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Best of the 2020 Season: Offense/Defense

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Plenty of highlights and analysis as we break down the best overall and single-game offensive and defense performances by the Cardinals this season.

National League Wild Card Game 2: St. Louis Cardinals v. San Diego Padres Photo by Rob Leiter/MLB Photos via Getty Images

Best of the 2020 Season: Offense/Defense

All season long I’ve posted the “best of” the Cardinals season. It’s my go-to, light-hearted Saturday post when all we want are some highlights and positive stats. For the next few weeks, I’m bringing those “best ofs” to this more analytical Thursday space, where we’ll dig a little deeper into the best overall and single-game performances for the Cardinals this season. Today it’s offense and defense. Next week we’ll handle pitching – rotation and bullpen. We’ll finish the series with a look at “others” – baserunning, stat lines, and maybe even coaching.

Best Offensive Player: Paul Goldschmidt

This one was easy. Paul Goldschmidt was by far the best offensive player on the Cardinals this year by every conceivable metric.

WAR - Goldschmidt 2.1, Wong 1.3
wRC+ - Goldschmidt 146, Miller 121
wOBA – Goldschmidt .387, Miller .349

This compressed 2020 season was an encouraging return to form for Goldy. In the three years before coming to St. Louis, Goldschmidt had wOBA’s of .382, .400, and .390. Last year, while adjusting to a new ballpark, hitting coach, and offensive philosophy, Goldschmidt stumbled. His .346 wOBA was the lowest of his career and more than a few fans were whispering about “age 30 decline”.

2020 doesn’t put those concerns completely to bed. Goldschmidt’s power was down this season – just a .162 ISO – and his BABIP was higher than normal (though he is a high BABIP player). His overall exit velocity also declined for the third straight year. Still, Goldy found a way to reach his expected levels of production.

There’s a common belief that because the Cardinals did not have much (any) production in the 4th spot behind Goldschmidt this season, opposing pitchers “didn’t give him anything to hit”. That would explain why his walk rate went up and his homers were down, if it were true. It’s not. Goldy’s zone percentage – the percentage of balls he saw in the strike zone – was 46.8%, slightly down from last season but still above anything he saw with the Diamondbacks. What changed was not the way Goldy was pitched. What changed was Goldy himself. Last year, he was hyper-aggressive, swinging at the highest Statcast measured rate of his career. This year, Goldy cut back, returning to the more patient approach he had shown for most of his career in Arizona. From ’15 to ’18, his swing % ranged from 38.1% to 42.4%. In 2020, Goldschmidt swung at just 40.6% of pitches.

Goldy had some great single-game performances in 2020, including some long HRs. August 24th against the Royals represents the kind of overall great player that Goldy is. He hit a homer. He made a great defensive play at 1b. He drove in some runs by putting the ball in play.

Best Defensive Player: Tyler O’Neill

Surprise! Before the season started, how many fans would have predicted that Tyler O’Neill would be the team’s best defender? It really shouldn’t come as much of a shock. O’Neill has incredible speed. VEB has showcased the analytics on that before. He has incredible athleticism. He has a strong arm. All that was missing from O’Neill’s defensive game was consistency.

He found it over a small sample size in 2020 and he is the club’s best defensive player without much debate. Here are the relevant stats:

DRS: O’Neill 9, Wong 6, Carlson 4 (combined)
UZR: O’Neill 5.7, Wong 3.8, Carlson 3.6 (combined)
OAA: O’Neill 4, Edman 4, Bader 4
DEF: Molina 5.0, Wong 4.5, O’Neill 3.9

O’Neill leads or is tied for the lead in three of the four defensive categories. That’s good enough for him to earn the top spot.

Can he stay there? Over 162 games? Probably not. Flashing this kind of defensive aptitude over a short sample is encouraging, though. O’Neill has shown that even if he never fully reaches his offensive potential, he can offer a lot to a roster. Don’t give up on O’Neill just yet. If he can be a plus defender and just bounce back to what he was in ’18 and ’19 with his bat, he’s at worse a quality 4th outfielder.

