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The Cardinals’ Defense is Underachieving. For Now.

In the preseason, the Cardinals projected to be one of the best defensive clubs in recent team history. They are off that elite pace with room to grow.

MLB: APR 25 Reds at Cardinals Photo by Rick Ulreich/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images

Back in February, not long after the Cardinals acquired Nolan Arenado, I speculated that this 2021 team might be the best defensive club we have seen in St. Louis in 50 years. Heading into the spring, the team boasted Gold Glove-caliber defenders at five positions – third base, centerfield, left field, catcher, and first base. Paul DeJong has played at near Gold Glove levels in the recent past. Tommy Edman has flashed elite ability. It wasn’t even that hard to imagine Dylan Carlson being a solid-to-plus defender in right, considering his 2020 numbers.

So, I ran the stats. I used ZiPS projections for DEF – an aggregate stat that adjusts for position and league average. Then I tweaked those projections based on my expectations of playing time and corrected some of the more questionable projections. Computer models tend to regress defense more than just about any other stat group. It’s understandable. Defensive performance is pretty volatile, even among the better defenders in the league. So, a player like Tyler O’Neill, who has a ton of obvious defensive ability but inconsistent performance over a small sample size, got a small bump over the computers.

If you want to see how I calculated the DEF formula for 2021 back in February, go check out the original article. It has some really great defensive information from each era of Cardinals teams since the 1980s.

Here’s how that formula fell out:

How is the club doing so far? Not as well as hoped but the growth potential is evident. We’ll get to the numbers below. First, a cautionary tale. As I said above, defensive performance can be volatile. Using defensive numbers from one month – even across an entire team – is a pretty sketchy thing to do. Let me give you an example. Lane Thomas was promoted back to the active roster on Thursday. He’s barely seen the field for the Cardinals this season. In 19 innings in center, Lane Thomas has a -1.2 DEF on the season. That’s second-worst on the team. Those 19 innings fully negate the 1.1 DEF that Yadier Molina supplied in 150 innings.

Of course, Edmundo Sosa – +1.4 DEF in 20.2 innings – has the opposite effect.

The point is that small samples swing statistics significantly. An error here or a great play there tweaks the numbers dramatically over a small period of time.

So, in the original model, I did not use team DEF. Too many of those wild small samples tweaked the numbers in unsatisfactory ways. Instead, I used the top 10 players by defensive innings played. That centers the team’s DEF contributions on the starters plus any significantly used backups or injury replacements.

For the Cardinals, with one month of action, that proved difficult. Tommy Edman, for example, ranks highly in innings played at two positions. He was excellent at second and really not great at all in the outfield, by DEF. Justin Williams was a starter for much of the season’s first month and wasn’t a good defender. The club tried to get Matt Carpenter to stick at second; he wasn’t that bad there but his starts at the position have plummeted over the last few weeks. All of that can be factored into the DEF totals but little of it tells us where the team will be in the end.

What I ended up doing was projecting the season from this point forward using likely playing time allotments. I then recalculated the DEF for each player (a 5.2 multiplier) for the rest of the season using their current stats when possible. Under that scenario, for example, Matt Carpenter stays on the top 10 list but his second base innings get cut to 1/3 of their April totals and then projected for the rest of the season. Justin Williams falls off completely as Harrison Bader moves back in.

The result is this table:

Let’s use that to talk about individual performance versus projections.

The Cardinals are currently underachieving on defense. But it’s not as bad as I thought it would be. The subtraction of Dexter Fowler from the roster does wonders for the defensive outlook of the club. The playing time that opens up for Tyler O’Neill should make a huge difference in the defensive production of this team. In the original projections, I had to finagle the defensive projections just to get O’Neill to a +4. Right now he’s tracking toward a +16. How realistic is that? He’ll have to be otherworldly for the entire season, but he projected toward a +12’ish DEF last season and his rookie season DEF wasn’t far off that pace. It’s real enough. He looks like the top defender on the team in 2021 after being the top defender on the team in 2020.

Next in line is, not surprisingly, Nolan Arenado. Arenado is a little off his projected pace. I also wonder how much those ZiPS projections were influenced by a monster defensive season in ’19 and a ridiculous pace in ’20. Arenado had his third-best DEF season last year in just 48 games. That’s going to skew numbers. Essentially he’s on pace for his normal Gold Glove-caliber season, if not quite his best season ever.

Paul DeJong comes up next even though he is tracking to produce about half his expected DEF. It’s hard for me to complain here. DeJong is a very good defender. He’s playing like one. He’s just not likely to win a Gold Glove. Anyone surprised? Me either.

Tommy Edman is an interesting case. In the pre-season, I manipulated his infield stats to come up with the 9.2 DEF at second base found in his projections. I feel pretty good about how that came out because Edman is tracking toward 6.7 DEF at second base exclusively going forward. That would be an 8 DEF value if the club had left him there for the whole season. He’ll challenge for the Gold Glove award in 2021 and going forward. He’s that good.

Bader doesn’t have a lot of innings but he looks brilliant so far. Molina has been good so far and is expected back soon.

Next is Carlson, who was a mess in center, but the defensive projections are pretty happy with him in right. His UZR/150 in right is 12.6. His OAA is +1. His DRS is neutral. How does that translate to DEF? Steamer gives him a +4.9 DEF for the rest of the season. ZiPS is at -1.5. I’m guessing both of those have a mix of right and center in his projections. For consistency's sake, I’m going with the ZiPS numbers. If nothing else, they are neutral and won’t swing the cumulative stats very much.

Knizner slides into the last slot. He’s a difficult case. He’s at -1.1 in DEF right now and all of that is from framing. If I drop his ZiPS DEF projections in, he’s at +6.1. That feels too high. Multiplying his current DEF by 5.2 (-5.7) seems really harsh, considering the positional adjustment for catcher, his expected playing time, and his rest of season projections. What I’m going to do instead is take his Steamer rest of season projections and add them to his current projections. That lands him at -2.1.

All in all, that lands the Cardinals at +46 DEF in this model with room to grow. They did some real damage to their overall defensive outlook because of a first month with injuries to key defensive players – Bader, O’Neill, Molina – and with Edman and Carlson playing out of their best positions. The club seems to have bought back into its defense-first mentality, with Edman locked in at second and Bader moving immediately into the starting spot in center. It’s not a huge coincidence that the starting rotation began to improve when the defense stabilized.

Can they catch back up to their projected +56? Can they surpass it? The potential is there. Several key defenders could play better. Others should do better in their current position. They’ve underachieved so far but they are in position to meet or exceed expectations from this point forward.