We heard the refrain all month: “You can’t sacrifice the defense for the sake of the offense!”
Of course, Nolan Gorman was the centerpiece of that statement. Tommy Edman was a Gold Glove-winning second baseman in 2021. Over the first two months of the season, he was playing the position at a near-Platinum glove level.
Paul DeJong, meanwhile, wasn’t hitting at all but was providing his usual good-to-very-good defensive play at shortstop.
Since the roster was constructed with a philosophy of defense + run suppression (through ground balls and ballpark), it didn’t make sense to some fans to mess with the strategy. In an environment where all kinds of factors were dampening offense, they argued that it was preferable to continue to sacrifice offense to maintain the team’s defense-first construction. Even if that meant holding back key prospects who were performing well at AAA.
A counter to that argument is that defense can only win games when the offense is scoring. Spectacular defensive play by Edman or DeJong (or anyone else) might keep runs off the board for the other team but it doesn’t add runs for your team. Ultimately, the only way to win a baseball game is for your team’s hitters to cross home plate.
That’s the give and take of offense versus defense. As a team’s defense worsens, their ability to score runs becomes more important. Likewise, if a team is struggling to score runs, their ability to limit runs on defense becomes more important. Round and round the carousel goes. And throw pitching in there, too.
Somewhere in the calculus is a balance or tipping point, where it becomes more beneficial to play for offense over defense or defense over offense. That tipping point depends on a variety of factors including the relative value of defensive runs saved vs. offensive runs earned, the quality of the defensive players and the positions they play, and the type of offensive production offered by the alternatives.
The front office and their analytics department have to throw all that into the proprietary analytical stew pots and then spit out suggestions for who should be on the roster, where they should play, when they should play (or shouldn’t), and what they need to hit to continue to earn playing time.
Then Marmol and the coaching staff have to get on board with that kind of player usage.
We could feel this going on behind the scenes throughout May as Marmol continued to defend his beleaguered shortstop and remain bullish on Tommy Edman as the second baseman. As the sample size grew, slumps continued, and minor leaguers continued pushing, the arguments for a change became more and more convincing.
Credit to Oli and his team for listening and being willing to make a move faster than most other managers would.
DeJong went to AAA. Edman began working out at SS. Donovan got his sea legs under him in an unfamiliar position. Then Gorman was brought up, Edman was shifted, Donovan slid into the do-everything role, and here we are!
On the first of June, the Cardinals have a completely different roster makeup and lineup arrangement than they did back when the season began in early April. So much has changed. And it’s all been so much quicker than we might have seen in past seasons.
How are the kids doing?
Let’s take that same balance point I mentioned above – offensive vs. defensive production – and take a look!
We’re going to focus mostly on the defensive performance of the players involved in this roster switch and that creates a serious sample size issue. Defensive metrics are notoriously shaky. They take a large sample size – at least half a season – for them to really stabilize and even then I’m very hesitant to consider them predictive. Give me two years of data across multiple statistics – DRS, UZR, and OAA – before I’m really comfortable locking a defensive player in.
That said, there is still (limited) value in the small sample size defensive stats. Not because they definitively tell us what a player is or isn’t defensively. But they do tell us what has happened with a player defensively so far.
In other words, the defensive stats I’m going to show you are an interesting snapshot of defensive performance so far for these rookies, but they aren’t in any way predictive going forward. We’ll have to rely on scouting reports and defensive projections for that.
Off we go, starting with the longest-tenured of these rookies and moving forward from there.
Juan Yepez – DH, OF, 1b
When the Cardinals entered spring training, I was a strong advocate for Juan Yepez to break camp with the club as their primary right-handed DH. By “strong” I mean that I even argued against bringing in Albert Pujols when the club made that move, knowing I would get shellacked for lack of fun-ness on social media.
After a week of considering it, I softened my stance on Yepez vs. Pujols a little but only because I was confident that circumstances – injuries and/or performance – would create space for Yepez soon enough. Depth is a good thing.
It didn’t take long at all for this situation to work itself out. Yepez arrived in early May and has been a lineup stalwart ever since. In less than a month in the majors, he has 97 PAs in 24 games. He is on pace for just under 500 PAs on the season. He’s essentially a full-time starter.
