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Kolten Wong Takes Home Gold, But the Cardinals’ Whole Defense Deserves Attention

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Kolten Wong won his first Gold Glove yesterday, but don’t let that fool you into thinking he was the only defensive star for the Cardinals this year.

2019 NLDS Game 5 - St. Louis Cardinals v. Atlanta Braves Photo by Mike Zarrilli/MLB Photos via Getty Images

The winners of the Gold Glove awards were announced yesterday, and finally, Kolten Wong has grabbed himself one. Wong has arguably been one of the better defensive second baseman in baseball for his entire career, but it’s really been the last two seasons in which his excellence with the glove has reached a new level. He was also honoured with a Fielding Bible award prior to the announcement of the Gold Gloves, so it’s been a banner offseason so far for Kolten’s trophy case.

Of course, the old joke about a given player not being a good enough hitter to win a Gold Glove seems to be in effect here as well, seeing as how this was only the second season in his career Wong has mustered a batting line better than league average, with the other occasion he reached that mark, 2017, representing perhaps the one and only truly disappointing defensive season of his career. Small samples and all, yes, but every defensive metric had Wong as a below-average fielder that season, largely due to some throwing issues I seem to recall cropping up more often than usual that year.

The 2019 season also represented just the second time Wong has played a more or less full season in the big leagues; he amassed nearly 1200 innings in the field this year, a total he has eclipsed just once. In Wong’s six full seasons as a major league second baseman, he has reached the 1200 inning mark just once, and 1100 innings just one other time, this past year. In every other season he had failed to reach even 900 innings, with the 2016 season representing a particular low point. Wong played just 635 innings at second base that year, largely due to injury, but also due to Mike Matheny’s insistence on using Wong as an outfielder for about 100 innings or so.

So congratulations to Kolten Wong on his first Gold Glove. The award is well deserved. But the fact Wong took home the only gold for the Cardinals should not obscure just how remarkable the club’s defense as a whole was this past season. Of all the positive developments for the Cardinals over the past couple years, this defensive renaissance is almost certainly the most notable.

It’s interesting to consider where the Cardinals are right now defensively in light of last year’s managerial change. For all the flak Mike Shildt takes for some of his lineup decisions and the occasional slow hook with a starting pitcher (the lineup decisions I share some of the frustration; the slow starter hook seems endemic to the sport), it seems to me that on the large points of preparation and culture he has excelled. Under Mike Matheny, the Cardinals were a hopelessly sloppy defensive club, and their baserunning was an annual point of frustration for fans and analysts alike. Under Shildt, the Cardinals were among the best defensive clubs in baseball, and they added the second-most value on the bases of any team in the game. (The Diamondbacks were number one.) The Cardinals do the little things better under Shildt than they ever did under Matheny, and I would posit those little things are, in fact, the really big thing when it comes to managers. Admittedly, I would still like to see some improvement from Shildty on some of the tactical questions, but the focus of the coaching staff seems to be more or less united now, and pointing the players in a good direction.

Of course, you cannot have defensive excellence without excellent defenders, so the credit must always go to the players first. Still, considering the 2018 club led the league in errors while the 2019 edition committed the fewest in baseball while having a pretty high degree of carryover in terms of personnel, I think it’s fair to say that the change in dugout leadership deserves at least some of the credit here.

By pretty much any measure, the Cardinals’ defense was the best aspect of the team this past season. The club excelled at run prevention in general, and while the pitching was certainly good, it was the team’s skill at converting balls in play into outs that really made that run prevention so notable.

Let’s take a look at some of the Cards’ defensive numbers and rankings this year, just to put into context how good they were creating outs.

By FanGraphs’ defensive WAR, the Cardinals were the third-best team in baseball, behind only the Athletics and Diamondbacks. (Get used to those names, because you’re going to be hearing them a lot.) The Cards checked in just ahead of the Cleveland Indians and the Phillies.

