Flashing The Leather: How Good Will the Cardinals Defense Be?

St. Louis Cardinals infielder Nolan Arenado smiles as he jogs out to his position during spring training baseball practice Monday, Feb. 22, 2021, in Jupiter, Fla. (AP Photo/Jeff Roberson)

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Been a minute since I’ve posted on this blog. Hopefully this is the start of a writing groove.

Let’s talk defense.

The Cardinals have modeled their roster and game plan around run prevention since the installation of Mike Shildt as manager. It is both a sound baseball strategy and has provided some offset for lagging offensive production.

Based on the Statcast Outs Above Average metric, the Cardinals ranked 19th, 21st, and 23rd in MLB in 2016, 2017, and 2018. Two and a half of those seasons were helmed by Mike Matheny and all of them lacked a true 1B.

In 2019 and 2020, with Shildt refocusing efforts on defense and fundamental play and with Paul Goldschmidt installed at 1B, the team has ranked 3rd and 4th overall in MLB for 2019 and 2020, respectively.

This upward trajectory was before they traded for the preeminent defensive third basemen of the era, Nolan Arenado.

In an attempt to project just how impressive the Cardinals defense may be this season, I dug into the numbers.

For those of you unfamiliar with Outs Above Average, this is the short definition from Statcast:

Outs Above Average (OAA) is the cumulative effect of all individual plays a fielder has been credited or debited with, making it a range-based metric of fielding skill that accounts for the number of plays made and the difficulty of them. For example, a fielder who catches a 25% Out Probability play gets +.75; one who fails to make the play gets -.25.

More information can be found here. You can play around with the OAA leaderboard here.

Trending in the Right Direction

As stated, the improvement on defense began before acquiring Arenado. However the overall rankings for 2019 and 2020 are somewhat deceptive.

In 2019 the Cardinals were a wildly uneven team in regards to infield and outfield defense.

Their infield was stunning, topping MLB with 41 OAA. The next best teams were the Rockies (with Arenado) at 34 and the Cubs at 29. The Cardinals infield was on another level. However, the outfield ranked 28th in baseball with -12 OAA, drug down by the play of Marcel Ozuna (-11), Jose Martinez (-9), and Dexter Fowler (-7).

Subtracting 2 of those 3 players — and replacing them with superior defenders — predictably elevated the outfield’s defensive ratings for 2020.

In 2020, the Cardinals infielders had 5 OAA and the outfield had 6 OAA, both figures ranking 9th in MLB for the respective units. The balance between the two units would lead the Cardinals to ranking 4th overall in baseball, providing evidence that some teams are good in one area or the other, but few are good in both.

This only stands to improve in 2021, even with the exit of Kolten Wong at 2B.

Projecting 2021

To form a projection, I first pro-rated the OAA for players in 2020. The Cardinals played approximately 33% of the innings in 2020 as they did in 2019. So to roughly balance the defensive chances for the two seasons and allow for comparison, I multiplied the 2020 figures by 3.

Then, to form a “projection” I simply averaged the 2019 and pro-rated 2020 figures, and rounded down (to be conservative).

*I did that with everyone but Carlson and Edman, where I got a little subjective. Carlson was a -1 in 2020, which pro-rates to -3. Small sample and the fact that he played a lot more CF than he projects to in 2021, I’m giving him the benefit of the doubt and calling it a wash at 0 for 2021. With Edman, it’s not really fair or accurate to say that his defensive metrics, occurring mostly at 3B, will directly transfer to 2B, a position requiring greater range. At the sake of not being too complex, I docked him 2 OAA from what would have been his 2021 projection.

Here’s how the projections play out:

Players 2019 2020 (pro-rated) 2021 (Projected)
Goldschmidt 7 12 9
Wong 8 9 8
Edman 10 9 7*
DeJong 11 -9 1
O'Neill 0 12 6
Bader 14 12 13
Carlson - -3 0*
Carpenter 4 3 3
Thomas 0 2 1
Fowler -7 -12 -9
Arenado 21 18 19

So those are the numbers we are working from.

For the sake of this exercise we are using 7 regular, non-catcher, defensive players plus a 4th OF and utility IF. Also we are considering our “baseline” to be what would have been, had the Cardinals simply carried over the 2020 team — as in keeping Wong and Fowler, while not acquiring Arenado. Note: the 4th OF for the baseline is a combo of Carlson and Thomas, while the UTIL is Carpenter.

Position 2019 (actual) 2020 (pro-rated) 2021 (base) 2021 (projected) Improvement
1B 7 12 9 9 0
2B 8 9 8 7 -1
3B 10 9 9 19 +10
SS 11 -9 1 1 0
LF -11 12 6 6 0
CF 14 12 13 13 0
RF -7 -12 -9 0 +9
OF4 -9 -1 1 1 0
UTIL 4 3 3 3 0

So What Does It Mean?

From my hap-hazard and hardly scientific process, I see the Cardinals 2021 defense improving by 18 outs over what they would have done by standing pat. I did not account for the scenario in which they let Wong go and played Carpenter at 3B and Edman at 2B. The Arenado Factor would be even larger in that scenario.

The Cardinals infield likely accounts for 35 or more OAA in 2021, which should be near the top of MLB.

Also consider that they are likely replacing a negative defensive player, Brad Miller, with a player touted for his defensive ability in Edmundo Sosa. Carpenter would be the weakest infielder, and he has been a positive over the last 2 seasons.

Another thing to consider is that Paul DeJong likely bounces back more than my projection gives him credit for. The 20 out split between 2019 and 2020 is huge and likely rooted in his overall struggles with COVID. DeJong performs extremely well on balls to his left (+10 OAA in ’19) and very poorly on balls to this right (-7 in ’19). With Arenado playing to his right and being ridiculous, that weakness in DeJong’s game will be largely negated.

But the overall defensive improvement is not all because of Arenado.

In the outfield, we can’t overlook the addition by subtraction over the last 2 offseasons. In 2019, 2 of the 3 regulars (Ozuna & Fowler) were liabilities in the field, with a regular 4th OF (Martinez) also being a drag on defense. All three are gone. Heading into this season — if you project O’Neill as the LF — 2 of the 3 can be elite level defenders, with the 3rd — Carlson — looking like a strong defender, as well, even if the small 2020 sample didn’t say so.

Add Lane Thomas, a highly rated defender, and Justin Williams — a capable OF with a strong arm — into the mix as the 4th and 5th OFs and the overall unit is quite impressive. They should post somewhere in the ballpark of 20 OAA in 2021.

I’m really high on O’Neill’s defense and think Carlson is a stud in RF, so they may very well blow that number away, but until the numbers can back that up, I’ll stay grounded.

All told, the Cardinals defense has the capacity to post a team figure in the 50-60 range.

For context, these are the top teams in OAA over the last 5 seasons:

Year Team OAA
2016 Cubs 54
2017 Twins 59
2018 Braves 49
2019 Astros 42
2020 (pro-rated) Padres 66

On average, the 2nd best team in terms of OAA has trailed the #1 team by 18 outs over the last 5 seasons. In other words, there is an “elite” tier above the “very good” level that the Cardinals have landed at during the last 2 years. If my math is even close and the Cardinals do improve by roughly 18 outs, they will have moved themselves into that “elite” level and will challenge to be the best defensive team in baseball during the 2021 season.

You’re welcome, pitchers.

Thanks for reading!


Thanks to Baseball Savant / Statcast, without which none of this would be possible.

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Last updated: 04/19/2021