That’s not surprising to me. What is surprising is that 68 of his 97 PAs have come as a non-DH. Juan Yepez – the Cardinals lab-created DH of the future – is primarily not a DH.
How’s that going?
Well, Yepez can hit the heck out of a baseball, so the offense is there. I used to say that he “owned a variety of gloves”. That was a nice’ish way of saying that he had defensive versatility (1b, 3b, RF, LF) but he was a bat-first player. That’s still an apt description of him:
Juan Yepez Defense OF (111 IP) – (-1) DRS, .1 UZR. -1 OAA
Juan Yepez Defense 1b (24 IP) – 0 DRS, 0 UZR, 0 OAA
So far, Yepez has seen most of his action in the outfield, where he has been a below-average player. He has limited the damage, though. He was once described to me as “Jose Martinez” in the outfield but more athletic and younger – meaning, he could improve! From what I’ve seen, he’s been a little better than that. Martinez had 1200 outfield innings in his seasons with St. Louis. He had a -25 DRS, a -4.6 UZR, and a -20 OAA.
I expected Yepez, who was primarily a 3b’man in the minors, to be just fine at 1st and that’s held true. He’s exactly neutral at the position in a very limited number of defensive innings, spelling Paul Goldschmidt.
Juan Yepez Offense – .276/.340/.460, .351 wOBA, 129 wRC+, .3 fWAR
Offensively, Yepez has been very good. His overall stat line is very close to projections. Both ZiPS and Steamer expected less from his contact bat – they missed on this; he has a very underrated hit tool – and have him gaining power as the season continues.
Considering that he’s getting this outfield playing time because the Cardinals are missing Carlson and O’Neill, there’s nothing to complain about here. When those two come back, Yepez will transition to more of a full-time DH role, and Corey Dickerson is probably looking at his release. Yepez should probably remain an option to fill in as needed in the outfield, but his future is with his bat.
Brendan Donovan – SS, OF, 3b
Brendan Donovan impressed the Cardinals’ manager during Spring Training and for good reason. Donovan can play almost anywhere on the field competently. He can draw walks. He has fantastic contact skills. And he has a little pop, too.
The only question marks were how would his offensive game translate to the major leagues and since he seemed targeted for a utility infield role, could he learn to play shortstop – a position he had not played more than a handful of times (including college)?
The Cardinals’ injuries have put his defensive versatility to the test. That has, thankfully, kept his bat (and his 15.7% walk rate!) in the lineup. How’s he doing playing just about everywhere defensively? Let’s see:
Brendan Donovan Defense 3b (36 IP) – 1 DRS, .7 UZR, 0 OAA
Brendan Donovan Defense OF (52 IP) – (-1) DRS, n/a UZR, (-1) OAA
Brendan Donovan Defense SS (56 IP) – (-1) DRS, (-.4) UZR, 0 OAA
Donovan has the most innings at his two worst positions – OF and SS. Overall, though, he’s held his own. He’s -1 in both DRS and OAA as an outfielder. And -1 as a SS. Those aren’t encouraging stats. But they aren’t discouraging either.
By the eye test, Donovan has had to fall back on his athleticism, soft hands, and baseball instincts to survive playing primarily out of position. With more experience, I think he could improve playing in the OF and at SS, though it’s probably best not to hope for much better than average production in those spots. His true defensive skill shows up better at 3b, where he’s a plus player so far in very limited action.
Brendan Donovan Offense – .294/.422/.426, .379 wOBA, 148 wRC+, .6 fWAR
Offensively, you’ll take the defensive inexperience. Donovan is outperforming all expectations, but he’s doing it in a way that fits his skill set. Unlike Tommy Edman’s there’s-no-explaining-this power surge as a rookie in 2019, Donovan really could be a .280-.300 hitter. He really could walk 12-15% of the time. He really could have average power in this league. So, expect him to cool off a little at the plate, but he’s showing us what he can do. And what he can do belongs on the roster and in the lineup most of the time.
