For the last few years, the Cardinals have intentionally tried to build their team around defense. This was partially by design and partially by necessity.
While the organization has struggled to develop offensive producers, they have successfully transformed solid/good defensive players into elite fielders. Harrison Bader arrived with questions about his ability to stick in center. He’s now one of the best defenders at his position. Paul DeJong was switched to shortstop in the minor leagues. While he lacks the flash of others, he has quietly become an elite defender at short. Tyler O’Neill, an enigmatic fielder before this season, earned a Gold Glove in 2020. Questions persisted about Dylan Carlson’s defensive ability, but several advanced metrics loved his performance this season. Tommy Edman’s incredible speed and agility have translated that into impressive defensive numbers at numerous positions.
The Cardinals’ rising defensive talents combine with established stalwarts in Yadier Molina, Paul Goldschmidt, and now Nolan Arenado.
How good is Arenado? In a few years, we should be able to have long arguments about who was the better defender: Arenado or Scott Rolen? With 8 Gold Gloves, 4 Platinum Gloves, and a 56.4/120 career UZR/DRS, Arenado is already among the best defenders in the history of the game.
Add it up and the 2021 Cardinals are almost certainly the best defensive team on paper in the National League. They might be the best defensive team the Cardinals have fielded in decades.
That’s where we are headed today. We’re going to try to compare the defensive projections of the ’21 Cardinals to the actual defensive production of Cardinals teams since 1970.
There are major issues with this effort. The biggest is that defensive metrics have changed over time. UZR and DRS have only been around for just over a decade. Pre-sabermetric defensive stats are notoriously unreliable. That leaves us with little to choose from. The best of the flawed remaining stats is probably DEF – an aggregate defensive stat available from Fangraphs that accounts for position and then adjusts to league average.
Stats, though, are only part of the equation. Defensive reputation might matter as much as actual production in a “which is better” type of conversation. So, I took to Twitter and asked fans who they thought were the best defensive Cardinals teams of the last 50 years.
I got a variety of answers. Some of them even matched up with the DEF stats. Many did not.
The best approach, then, was to choose 3 teams from each decade based on fan suggestions and actual statistics, ignoring the miserable 1970s. I then measured the individual DEF values for the top 10 players on each team by games played. This eliminated pitchers (who have a surprisingly high impact on a team’s overall DEF) and subs but included key platoon defenders.
I think the results were relatively satisfying and might surprise you. Let’s start by doing the same thing for the 2021 squad.
2021 Adapted ZiPS DEF Projections
Preparing this table required some assumptions on my part, mostly related to playing time. Here I relied partially on ZiPS projections and logic. First, I assumed that Goldschmidt, Arenado, Edman, and DeJong would be everyday starters at their respective positions. While Carpenter may take starts away from Edman, that would probably derail any “2021 might be the best defensive club in decades” argument, so I stuck with Tommy. I took a long look at the ZiPS DEF projections for each player and liked what I saw. Into the chart they went.
Next, I decided not to assign outfield playing time based on defensive potential, which would pervert the chart. Instead, I made some judgment calls. I decided that Carlson and Bader were likely to lead the club in games played in the outfield, though not necessarily as full-time starters, with O’Neill and Fowler splitting the rest of the playing time.
At catcher, I plugged Molina in at his projected 107 games played. That left 50-60 games for Andrew Knizner. That bumped him into the 10th spot over Carpenter (who doesn’t have a position on this club) and Edmundo Sosa.
These adjustments in playing time forced me to manipulate the ZiPS projections. Carlson and O’Neill were the toughest. For some reason, ZiPS had Carlson worth less DEF in 129 games than he earned in 35 games in ’20. That’s what happens to rookies with small sample sizes. What I did was project his 2020 DEF for his projected 2021 games played. Then I split the difference between that too-high translation and his too-low 2.1 DEF projection. That gave Carlson a “solidly above average” 6.7 DEF as a corner outfielder.
O’Neill’s ZiPS DEF projection is inexplicable: -5.6. He is at +4.4 in 175 MLB games so far in his career but was tracking toward double digits last year. He was between 3-4 in limited games in both ’18 and ’20, with ‘19 as a negative aberration. Beause of his inconsistency, I decided to just give him another season at +4, since I’m projecting an increase in games played.
Other adaptions were more straightforward. I cut Knizner’s projected 9.6 DEF to 7 to reflect the playing time I think he’ll get. I gave Fowler back a little in defense since I cut into his games played. Yes, that -8 is a slight improvement over his actual projection.
