Back in February, not long after the Cardinals acquired Nolan Arenado from the Rockies, I speculated, with the help of some flawed statistics, that this team might be the best defensive team of the last 50 years.
That’s some serious speculation since entire decades of Cardinals play was known for its elite defense, including the 1980s and the 2000s. With modern defensive analytics unavailable and unreliable for by-gone fielders, I turned to Fangraphs DEF stat to tell the tale. DEF is an aggregate defensive stat that adjusts for both position and league. So, while it certainly has its flaws, it’s useful for a fun debate about defense between generations.
You can find the original article right here, featuring DEF calculations for the top three teams in each decade since the 1970s.
Since I know no one will click through to that old piece, I’ve included the main contenders for “best DEF team of the last 50 years” below. Before we get to those, let’s talk methodology. I went through the innings played for each Cards team since the 1970s. I then plugged the DEF value for the main starters at each position plus two additional bench players to give me a total of 10 players. That helps account for injury, trades, or platoon situations. I ignored pitchers. Here are the top DEF performers by decade, ignoring the woeful 1970s:
That’s our starting point. To be in the running for the best DEF team of the last fifty years, the 2021 club would have to top that amazing +87 DEF put up by the 1986 club. If we just roll that back to this century, they have to top 68.4.
Those are massive numbers. It’s going to be a huge challenge for this Cardinals team to beat those totals, despite their obviously impressive overall performance.
On Sunday night the league announced their Gold Glove winners and the Cards took home five: Nolan Arenado, Paul Goldschmidt, Tyler O’Neill, Harrison Bader, and Tommy Edman. It seemed that Arenado, O’Neill, and Bader were locks for their positions. Goldschmidt seemed highly likely to win his. Edman, though, was a surprise, edging out Kolten Wong for his first win. It’s an odd win – not because Edman wasn’t an excellent defender at second base but because he didn’t play a full season at the position.
With five Gold Glove winners, the 2021 Cardinals set the league record in award winners by a single team. That bodes well for their chances in this conversation. How did the 2021 Cardinals end up doing?
The next image will have the projections I gave for the Cardinals team back in February. Notice that date. February was after the Arenado trade but before the Fowler move. That shifted the names around a bit. Here’s the February projections chart put alongside the actual full-season performance of the players, using the criteria mentioned above:
So, using the same criteria as above, the 2021 Cardinals are nowhere near the best DEF team of the last fifty years. They finished at 31.7 DEF, way below the 56.7 DEF projection I offered based on Depth Charts in the preseason.
Not only is this team not even close to being the best defensive club of the era by DEF, they aren’t even the best team of the 2010s and 2020s. A low 30’s finish was somehow still worse than a 2010 team that had 6 players finish with negative DEF ratings.
That all seems unusual to me. How do we explain it? Here are my takeaways, both about this DEF system and the 2021 Cardinals defense overall.
1. The ’21 Cardinals have elite fielders without elite numbers.
The best DEF teams of the last fifty years have not necessarily racked up huge statistical totals by being all-around excellent. They’ve done so on the backs of a handful of insane defensive totals that buoyed the rest of the team.
Take the 2010 team that I mentioned. Their 34.2 DEF tops the 2021 team but I don’t think anyone would argue that 2010 teak was a good defensive team. It had one great player – Yadier Molina – who produced 48.3 DEF by himself. Ozzie Smith and Terry Pendleton in 1986 provided half of the defensive value to that club. Polanco and Mike Matheny did the same in 2001.
The 2021 Cardinals only had one player with a double-digit DEF – Harrison Bader at just 12.9. Molina and DeJong were next. Despite clearly fantastic defensive performances – by many stats and the eye test – players like O’Neill, Edman, Goldschmidt, and Arenado rate out fairly low by DEF. Compared to projections, nearly every Cardinal underperformed.
Why? My best guess is league adjustments. O’Neill, for example, had a higher UZR and DRS in 2021 than last year but his DEF value fell from 3.7 to .9. Even so, he was still the highest-rated left fielder in the game. That’s a lot of projected value lost. Across all defensive positions, only 20 players scored a DEF value over 10. The vast majority of them are catchers. Only 7 non-catchers scored over a 10 and the highest was Michael Taylor at just 15.3. That’s an unusually low “high score” for defenders across the league.
Maybe it’s defensive parity across the game that’s dragging down the Cardinals’ performance. Maybe the whole league was just down defensively in 2021. Regardless, the Cardinals’ elite performers didn’t put up elite numbers despite sitting around the top of the league and that made all the difference.
2. Health and positional flexibility hurt the final totals.
The Cardinals lost some value by choosing – sometimes out of necessity – to play players out of position. In almost every case that hurt the club defensively. The most obvious example is Dylan Carlson in centerfield. Carlson was worth -3.0 DEF in center in 501 innings. That’s a poor total despite the usually high positional adjustment. In right field, Carlson had a +3.3 UZR (+6.4 UZR/150) and a +3 DRS. That translates to a -.2 DEF. Someone had to play center in Bader’s absence and poor roster planning pushed that to Carlson. If we could give those 500 innings back to Bader, his DEF would jump to over 20 – the elite single performance this club needed. That’s about a 10-point total swing in DEF and would move the 2021 team higher in the generational standings.
Similar things happen with Tommy Edman. Edman played 284 innings in right field and was bad: -2.4 DEF. Those 284 innings essentially stole all the excess value Edman earned playing Gold Glove-caliber defense at 2b: +2.4. If the team would have left Edman alone at second they would have gained around 4 DEF.
Positional flexibility is nice for a roster but it’s usually better from a defensive perspective to let players stick with their best position.
3. The DH might be a factor.
Some weird things happen when you look at the various sources of DEF for Cardinals fielders at Fangraphs. Let’s take Paul Goldschmidt as an example. On Goldschmidt’s player dashboard his DEF was a -8.2. That, of course, includes the hefty positional penalty for playing first base. If you change the sort to “Fielding” and “1b” you’ll see that Goldschmidt rated as a -7.8 DEF at the position. Goldy only played first. Why is his overall DEF different than his positional DEF? The same thing is also true for both Tyler O’Neill and Nolan Arenado.
What do all three players have in common? They started as the DH for several games. Not a lot but just enough to steal value from their defense. That’s just one more thing to note when comparing DEF values across eras. It will be even worse next year if the NL adopts the DH full time.
4. The defense just wasn’t as good as it should have been.
To me, that’s the bottom line. Yes, five Cardinals won Gold Gloves. Yes, all five who won were arguably deserving of their award. But each of these players was just really good – good enough to legitimately contend for end-of-season hardware. None, except an injured Bader, was truly elite from a generational or era perspective. It takes healthy elite performances to build an elite DEF club.
That said, there’s a decent chance that this team won’t peak defensively until next season. The final roster and starting defense are yet-to-be-decided but a full season of Edman at 2b, a healthy Bader, Carlson locked out of center field, and either better performance or less playing time for Knizner and the team will be better overall next season.
We’ll revisit this at the start of Spring Training.