By DRS, my personal favourite defensive rating system, the Cards ranked third in baseball again, this time behind the Diamondbacks and the Dodgers, who were the runaway defensive team of the year by DRS. I admit, this actually feels a little odd to me, and the other systems don’t view LA nearly so rosily. The Dodgers were a good defensive club this year, I think, but I don’t know that I believe they were by far the best in baseball. According to DRS, the Cards saved 95 runs on the season, ahead of the Astros with 90 and behind the DBacks with 117 and the Dodgers at 136. Again, as much as I like DRS most of the time those numbers seem off to me, not in terms of the teams or direction, but in terms of the magnitude.

If you prefer plus/minus, the Cardinals actually check in at number two overall in baseball, with a +58 defensive rating, ahead of the Diamondbacks at +48 in third place and behind only the Dodgers at +63. The Astros and Athletics round out the top five. I told you to get used to hearing about the A’s and DBacks.

Finally, by UZR the Cardinals were....number three. (I’m sensing a pattern here.) The Indians just edged the Cards out for second place, while the Athletics took the top spot. Strangely, UZR actually has the Dodgers as a below-average defensive team this year, which seems even more off to me than the margin by which DRS thinks they were the best. Just a reminder that defensive stats are much more complicated than offensive stats, based almost entirely on tiny differences in the way data is collected and weighted.

In the end, it doesn’t really matter so much which system you favour, or the exact number of runs the club saved relative to some other team. The generals are better than the specifics here, and what the generals tell us is this: the Cardinals were one of about the three best clubs in baseball this year at turning balls in play into ball in play, out(s). They excelled at multiple positions, which we can tell both by the numbers and the fact that the team had six Gold Glove finalists, the most of any team in baseball. Harrison Bader has a solid case as being the best center fielder in the National League, although his lesser playing time than Lorenzo Cain probably kept him from winning the award. Paul DeJong is not as good as Nick Ahmed, but he’s not far off. Paul Goldschmidt made a big impact on the Cards’ defense as a whole this year, I think, both in terms of his own play at first and the level of confidence he brought to the infield mix. The Cardinals have a lot of really good defenders, the coaching staff seems dedicated to a culture of defensive excellence, and the results are there, on the field and in the numbers.

It is also notable, and muddies the waters a bit, that the Cardinals put up these fantastic defensive numbers while playing a few very, very bad defenders at certain times this season. And, just as I praised Mike Shildt earlier for setting the tone and establishing the culture around defense, he deserves some demerits for falling into the same trap as his predecessor when it comes to things like playing a significantly worse player at some position in an attempt to ‘get the offense going’ and the like. Jose Martinez hitting like he did in 2017 and roller skating his way around the outfield is a player you keep in the lineup but try to hide on defense. Jose Martinez hitting like he did in 2019 no longer makes up for that defense with his bat.

The outfield alignment of Ozuna-Fowler-Martinez got far, far too much playing time this season, and even if the Cardinal organisation seems to believe outfield defense matters less than infield defense, the best numbers we have tell us they’re hurting themselves with some of these playing time decisions. Of course, saying Jose Martinez isn’t hitting so stop playing him sounds simple, but if we want to argue for large samples we should at least be consistent and admit that he had the track record for ~900 plate appearances of the type of player you probably should be playing in spite of his defense, and then suddenly didn’t. The question is how quickly we should expect someone to react to that, when we decry the use of tiny samples all the time when it suits our purposes. Regardless, between now and the beginning of the 2020 season I hope to see some changes in personnel take place in the Cardinals’ outfield, particularly in light of how much future talent they potentially have to comb through.

In the end, the numbers tell us that the Cardinals of 2019, despite Harrison Bader being benched and then sent to the minors, in spite of Jose Martinez seeing right field more than is ideal, and in spite of Marcell Ozuna no longer being the kind of defender he once was, were a fantastic defensive team. It was the thing they did best, and the thing which got them back to the postseason despite plenty of other things going wrong. Kolten Wong is the only Cardinal who walked away with hardware this offseason, but the team as a whole deserves all the credit in the world for the sheer number of runs they kept off the scoreboard in 2019.