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The Cardinals’ Brand is (Still) Defense

And part of the reason is... pitchers?

Divisional Series - St Louis Cardinals v Atlanta Braves - Game Five Photo by Todd Kirkland/Getty Images

The regular season is down to three days and four games for the Cardinals with lots of questions still to be resolved. Will the Cardinals make the playoffs? Can the Cardinals eliminate the Brewers, Reds, or both? How will the playoff roster shake out? And most importantly, how much can any of us seriously care? Ah yes, the trappings of a 60-game (or less!) baseball season played amidst a global pandemic rear their ugly head again. May pennant fever be the only fever you catch this fall. Instead of talking about playoff scenarios in this odd season, today I want to discuss something a little more permanent. Lots of teams have a brand- something they’re known for on the field. The Red Sox are famous for their ability to churn out leftfield mashers like Ted Williams, Carl Yastrzemski, Jim Rice, and Manny Ramirez. The Dodgers have long been a pitching factory, the Orioles have had more than their far share of two-way offensive and defensive stars, and the Expos (when they existed) were known for creating superstars for other teams. The Cardinals are known for their defense, and it’s a tradition that has continued well into the 21st century.

This isn’t really a surprise for most baseball fans and certainly not Cardinal fans. Franchise history is full of defensive wizards, both lower and upper-case W. Ozzie Smith and Yadier Molina are arguably the best defenders to ever play their positions. Scott Rolen, Marty Marion, Red Schoendienst, Ken Boyer, Curt Flood, and almost anyone who set foot on the Busch Stadium turf in the 1980s also qualify as franchise defensive highlights. If we look at FanGraphs’ Def stat (Defensive Runs Above Average), the Cardinals have the highest franchise total since 1906.

It holds true into the 21st century even as we have better defensive metrics. Since Defensive Runs Saved came into existence in 2003, either the FanGraphs version or the Fielding Bible version, the Cardinals have lapped the field with 572 DRS (FG version). The second best team, Arizona, is all the way back at 416. That’s a little surprising if only because our memories include a few nasty recent defensive teams.

I bring all of this up because the Cardinals are doing it again. Whatever their recent issues (let’s call it 2016 to 2018), they’ve fixed them. They were the fourth best team in baseball last year and the best- despite playing fewer games than every other team- in 2020. Here are their individual season ranks, and their rolling three-year ranks since DRS was created, using the Fielding Bible numbers:

Cardinal Ranks in DRS, 2003-2020

Season Rank Rolling 3 Rank
Season Rank Rolling 3 Rank
2003 18 X
2004 3 X
2005 2 4
2006 2 1
2007 3 1
2008 2 2
2009 7 2
2010 3 1
2011 18 4
2012 8 6
2013 22 17
2014 3 10
2015 12 10
2016 23 11
2017 10 14
2018 16 16
2019 4 7
2020 1 3

Where it becomes especially interesting is the source of all of this defensive mastery. You’d be right to point out that they’ve had Scott Rolen, Yadier Molina, a little bit of Pete Kozma, the not-to-be-underestimated Albert Pujols, and liberal doses of the newest batch of wizards (more on that soon) in those seasons. They’ve certainly been helpful. But let’s take a look at a breakdown of ranks by position:

Cardinals Rank in DRS by Position, 2003-2020

Season OF Rank C Rank P Rank IF Rank
Season OF Rank C Rank P Rank IF Rank
2003 17 25 12 19
2004 22 3 2 1
2005 21 1 2 2
2006 18 1 8 3
2007 18 2 2 6
2008 12 6 7 1
2009 16 2 3 9
2010 12 2 3 15
2011 16 13 5 22
2012 13 1 3 24
2013 26 1 18 16
2014 10 21 1 2
2015 4 13 15 20
2016 22 17 3 22
2017 15 9 1 22
2018 13 26 26 10
2019 15 18 1 1
2020 5 11 11 4

The outfield hasn’t been top 10 in any season since 2003 except for this year. The infield has had some moments, especially during the Rolen years, but also took a dive from 2010-2018. The catcher position has been good, to be sure, obviously a product of Yadier Molina. However, it’s been subpar in recent seasons.

The true driver of the Cardinals defensive wizardry in the 21st century has been... PITCHERS. They’ve been top 5 in the league in 11 of those 18 seasons. It’s even more impressive when compared to the rest of the league. Since 2003, Cardinal pitchers have been worth 157 defensive runs saved (FanGraphs this time). The second best team, the Pirates, have 70. Hell, you can add the third best team (the Dodgers, 57) to the Pirates and you still fall 30 runs short of the Cardinals total.

That sounds funky. Maybe there’s something in DRS that can explain this. If we look at how it’s calculated, we see two potential explanations immediately:

  • Pitcher Stolen Base Runs Saved (Pitchers)
  • Strike Zone Runs Saved, with the following explanation: Strike Zone Runs Saved ascertains the contribution the catcher, pitcher, batter and umpire is making in getting more or fewer called strikes than average, converted to a run value.

Theoretically, DRS splits out the catcher effect from the pitcher in strike zone runs and stolen base runs. But it’s hard to ignore the fact that Cardinal pitchers have such a massive DRS advantage during the same era in which they’ve had, almost universally, the same catcher. Even the best efforts from the Fielding Bible folks may not be enough to untangle the complicated relationship of whether or not a pitcher or catcher is most responsible for these things.

Do the Cardinals purposely target good fielding pitchers? After all, some acquisitions like Jake Westbrook and Woody Williams had good defensive reputations elsewhere. Is this the product of two or three splendid defenders having a long run as Cardinal pitchers, like Chris Carpenter, Adam Wainwright, or Jaime Garcia? Or is this concealing a hidden Yadi Effect™? Simply looking at the FanGraphs DRS numbers for pitchers since 2003, we can tell that, while the Cardinals have had some good fielding pitchers over the years, it’s much more than just the effect of Wainwright, Carpenter, et al.

After conferring with VEB writer emeritus Ben Clemens, we determined that the best way to test this out was to look at pitchers who pitched both for the Cardinals and elsewhere. I pulled together a ridiculous list that included everyone from Jake Westbrook to Danny Haren to Tyson Ross to noted franchise icon Blaine Boyer and 106 other pitchers. From there, we can compare their DRS with the Cardinals to their DRS elsewhere. We also need a control for time played. In this case, I’ve used total chances. Here’s how that turned out:

Cardinal Pitchers DRS, In STL and With Others

Category with STL with Others
Category with STL with Others
DRS 110 -85
Total Chances 3659 9554

Even though they had about one-third the number of chances in St. Louis as they had with other teams, they racked up 195 (!) more Defensive Runs Saved in St. Louis. These 110 pitchers were downright bad defenders by DRS when they played everywhere else. But in St. Louis, pitching to Yadier Molina (and a little bit to Mike Matheny, and The Old-Fashioned St. Looie Yadi Backup Singing Catchers)... they were worth 110 DRS.

That’s a pretty good argument for The Yadi Effect. Yes, yet again, we must point out that Yadier Molina’s career value may go even deeper than some stats indicate. Even one of the most advanced stats like DRS.

Mind you, the point of this article isn’t just Yadi. The Cardinals are in first place in DRS this year, and were in fourth last year, because of major contributions from Kolten Wong, Harrison Bader, Tommy Edman, Paul DeJong, and a surprise appearance from Tyler O’Neill. Whatever else you think of the 2020 Cardinals, you have to admire their defense. They boast five at-or-near Gold Glove quality gloves on the diamond. Just... when you’re appreciating those guys, don’t forget about Don Yadi.