, a position shared by Matt Carpenter and Tommy Edman primarily, the Cards were a bottom-10 team in MLB in assists and double plays, but in the top 10 in (fewest) errors and (highest) fielding percentage. So even while the third basemen did not stand out like the other infielders, they were dependable.)
Did Goldschmidt directly impact the consistent success of Wong and DeJong on every play? Of course not.
But did his presence help them all play better – building the confidence to excel, to take calculated chances (including increasing deployment of shifts) – knowing he had their backs? I believe so.
Looking ahead, the questions about the 2020 Cardinals offense remain. In the upcoming weeks, you will read and hear more and more about the team doubling down on “run prevention” – increasing focus on the 2019 formula of winning behind strong pitching and defense.
I submit that Goldschmidt was the missing link – the final piece – to enable this defensive picture to come together for the 2019 Cardinals. With another year under their belts maturing and playing together, there is no reason to believe that Wong and DeJong cannot continue to improve in 2020 as well.
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