The 2020 Cardinals were again one of the better defensive teams in baseball.
When trying to rank players or teams by defensive ability it is best to take an aggregate approach. There are flaws with every cumulative defensive metric in modern analytics. Sticking with one metric can sway results. Combining multiple metrics – like Fangraph’s DRS and UZR –paints a clearer picture.
As a unit, the Cards ranked first in baseball with 33 DRS and fifth with a 13.1 UZR. The only other team with comparable ratings in both categories was the Rays, with a 24 and 14.8 respectively.
DRS and UZR are cumulative stats. The Cardinals rank at or near the top of the league in both categories despite playing about 500 fewer total innings. If we adjust innings played to match the Rays, Shildt’s group ends up with 37 DRS – 13 runs higher than the Rays – and 14.7 UZR – just .1 behind.
That should end any debate. By an aggregated of DRS and UZR adjusted per inning, the Cardinals were the best defensive team in the game in 2020.
That being the case, the club probably expected a stronger showing among the finalists for the Gold Glove awards. On Thursday, Rawlings released their Gold Glove finalists based upon aggregate stats (like DRS and UZR) from a variety of sources. The Cardinals had three finalists. They also had two players who were not at all pleased with their exclusion.
Left Field: Tyler O’Neill
Tyler O’Neill was the best defender on the Cardinals in 2020. I made that argument here just last week. Here are the stats to prove it:
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
Compared to the rest of the league, O’Neill still shines. Among left fielders, O’Neill’s DRS is 6 runs higher than second-place Kyle Tucker, who is an AL finalist. His UZR is 1.5 higher than David Peralta, a contender in the NL. The Reds’ Shogo Akiyama is the other NL candidate. O’Neill tops him by 4 DRS and by 4.8 UZR.
Among all outfielders, regardless of position, O’Neill ranks fourth overall in both categories.
That means he should win right? If the Gold Glove was a strictly defensive award, yes. He is the clear choice by defensive metrics. However, his disappointing offensive season could play a role in the final evaluation. Akiyama produced just an 85 wRC+ and had a slugging percentage below .300. Peralta, meanwhile, was just OK for the Diamondbacks. His 107 wRC+ comes with a .300/.339/.433 line. His power numbers were well down from his prime seasons.
Who will win? With offensive mediocrity (or worse) across the board, O’Neill’s defensive superiority stands out. He should win the Gold Glove in left.
First base: Paul Goldschmidt
For a long time, defensive ability was mostly measured by the “eye-test”. Sure, fielding percentage and errors were around, but defense was an “I know it when I see it” endeavor. Based upon the eye test alone, many Cardinal fans might have pegged Goldschmidt as the best defender on the club.
While he is agile on his feet for a big man, his real talent comes in scooping throws out of the dirt from the left side of his infield and rescuing Kolten Wong’s attempts at amazing plays.
The stats don’t quite match perception. Goldy’s DRS is only 1 and his UZR just 1.3. That leaves him better than average – especially considering the compressed season – but far short of the production expected from a Gold Glover.
Brandon Belt is behind Goldy in both categories. Rizzo, on the other hand, is well ahead of his competitors and seems like a shoo-in for the award.
Then again, if offense plays any role at all in the final decision, Goldy has a real shot. His .304/.417/.466 line and 2.1 fWAR produced are significantly better than Rizzo’s. Belt did have a very productive season – .309/.425/.591 – and finished just short of Goldy’s fWAR.
Who will win? It’s a defensive award. Rizzo should win this. If offense factors in at all, it would be very fair to wonder why Freddie Freeman didn’t make the cut. His defense is very close to Goldy and Belt, but his offense is MVP caliber.
Second base: Kolten Wong
There is no drama here. Wong won the NL 2b Gold Glove last year. He should have won in ’19. He’ll win again in ’20. Easily.
Wong is up against Pittsburgh’s Adam Frazier and the Cubs’ Nico Hoerner. I don’t care what the stats say – and they’re not particularly favorable – but Hoerner doesn’t belong on this list. He has about half the number of innings at 2b than Wong, and remember, Wong’s Cardinals didn’t even play two of their games. Hoerner is out.