Overall, the Cardinals remained a superior defensive team in 2020. The Cardinals ranked 5th in UZR and 1st in DRS, despite having far fewer innings overall than any other team. Cardinals players had 30 or more innings at a defensive position 19 times. In 15 of those instances, their DRS was at least neutral. The only below-average players were Matt Wieters, Dexter Fowler, Brad Miller, and Tommy Edman in RF (and only RF). The 2020 club was based on pitching and defense. Defense might be their deepest quality. If only they could find some power…

Here’s one of Tyler O’Neill’s best defensive play of the season:

Best Single-Game Performance: Harrison Bader, 9/27

There are lots of ways to approach this question. Most hits in a game. Most RBI’s. Sexiest looking stat line. Multiple HRs. Fangraphs will even do wRC+ by single games. Personally, I prefer barrels. Some of those things can happen without the hitter actually performing at his best. Take Godlschmidt’s 3-4 day in the video above. One of his hits was a chopper off the pitcher’s glove that is probably an out 80% of the time. It’s great that the ball went through. It’s just not the best kind of hitting performance. Barrels, though. No one can argue with those.

Two Cardinal batters had multiple barreled balls in one game. Back on Aug. 17, the Cardinals had returned to action after their long COVID-caused layoff. They played a double-header at Wrigley, still hoping that they could catch the Cubs in the central and win the division, despite being short-handed. Brad Miller put on a show in game two, hitting two long homeruns. The balls were barreled at 100 and 106.1 mph exit velocity respectively. The Cards, though, lost the game and the division to their northern rivals.

Much later in the season Harrison Bader would match Miller’s barrel output. The Cardinals’ much-maligned center fielder smoked a HR at 106.6 mph and a triple at 100.1 mph. Bader’s brilliant performance came in the final game of the season, powering the Cardinals into a postseason berth as the NL’s 5th seed. His homer hit Fredbird’s landscape masterpiece in Big Mac Land. It was one of the most memorable moments of the season.

Which game was better? All else being equal, I’ll take the post-season clinching, painting-hitting performance in the last game of the season over two-HR’s in a disappointing loss. Plus, Bader’s barrel’s were just slightly harder than Miller’s.

This is just splitting hairs, though. Both games were brilliant. So, double highlights!

Best Defensive Play: 3-2-8 Double Play

If there’s a way to quantify individual defensive plays, it’s beyond me. Maybe someone among the “best fans in baseball” will know a way and mention it in the comments! This one is entirely subjective. The best defensive play of the season was the ridiculous 3-2-8 double play pulled off by Goldschmidt, Molina, and, of all people, rookie Dylan Carlson.

Cleveland had runners on first and third when no. 42 Lindor hit a grounder to no. 42 Goldy, who threw home to stop the runner. Molina (no. 42 in the video) caught it and sprinted (ok, jogged) the runner (no. 42 on the Indians) back toward third. The runner on first (also no. 42 in the video) had circled second and was now stuck between second and third. Molina tagged the runner coming from third before he could reach the base and then took off after the runner (no. 42) who had circled second. Here’s where the brilliance happened. The batter, Lindor (no. 42), had circled first and was waiting for his chance to advance if he could. Molina broke off his pursuit of the man on second (you know, no. 42, the one who was originally on first), and faked like he was going after the batter, (no. 42), who was now heading to second from first. Somehow (no. 42) Dylan Carlson, the Cardinals’ rookie center fielder, slipped in unnoticed by everyone except Molina (no. 42). Molina fired to Carlson to catch the runner, no. 42, as he returned to second.

Just your average 3-2-8 double play where 42 threw to 42 and then 42, to tag out 42 and 42.

Maybe you have your own ideas on the best offensive and defensive performances of the season? Post them in chat! You can use MLB’s amazing new tool – MLB Video Search – to find highlights of just about every play that has happened this season (and previous seasons). Enjoy!