photo: Paul DeJong and Kolten Wong (Joe Puetz/Imagn)
OK, perhaps because it is still pigskin season am I using a football chant as my title, but given the amazing transformation made by the St. Louis Cardinals defense, cries of “Dee-fense” could have been right at home in Busch Stadium in 2019.
Looking back, they had a long way to go. As the Cardinals’ roster evolved in recent years, the club’s defense made a slow skid into mediocrity.
The problems in 2016 were real and acute. The team’s Defensive Runs Saved (DRS) was 4 and its Ultimate Zone Rating of -34.3 was among the worst in the game, ranked 28 of 30 MLB teams, per Fangraphs data. A segment of fans, grasping for a convenient excuse, attributed this poor performance to the loss of one man, third base coach Jose Oquendo.
The defense may have appeared to be better in 2017, at least when looking at the numbers. After all, both key measurements were above water, with a team DRS of 35 and UZR of 7.9, putting the Cardinals in the top third of MLB.
However, as Derrick Goold of the Post-Dispatch wrote following the 2017 season, the “Cardinals’ defensive improvement was isolated, misleading”. Key positions up the middle – shortstop, second base and center field – were all negative in Defensive Runs Saved.
Who can forget the great hopes created heading into 2018, as the club coaxed infield genius Oquendo back onto the big-league staff, to be joined by beloved former outfielder Willie McGee? The story line that the legendary pair would work the defense into prominence was crafted and refined until believed by many to be a fait accompli.
In fairness, there was continued steady improvement in 2018, though it was not huge, nor particularly visible. The team DRS grew to 40 and the UZR reached 13, but the eye test suggested otherwise, as Cardinals led all of MLB with 133 errors charged.
On an individual basis, there was improvement especially up the middle, as Harrison Bader, Kolten Wong and Paul DeJong emerged. The only major negative was Jose Martinez, a liability whether at first base or in right field.
The Cardinals directly addressed this exposure in 2019 with the addition of Paul Goldschmidt. While most focused on his very productive bat, his acumen in the field – not only fielding his position, but also corralling errant throws with apparent ease – became the last piece in completing the team’s defensive makeover.
In 2019, St. Louis’ DRS exploded to 95, third-best in all of MLB. Their UZR also shot upward to 32.8, again third-highest among the 30 clubs.
Looking at more traditional stats, the story was arguably even better. The 2019 Cardinals set a club record with just 66 errors and posted the league-best .998 fielding percentage. They tied the White Sox for the MLB lead in double plays with 170. As noted previously, the 2018 Cardinals had the most errors in the majors with 133, and became the first team ever to go from worst to first in errors in back-to-back seasons – while cutting their miscue total in half!
The coaching staff readily accepted data indicating opposing hitter tendencies, and according to Inside Edge, the 2019 Cards made the most efficient use of shifts of any MLB team.
One of my favorite things that @InsideEdgeScout provides is shift data captured by eyesight. It is still somewhat subjective but IMO their method is very reliable.
Most shifts: LAD, least WAS.
Most hits prevented: TBR, least WAS.
Most efficient use of shifts: STL, worst NYY. pic.twitter.com/FmcwREmnQV
— CJ Nitkowski (@CJNitkowski) September 30, 2019
Individually, the team had six Gold Glove Award “finalists”, aka top three finishers. They included pitcher Jack Flaherty and catcher Yadier Molina along with Goldschmidt, Wong, DeJong and Bader. Note that all except Goldschmidt play in up the middle positions.
Following the 2019 season, Wong won his first Gold Glove Award, as well as being named The Fielding Bible’s top MLB second baseman. DeJong also had an exceptional season defensively per advanced fielding metrics.
With almost all of the same players coming back, there should be optimism that the Cardinals can continue to make run prevention – coupling strong pitching and defense – a competitive differentiator in 2020.
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