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Do the Cardinals have the best middle infield in baseball?

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The answer might surprise you. Actually it won’t, but feels like I have to say that.

MLB: Milwaukee Brewers at St. Louis Cardinals Jeff Curry-USA TODAY Sports

Imagine it’s February. And you come upon a device that allows you to see the future, but only on September 5 and only to learn about the state of the St. Louis Cardinals. You are told that Paul Goldschmidt has less than 2 fWAR, Matt Carpenter less than 1, Michael Wacha is a below replacement level pitcher for the season, Carlos Martinez is the closer, and three position players on the Cardinals have 2 or greater fWAR. I don’t know about you, but my best guess is 4th place if I’m told this.

Honestly, I have trouble knowing these things are all true and knowing the Cardinals are in 1st place in the division. It does not make a lot of sense. That the reason is essentially the bullpen is playing over its head still doesn’t really seem like it makes up for all the things in the above paragraph. I mean you have three starters with 2+ fWAR, Dakota Hudson doing whatever magic he’s doing to make his ERA drastically lower than his FIP, and three relievers combining for 3.8 fWAR. And of course, the topic of this article, the middle infield leads the team in fWAR.

This did not come out of nowhere. DeJong was projected for 2.4 fWAR, but already has more PAs than his ZiPS projections, so it’s not crazy unexpected. Kolten Wong, in similar fashion, was projected for only 1.9 fWAR, but that came in only 434 PAs, which he has already beat. But still, that both lead the position players in fWAR and with third place being a full win behind is sure unexpected.

They’ve been so good that I wondered if they were the best middle infield duo in baseball. How many teams feature two 3+ WAR players (possibly 4+ by the end of the year)? I didn’t think many. I quickly found the answer was more complicated than I imagined. The leader in 2B WAR on Fangraphs... has played half his innings in CF. Third place features a guy with less than half of his innings played in the middle infield. Apparently, having the same guys play SS and 2B just about every game is unusual.

If teams played their best possible middle infield, the answer would not be DeJong/Wong. But that’s not what I’m trying to figure out. To figure out who has received the best middle infield production, I simply took whatever percentage of innings the player played at either 2B or SS, and took that percentage of their overall WAR. For example, Mike Moustakas has played 358.2 innings out of a possible 1,026.1 IP at 2B, therefore the Brewers middle infield gets credit for 34.9% of his 2.4 fWAR.

After running the numbers, you’ll never guess who has had the best middle infield in 2019. It’s the Astros. Of course it’s the Astros. Jose Altuve and Carlos Correa are the primary middle infield duo, but that’s not specifically why they have had the best middle infield. Both have less than 3 fWAR on the season after all. No, they’ve been boosted considerably by Alex Bregman playing a portion of his time at SS. Thanks to those three and mostly above replacement level production from fill-ins such as Tony Kemp, old friend Aledmys Diaz, and Myles Straw, the Astros have received 8.4 fWAR from second base and shortstop.

Six other teams have bested 6+ fWAR at 2B and SS this year: the Diamondbacks, Yankees, Dodgers, Red Sox, Twins, and of course the Cardinals. The Red Sox are dragged down by their 2B production, because Xander Bogaerts gets 6.4 of the 6.8 fWAR by himself. The Dodgers have relied on a committee approach - no surprise there - with Max Muncy, Chris Taylor, Corey Seager, Kiké Hernandez, and soon Gavin Lux combining for 6.4 fWAR. The improbable season of DJ LeMahieu, and the very probable seasons of Gleyber Torres and Didi Gregorious land at 6.6 fWAR for the Yankees. They are that low, if you were inclined to check up on me, because LeMahieu actually has split his time between 1B, 2B and 3B surprisingly.

Everything went right for every Twins hitter so it’s also not a surprise to see their middle infield production at 6.7 with Jorge Polanco, Luis Arraez, Jonathan Schoop, and Ehire Adrianza. Adrianza has a 109 wRC+ because the Twins broke baseball this year. Lastly, the Dbacks are at 6.1 primarily because Ketel Marte seems to play mostly CF, and because Nick Ahmed is apparently good now.

That leaves the Cardinals. They actually place 2nd in the majors with 7.3 fWAR. Wong and DeJong combine for 7 themselves, with Tommy Edman filling in the gaps with only a portion of his time being at 2B. DeJong ranks 8th in the majors among shortstops with 3.6 fWAR while Wong ranks tied for 7th among second baseman, as of this writing at least. Okay so the Cardinals don’t have the best middle infield in the majors.

However, and this is not saying anything new, but the Cardinals likely have the best defensive middle infield. DeJong has been a +9.8 UZR/150 fielder, and that’s not a UZR blip, as DeJong now is a +8 fielder across nearly 3,000 innings in his career. Wong meanwhile has been a +5 fielder this year and a +6 fielder in his career. Ahead of Wong is Yolmer Sanchez and Nicky Lopez. Sanchez’s double play partner is Tim Anderson, a very bad defender at SS. Lopez’s is Adalberto Mondesi. Mondesi and Lopez appear to be essentially equal to Wong and DeJong defensively, but it’s harder to tell with neither Lopez nor Mondesi having anything resembling a good sample size. Ahead of DeJong is nobody.

So there you have it. The Cardinals have the second best middle infield in baseball and the best defensive middle infield in baseball. It doesn’t necessarily feel like that’s true, which is probably why it’s hard to believe the Cardinals are in 1st place with all that has gone wrong. But that’s probably just because it’s hard to quantify great defense and neither Wong or DeJong have really been great on offense. But they’ve been great this year and as weird as it is to say, hopefully Paul DeJong and Kolten Wong can lead the Cardinals to the playoffs.