The result is 56 DEF added, a total that I feel pretty good about when compared to other defensive squads of the last 50 years.
1980s: 1982, 1985, & 1986
The 1980s squads were built on defense and speed. They had high DEF values throughout the decade, built largely on the glove of all-time great Ozzie Smith. These clubs featured strong defensive supporting casts, with Willie McGee, Terry Pendleton, Tommy Herr, Andy Van Slyke, and the decade’s catchers, particularly Darrell Porter and Mike LaValliere, providing above average value per position.
The 1986 squad was the best defensive team of the decade and quite possibly the best defensive Cardinals team in franchise history (using this method). Meanwhile, the 1985 team seems like a good match for the ’21 Cardinals, with elite defensive production from third base and shortstop, and solid production throughout the outfield.
1990s: 1990, 1996, 1997
The 1990s Cardinals received little love from fans on the internet. I nearly gave it the same treatment as the 1970s until several teams showed up high on the DEF search. It clearly would have been a mistake to ignore it.
Not surprisingly, it was Tony LaRussa’s arrival in St. Louis that sparked a defensive renaissance. LaRussa infamously chose Royce Clayton over Ozzie Smith, earning the Hall of Famer’s ire, but the results here support the decision. An elite shortstop can have a huge impact on a club’s overall defensive ranking. Clayton was elite. The 90s clubs also featured athletic outfielders with good all-around games, including Brian Jordan and Ray Lankford. Gary Gaetti was much better than I remembered.
The 2021 club fits very well with all three of these clubs.
2000s: 2001, 2004, 2008
I, and several followers on Twitter, believed that the 2000s would produce the best overall single-season defensive performances, with 2004-2006 as popular choices as the best defensive team of the last 50 years.
The problem with these squads is that while several players were known for their elite defense – namely Pujols, Rolen, and Edmonds – those player’s totals were dragged down by weak supporting casts. It’s hard for me to believe that 2008 produced so much more than 2004. It’s easy to see why, though. Molina had a 38.9 DEF that season. That is by far the highest individual total that we’ve seen so far. 2004 had Rolen as an elite producer, but the rest of the squad was just so-so and Roger Cedeno stole a ton of value.
2001, meanwhile, was the second-best defensive team of the last 50 years, producing a shocking 68.4 DEF on the backs of elite production from Polanco, Matheny, and Renteria. Robinson, Edmonds, and Drew were more than solid. That relatively unheralded group will somehow almost certainly prove to be a better defensive unit than 2021.
2010s: 2010, 2015, 2019
Maybe I should have given the 2010s the same treatment as the 1970s. 2010 only makes the cut because Molina had the highest individual performance of the past 50 years, with a +48.3 DEF. Yes, he was better by himself than several Cardinals teams. The rest of that squad was awful.
I believed 2015 would rank higher than it did. It had several players with strong defensive reputations, including Heyward, Wong, Molina, Bourjos, and (stretching) Peralta and Jon Jay. None of them met my DEF expectations and Molina’s production was beginning to slip.
I also assumed 2019 would rank higher. Here the team benefited from reputation but ended up lacking elite production. DeJong came close with 18.5. Wong only provided 7.2. Molina was down to 8.8. Bader provided one of the higher outfield totals we’ve seen, but at 14.5, it’s just not enough to move the club significantly upward.
2021: One of the Bests But Not the Best
It’s pretty amazing, then, to see what a difference Arenado makes to the club defensively, as well as the shift toward defense in the outfield. The loss of Wong is more than offset by the addition of Arenado, Edman’s potential, and the movement toward plus defenders in the outfield. The 2021 team has isolated the possibility of negative defensive value to first base – which is almost always negative because of positional adjustments – and a backup outfielder (Fowler). Every starter on the team is capable of better-than-average defensive production. Four players are capable of elite production at their position.
The 2021 team could double 2019’s defensive production and push toward one of the best this half-century if I’m underestimating O’Neill and Carlson or someone, like Arenado, dramatically outperforms projections. Don’t count on that though. Projected production is not actual production; there are a lot of ways that a projected 56 DEF can go south, too.
Is 2021 the best defensive team of the last half-century? No, it isn’t. 1986 wins that competition by a Jack Clark homerun. Still, 2021 does compare very favorably to some of the best defensive teams of each decade and is FAR better than any team the Cardinals have fielded since the late 2000s.