Frazier doesn’t offer Wong much competition, either. He is below Wong in DRS – 4 to 6 – and UZR – 1.9 to 3.8. Then there is reputation and incumbency to consider.
Offense, too. While Wong didn’t have his best offensive season, he performed about as well as he has throughout his career. His .265/.350/.326 line translates into a 91 wRC+ and 1.3 fWAR. Frazier’s line was just .230/.297/.364 with an 81 wRC+ plus and just .6 fWAR. (Hoerner, by the way, had a 63 wRC+).
Who will win? Wong. Easily. If he doesn’t, there should be a revolt. I’ll bring the pitchforks.
Were They Snubbed? Yadier Molina
Molina won 8 straight Gold Gloves from ’08-’15. He won his ninth in 2018 after two years without the hardware and was a finalist last season. Despite not winning in 2019, Molina apparently expected to add to his trophy room this year. Here are his own words (translated by Instagram):
Yadier Molina has commented on Instagram on not being named a Gold Glove finalist, and says he feels he’s being excluded so he doesn’t break Johnny Bench’s record and because he has “not [been] their puppet.” #stlcards pic.twitter.com/vBhQ3qYzUp— Jeff Jones (@jmjones) October 22, 2020
Molina, buddy, pal.
Jennifer Langosch, formerly the Cardinals beat writer for MLB.com, immediately weighed in on Jeff Jones’ reporting, noting that this year’s Gold Glove finalists were NOT selected by the vote of coaches or MLB personnel, who might be motivated by some great “protect Johnny Bench” conspiracy. Instead, the finalists were chosen based on aggregate defensive ratings like the ones used above.
This is what makes Molina’s Instagram post so troubling and revealing. Rawling’s three NL catcher finalists all outrank Yadi in Fangraphs’ DEF, DRS, and framing ability. The same is true over at Baseball Savant’s catcher metrics. Yes, Molina is still a force in the run game – teams still refuse to run against him. Yes, catcher metrics are still a work in progress. Still, it’s a struggle to come up with any meaningful metric that points to Molina as a Gold Glove finalist.
Don’t tell Molina that. He still believes he is the best catcher in the game. He expects others to recognize this and reward him appropriately. He thinks any divergent opinion derives from a deliberate intention to slight him and his legacy.
There is little evidence to support his version of reality.
Meanwhile, Molina is seeking a two-year contract extension. For months the club has hinted about the impact of COVID on budgeting and future payroll. How do Molina’s belief that he is the best and his obvious desire for due respect balance with the club’s internal analytics and need (real or not) to cut costs?
Give up any thought that Molina will gladly accept a Wainwright-esque incentive-laden deal. Or that he will yield playing time to the club’s developing catchers – Andrew Knizner and Ivan Herrera. This situation could get ugly soon.
Were They Snubbed? Harrison Bader
Bader’s GIF was Tweeted about the time that the Gold Glove finalists were announced. Though Harrison didn’t elaborate on his post, it seems pretty evident what he was implying.
Does he have a point? Should he have received consideration for a Gold Glove?
Unfortunately, not this year. Bader’s DRS of +1 and UZR of +1.2 were far behind the defensive metrics put up by finalists Trent Grisham and Cody Bellinger. Grisham should win it but either player deserves it.
Should this change the way fans view Bader’s defense going forward? Maybe a little. It’s extremely difficult for any player to maintain the high level of defensive production that Bader provided in ’18 and ’19. A drop in defensive production was inevitable. It’s also possible that Bader’s production was hurt by his fellow outfielders. O’Neill and Carlson both have well above average defensive ability and range. Ozuna and Fowler did not. A +1 DRS diving play for Bader with Ozuna in left in ’19 might have been nothing more than a jogging catch by O’Neill in ’20. It does look like Bader’s plays and out-of-zone plays were down this season. Why? This will be worth looking into in a future article.
In all, the Cardinals had the best defensive team in the game this season. They should get two Gold Gloves out of it. The situation with Molina, is a dark cloud looming. Hold onto your butts. As soon as the World Series is over, the offseason could start getting very interesting and it might not be pretty.