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The Cards' defense: not what it once was

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When looking at the Cards' defense in '07, there is a very interesting dynamic. I don't know quite what to make of it. The Cards had sort of a Jekyll and Hyde defense in '07. We know, first of all, that Molina and Pujols are among the best in the game (despite the interminable "wisdom" of the Gold Glove voters) if not the very best at their respective positions. Despite injuries and age, Rolen was still a very good defensive 3B as well.

On the other hand, Eckstein's defense regressed to the point where Mozeliak was so opposed to bringing him back that he refused to even offer arbitration. There was some debate about the stats vs. scouts approach in the threads over the past week. I think both scouts and statheads could agree that Eckstein's defense was particularly bad last year. Certainly the stats support it and I can't remember reading 1 comment defending his play at short. Duncan cemented his reputation as a 1B/DH while playing LF and those of us who defended Encarnacion's defense in '06 had a really tough time doing so last year. Edmonds, too, did little to impress in center.

The team numbers reflect our schizophrenic defense as well. On the bad side, the Cards offered up the 2nd most unearned runs in the NL. That number's a little deceiving as it reflects our poor pitching staff as well as our very mediocre defense. Nonetheless, it's not a feather in our caps. Our RZR was 9th in the NL and that of our outfield was dead last in the league. The infield's RZR was much better, ranking 5th in the league, which helped bring our overall RZR to just below league average.

The Dr. Jekyll side of our defense was that our number of outs made outside of the fielder's zone was 2nd in the NL. For the infielders, it was the best in the NL. Maybe this isn't all that surprising considering the fact that Pujols and Rolen played the corner IF positions but Eckstein still had more than 900 innings at short. Even the outfield, whose RZR was last in the NL, finished 5th in the number of outs made outside their zones.

So, let me get this straight: the Cards were relatively poor at turning balls hit INTO our respective zones into outs and were very good at turning balls hit OUTSIDE of our respective defensive zones into outs? Can anyone reconcile this? Should Tony and Dave McKay move our fielders so that routine plays become much more difficult just so we'll make more of them? That's a joke, of course, but it's meant to highlight the unusual dichotomy that seemed to exist w/ the Cards' defense in '07.

Still, it's inescapable that the Cards' defense took a big step backward in '07. You'd have to think that the fact that the Cards surrendered 104 more runs than they scored last year is partly attributable to their relatively porous defense. Not since 1999 had the Cards had a defensive efficiency ratio as low as it was in '07 (.689). Defensive efficiency ratio is a ratio of the percentage of batted balls in play that are turned into outs by the defense. For the previous 7 years, the Cards had been around or over .700 - among the top 3-4 in the NL. Last year, we finished 9th - as I said, it's a big step backward.

You'd have to think that the lengths Mozeliak went to bring in Izturis to play SS is an attempt at a big defensive upgrade for the infield's most important defensive position. Perhaps it will work. Glaus, of course, replaces Rolen at third and I think that I and LB have made a fairly convincing case here and here that the downgrade at third should be slight. Again, Rolen's better but Glaus can hold his own at the hot corner. The other big changes, of course, will take place in the OF where either Ankiel or Rasmus will replace Edmonds in CF with either Ankiel or Ludwick (or both) manning RF much of the year. They'll replace the always underwhelming Juan Encarnacion. It's difficult to say what to expect out here. Ankiel's defense in RF last year, according the available metrics, was outstanding. Of course, we're talking about a grand total of 197 innings - not exactly enough to make a cogent argument. FWIW, those same metrics have him being beyond abysmal in CF in even fewer innings. In my mind, he's a good enough athlete and has a good enough arm that I'll give him the benefit of the doubt at either position. He'll make some mistakes, to be sure, as he's very raw in the OF but he'll make some excellent plays as well. I'd bet that, on the whole, he'll be fine whether he's in CF or RF. Ludwick played a more than respectable OF last year as well and Rasmus is reported to be an above-average CF. It's doubtful that Duncan will be any worse.

Still, our infield should be better defensively than our OF as 1/3 of our OF will be poor defensively. Kennedy is the worst defender in the infield and he's about average defensively. Even if Miles ends up spending a lot of time at 2b, he's not considerably worse than Kennedy. If he spends a lot of time at short...well, that's a different story altogether.

I don't see the Cards' pitching staff being all that different (in terms of pitching to the defense) than it was last year either. As we know, Tony and Duncan are very ground-ball-oriented. The major addition to the pitching staff so far has been Matt Clement and he's set to take most of the innings (assuming he's able) that went to Kip Wells last year. Both Clement and Wells have career GB%'s in the 45-48% range so we shouldn't see a significant difference in the number of ground balls w/ the addition of Clement. Right now, the 5th spot is set to be between Mulder, Thompson, and Reyes (seriously?). If Thompson and Mulder take the bulk of those 32 or so starts that should increase the number of grounders our infielders see. Reyes' GB% last year was 35.2% while Thompson's was a career-low 49.5%. Mulder's historically has been over 50%. Interestingly, if Reyes isn't part of the '08 rotation, Braden Looper will have the lowest GB% of all the starters.

So the infielders are likely to see a few more grounders this year than last. That certainly plays to our relative defensive strength. Hopefully that, and a slightly improved pitching staff, can reduce the number of unearned runs from 88. The Cubs, by comparison, surrendered 40 unearned runs - that's almost a 5 win difference and our defense gave up 2 wins to the Brewers just in terms of unearned runs.

So it's likely that all 3 areas (pitching, hitting, defense) of the team will be slightly improved over last year but there's a lot of ground to make up as the Cards had 71 pythagorean wins and, as I said, a -104 run differential in '07. While there will be marginal improvement in the Cards' defense in '08, we're still a long way from where we were just a few years ago.