Nolan Gorman – 2b
Then there’s Gorman, who has the most attention on him and the smallest sample size to look at. Not only does Gorman’s prospect status bring him extra attention, but the ball club moved GG-winning Tommy Edman off position to get his bat in the lineup. That kind of arrival and that displacement of a fan favorite is going to bring with it extra scrutiny.
It’s scrutiny that Gorman doesn’t really deserve. Donovan and Yepez were both older players, with more refined approaches, and more established skills. Gorman has all of one season under his belt as a defensive 2b’man. He just turned 22 a month ago. He has an obvious but fickle strength – crazy levels of power. And an obvious and noticeable flaw – a high strikeout rate.
He desperately needs time and patience from fans and the ball club as he learns the ins and outs of a still-new position and what it’s like to face MLB pitchers. He’s going to struggle. He’s going to fail. He’s going to learn. And that might get ugly for a while.
But it has to happen. It’s the only way he can learn to do those things.
Gorman can’t learn to play 2b unless he plays 2b. He can’t learn to hit major league pitching unless he faces major league pitching.
How’s he doing so far?
Nolan Gorman Defense 2b (77 IP) – 0 DRS, .3 UZR, (-2) OAA
There’s our first ugly defensive stat. A -2 OAA in 77 innings is not good. The neutral DRS and slightly positive UZR are encouraging, but OAA is just a better defensive stat, so it outweighs the others.
What does that mean? Nothing. If you expected Gorman to be a good-to-great defensive second baseman when he arrived, then you really haven’t been paying much attention to what everyone has been saying about him.
We should expect him to start out pretty bad and maybe grow toward average as his career progresses. Not the season. His career. It’s a huge win for the Cardinals if Gorman hits like he’s capable of and becomes an average defensive second baseman sometime in 2024.
Just as a point of comparison, Jonathan India of the Reds was a -7 OAA 2b’man last season. He was 24 years old. He was also primarily a 3b’man in the minors. He was still worth over 3.0 fWAR last season with a 122 wRC+.
That might be a target for Gorman. Can he be about as good offensively and defensively as Jonathan India as a rookie? I would take that.
Nolan Gorman Offense – .387/.472/.677, .492 wOBA, 224 wRC+, .6 fWAR
So far, so good on the offense! Those are video game numbers and they’ll regress significantly. But the power is there. As are the K’s. But he’s also drawing walks. Gorman is as advertised and maybe a little more.
Tommy Edman – SS
Lastly, the arrival of Nolan Gorman has pushed Edman over to SS. Many were concerned that Edman’s arm wouldn’t hold up at the position and the club’s defense would tailspin.
Tommy Edman Defense SS (70 IP) – 0 DRS, n/a UZR, 0 OAA
So far, that hasn’t been the case. Edman, in his small sample of 70 innings, has been perfectly neutral.
It’s a good sign. Edman played a little shortstop when DeJong was out with COVID in 2020. He did well there overall. He played a lot of shortstop in the minor leagues. Considering the small amount of work that he’s gotten at the position so far, a “neutral” result is a good one.
By my eyes, he’ll slowly start to show plus ability at the position. And while he might not be a Gold Glove candidate at the short right now, I’m pretty much convinced that he can (easily and soon) replace DeJong’s defensive production at the position.
So far, the young players have not been positive performers on defense. Considering their history and profile, that’s exactly what we should have expected. They have hit, though. And hit well. I think it’s safe to say that all three kids – Yepez, Donovan, and Gorman – are outperforming their projections. But all of them are doing it in a way that accentuates their skillset. In other words, while this high level of offensive production might not be sustainable, what they’re doing is something they’ll continue to do.
And because they’re doing what they’re doing in the way they’re doing it, the defense isn’t much of a concern. For now.
As players return from injury, Donovan and Yepez are likely to find themselves increasingly in more comfortable spots on the field. Gorman, meanwhile, just needs reps. But the club can limit his exposure by keeping him out of the lineup against lefties and using defensive replacements late in games. Let him do what he does well; keep him in situations where he can fail safely and where he is more likely to find success.
I think that’s the key for Oli Marmol going forward. He has to recognize when and where to use his young players to maximize their talents and minimize their flaws. It’s not an easy roster to manage. But the talent is there and I think the performance will be, too.