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Comparing the 2017 Cardinals defense to 2015

St. Louis Cardinals defense

photo by @cardinalsgifs

Back in 2015, the Cardinals defense led the league in run prevention. While their pitching staff was very good (3.48 FIP, 5th in the NL), the team ERA of 2.94 led the league. The .54 differential between team FIP and ERA was the highest in the MLB.

A lot of that difference was chalked up to luck, but at least a portion was due to an above average defense that ranked 10th by Defensive Runs Saved and 11th by Ultimate Zone Rating.

This year, however, the Cardinals defense has been undeniably the worst in the majors:

Defense was one of the major reasons why the Cardinals dropped their first game to Toronto. It has contributed to the team’s 9-11 record thus far, and it will contribute to losses in the future.

Yet, comparing 2017 to 2015, the Cardinals defense doesn’t look that different. The outfield has seen the biggest drop in defensive talent, but no one is complaining about outfield defense anymore. Below are the players who accumulated the most time at each position in 2015.

C: Yadier Molina (1149.2 innings)

1B: Mark Reynolds (708.0)

2B: Kolten Wong (1278.2)

3B: Matt Carpenter (1244.0)

SS: Jhonny Peralta (1287.2)

LF: Matt Holliday (495.1), Stephen Piscotty (385.1), Randal Grichuk (344.1)

CF: Peter Bourjos (476.2), Jon Jay (407.1)

RF: Jason Heyward (1217.1)

The best defensive player on the team in 2015 was Jason Heyward. By FanGraphs Defensive Runs Above Average, he was about 3 runs better than Yadier Molina, 8 better than Jon Jay, and more than 10 better than everyone else on a rate basis. Bourjos was actually worth a negative DRS and UZR in 2015, while Jon Jay was an above average defender that year. The sample sizes are too small to make much of a judgment, but the level of production in center was far from spectacular.

Again, though, no one is complaining much now about outfield defense. Stephen Piscotty has held his own as a right fielder, Fowler hasn’t hurt the team in center and Grichuk has looked comfortable in left. Matt Adams was really bad in the LF experiment, but that probably only mattered on two plays. That experiment has apparently been tabled, so we won’t see it going forward.

On the infield, while Jhonny Peralta was strong defensively for St. Louis in 2014, he was worth -7 DRS and -7.2 UZR in 2015. Carpenter was five runs below average at third base by both DRS and UZR. Kolten Wong was average among second basemen by UZR and +5 by DRS. Overall, the infield defense rated out as average or worse at every position except first base.

Yet, one way or another, the 2015 team managed to rate as the best defense in terms of run prevention. The 2017 squad, on the other hand, is one of the best at giving up extra runs.

Talent-wise, this Cardinals infield looks like it has the ability to perform like the 2015 team. Wong is again getting almost all the time at second base. Aledmys Diaz rated similarly in 2016 at short as Peralta did in 2015. Jedd Gyorko and Greg Garcia have both looked competent in their MLB time at third base. Matt Carpenter at first has been rough, but it’s hard to see him being worse at first than he was at third. Not all that different than 2015.

So, what changed? Did Jose Oquendo mean that much to the team’s fundamentals of infield defense? Or is the team positioning differently, and putting itself in worse situations?

To check the positioning question, we can look at newly available defensive data. Baseball Savant recently updated their Statcast Search and included new defensive metrics. One of those is average fielder depth at each position. Below is a comparison of the position-specific team average for each of the last three years in feet.

St. Louis Cardinals defense

Overall, there really isn’t much to take away here. The Cardinals starting depth is largely unchanged. The corner outfielders are playing in a few steps, but as mentioned above, they aren’t really the problem.

On the infield, Diaz is playing a couple steps in compared to Peralta in 2015, but is basically in line with where he was last year. First base has the only other difference of more than one foot, and it’s probably because Carpenter is more athletic than guys like Mark Reynolds and Brandon Moss.

So, unfortunately, it doesn’t look like we can draw any conclusions from the Cardinals defensive positioning. I had expected to find more differences given the recent advancements in defensive analytics, but the Cardinals haven’t really made any big adjustments. Maybe that’s the problem. Even if they had, though, any conclusion would have been speculative at this point since it’s almost impossible to know what a few feet here and there might mean for an MLB defense.

What we do know, however, is that the St. Louis defense has gone from an above average unit to the worst group in the MLB in just two years, despite having a what looks like a similar amount of defensive talent (on the infield, at least). The team is on pace to own the lowest MLB team fielding percentage since 2011. Additionally, this year’s club doesn’t look like it has the offensive ability to overcome a horrid defense like they did in 2013 and almost did last year.

This offseason, I looked at the St. Louis Cardinals baserunning with Jose Oquendo vs. their first year without, and I believe he added enormous value on the bases. Here again, it looks like he had the ability to maximize the defensive potential of the roster, something which the team has failed to do since he left.

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