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Consistency with positioning has the Cardinals near the top in defense

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The Cardinals have seen less positional versatility this season across the entire roster, but that stability has made them better with the glove.

MLB: St. Louis Cardinals at Pittsburgh Pirates Charles LeClaire-USA TODAY Sports

The Cardinals have shown a lot of strength with the glove this season.

In 2018, St. Louis had 40 DRS at the end of the season. Their 11 Def runs ranked ranked 11th in the league.

This season, through 108 games, they have 56 DRS. With 23 Def runs, they now rank third in the majors, barely behind Cleveland.

By team rankings, the Cardinals are in the top four of Def for four different positions: first base, second base, shortstop and center field. They had marks that high in just one position in 2018, and made the top ten in only two other positions.

What’s driving that change? There are plenty of factors we’ll never be able to get into here. We can’t go ask Mike Shildt if the coaching staff placed an emphasis on fielding. Players like Paul DeJong have made individual adjustments in terms of positioning, benefiting their range.

But we can look at the overall usage of the team’s players, and dust off an old, wonky metric I introduced for fun in my first piece at VEB: utility rating.

There’s a primer on the (completely useless) measure in the article, but it basically served as a way to measure a team’s positional flexibility by looking at the share of plate appearances projected for the season and the positions at which the players taking those PAs projected to play.

In the season, we can use innings logged instead of plate appearances to get a better idea of the breakdown. The graphs in the previous piece had the Cardinals’ flexibility at around 24.00, which was well above the league average hovering right above 21. The 2018 Cardinals were fifth in expected utility rating before the start of the season.

Still, they finished just outside the top ten in the league in overall fielding performance. That was really the premise of the exercise: that versatility can be volatile, if not utilized correctly by a manager.

Here’s the Cardinals’ utility rating to this point in 2019:

Cardinals’ Utility Rating, 2019

Player C – 26.53 1B – 1.02 2B – 16.33 3B – 16.33 SS – 21.43 LF – 6.12 CF – 16.33 RF – 6.12 Utility Rating
Player C – 26.53 1B – 1.02 2B – 16.33 3B – 16.33 SS – 21.43 LF – 6.12 CF – 16.33 RF – 6.12 Utility Rating
Paul DeJong x 21.43
Paul Goldschmidt x 1.02
Kolten Wong x 16.33
Dexter Fowler x x 22.45
Marcell Ozuna x 6.12
Matt Carpenter x x 17.35
Yadier Molina x x x 43.88
Harrison Bader x 16.33
José Martínez x x 12.24
Matt Wieters x 26.53
Tommy Edman x x x x 55.11
Yairo Muñoz x x x x x x 82.66
Tyler O'Neill x x x 28.57
Andrew Knizner x x 27.55
Jedd Gyorko x x x 33.68
Lane Thomas x x 22.45
Rangel Ravelo x 1.02
Randy Arozarena x 16.33
Drew Robinson x x 22.45

Now, that doesn’t mean much without the innings share attached as well. The chart tells the number of positions a player has played this season, and has a 100-point scale adapted from the FanGraphs positional adjustments to represent that value, but it matters how many innings the players have logged:

Cardinals innings-share by position, 2019

NAME C 1B 2B 3B SS LF CF RF TOTAL
NAME C 1B 2B 3B SS LF CF RF TOTAL
Paul DeJong 96.1% 12.0%
Paul Goldschmidt 96.0% 12.0%
Kolten Wong 89.6% 11.2%
Dexter Fowler 32.9% 43.5% 9.6%
Marcell Ozuna 71.2% 8.9%
Matt Carpenter 1.8% 64.1% 8.2%
Yadier Molina 56.5% 0.2% 0.1% 7.1%
Harrison Bader 55.5% 6.9%
José Martínez 3.7% 48.4% 6.5%
Matt Wieters 34.2% 4.3%
Tommy Edman 7.2% 19.2% 0.1% 2.9% 3.7%
Yairo Muñoz 2.4% 9.4% 3.9% 4.4% 3.4% 2.3% 3.2%
Tyler O'Neill 20.7% 1.7% 2.6% 3.1%
Andrew Knizner 9.3% 0.3% 1.2%
Jedd Gyorko 0.1% 0.8% 7.2% 1.0%
Lane Thomas 5.0% 0.3% 0.7%
Rangel Ravelo 1.6% 0.2%
Randy Arozarena 0.9% 0.1%
Drew Robinson 0.4% 0.1% 0.1%

Looking at both of those, the 2019 Cardinals have a utility rating of 21.26. (Check back on the previous piece if you want to see the league’s spread in 2018, for reference.) Last season, that would’ve moved them from fifth to 14th in the rankings.

I keep coming back to this, and it may have you questioning the point of this exercise, but these numbers don’t inherently carry weight. The NL champion Dodgers were ranked fourth, one ahead of the Cardinals in 2018’s utility ratings. The World Series champion Red Sox were well under league average at 21st.

It’s all about how a manager utilizes the talent. Take another look at the innings share. This season, the Cards have three players with more than 11% of the innings logged by position players. The injuries to Dexter Fowler and Marcell Ozuna are the only things that stood in the way of those two breaching that 10% mark as well.

Last season was a bit different:

Cardinals’ innings-share by position, 2018

NAME C 1B 2B 3B SS LF CF RF TOTAL
NAME C 1B 2B 3B SS LF CF RF TOTAL
Matt Carpenter 42.0% 5.7% 39.1% 11.1%
Marcell Ozuna 85.1% 10.6%
Yadier Molina 69.9% 0.8% 8.8%
Jose Martinez 46.4% 23.0% 8.7%
Paul DeJong 69.1% 8.6%
Harrison Bader 2.0% 42.3% 18.6% 7.9%
Kolten Wong 61.6% 7.7%
Jedd Gyorko 0.8% 7.2% 45.7% 2.1% 7.0%
Tommy Pham 54.0% 6.8%
Yairo Munoz 13.4% 6.6% 21.0% 1.2% 1.4% 3.8% 5.9%
Dexter Fowler 44.6% 5.6%
Greg Garcia 11.9% 4.2% 7.8% 3.0%
Francisco Pena 22.5% 0.2% 2.8%
Tyler O'Neill 8.4% 1.8% 8.6% 2.3%
Matt Adams 7.2% 0.9%
Carson Kelly 6.9% 0.9%
Patrick Wisdom 1.4% 4.4% 0.7%
Adolis Garcia 0.2% 0.5% 1.4% 0.3%
Luke Voit 1.2% 0.1%
Steven Baron 0.7% 0.1%
Edmundo Sosa 0.1% 0.0%

There were lots of experiments with players being shifted around. Only two players ended up with more than 10% of the innings share. Seven players were under 1%.

Adding a player like Paul Goldschmidt with his defensive reputation will add a boost, and it’s a no-brainer to play him at first. But there’s been consistency with the remaining positions as well. They’ve had 31 different starters across the eight position player spots, as opposed to 35 last season.

At times, sending out the same lineup can get frustrating when the offense is slumping or a player isn’t contributing the way one thinks they should. And Yairo Muñoz in the outfield is an experiment that should probably go away for good. But defensive improvements and consistency in positioning have created a team that’s one of the best in the league in the field.