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The Cardinals Defense Isn’t What it Used to Be

...and it’s affecting a rotation built on pitching to contact.

St. Louis Cardinals v Seattle Mariners Photo by Steph Chambers/Getty Images

As St. Louis Cardinals fans, all we’ve heard all year is how bad the pitching is, and, specifically, how bad the rotation is. And that’s certainly true as this rotation has the fifth worst ERA in baseball at 5.44.

And while it’s been bad, I will still maintain that it’s not this bad. After all, not much has changed from last year. Or has it?

The starting rotation finished the 2022 season 15th in ERA at 3.92 with a FIP (3.96) and xFIP (4.05) right around that mark as well, And while that’s not great, it’s a far cry from this year’s numbers as the rotation’s 5.44 ERA is much higher than a still-high 4.97 FIP and 4.41 xFIP.

There are really no measures that say this year’s rotation is better or even close to as good as last year’s rotation. So, again, I’ll ask...what’s changed?

Last year’s rotation consisted of some combination of Miles Mikolas, Adam Wainwright, Jordan Montgomery, Steven Matz, Dakota Hudson, Jordan Hicks, Andre Pallante, Jack Flaherty, Matthew Liberatore, and Jose Quintana. Now, you’ll notice that all of those names except for one (Quintana) is still on the team. So nothing has really changed in the rotation.

Where things have changed is in the field.

A lot of the discourse around the Cardinals rotation has centered on 2 perhaps contrasting ideas.

  1. The rotation is bad
  2. The rotation is unlucky/underperforming

And, honestly, I think the right answer is some combination of the two, but I want to add a third idea to the discussion.

This is a pitching staff that was put together with a focus on throwing strikes, pitching to contact, getting groundballs, and limiting walks at a time when the Cardinals had an elite defense. And now this is the same pitching staff with the same approach pitching for a team that has an average defense.

That has an effect.

For instance, you may look at the fact that the rotation has allowed a second-highest-in-the-league .342 BABIP and see it as a sign that the rotation has been unlucky. Once that stabilizes to league average, the rotation will look much better.

That makes sense. In fact, that’s usually a pretty good thought. But I do wonder how much the rotation’s BABIP is being hurt with a pitch to contact approach in front of a defense that simply isn’t as good as it was last year. And by “not as good”, I mean not even close to as good.

Last year, the Cardinals finished with 67 defensive runs saved and 26 outs above average. Both of those figures ranked 4th in the league.

This year the Cardinals rank 17th in both DRS (-3) and OAA (-3).

So what happened to a once sterling defense?

Well...a number of things.

Lineup Decisions

Let’s start with lineup decisions. But let’s actually go even further back than that. At the deadline last year, the Cardinals traded Harrison Bader for Jordan Montgomery and while that trade gave the Cardinals their best starter, it also got rid of potentially their best defensive player.

And while that may have harmed the outfield defense, Dylan Carlson did a great job patrolling the middle of the outfield last year. But then this year he started as the fourth outfielder, despite being the best defensive center fielder on the roster.

And that hurt the defense. A lot.

Tyler O’Neill isn’t the same outfielder that Carlson is. In fact, in 89 innings in center field, he put up -2 DRS and -1 OAA. The real damage wasn’t done from having O’Neill in center field, though, it was done by having two liabilities flanking him.

Keeping Carlson on the bench, even when Nootbaar got hurt, meant that a below average center fielder was being flanked by Alec Burleson (-1 DRS, -2 OAA) and Jordan Walker (-6 DRS, -2 OAA). That’s quite possibly the worst defensive outfield the Cardinals can put on the field.

The situation has improved with Jordan Walker being returned to Memphis (where he should have started the season), Dylan Carlson moving back into the starting role in center field , Lars Nootbaar playing every day, and Brendan Donovan being favored over Alec Burleson in left field.

So far this year, the trio of Carlson, Donovan, and Nootbaar has combined for 1 DRS and 2 OAA. That’s a drastic improvement.

To be honest, none of the Cardinals outfield roster decisions have made a whole lot of sense to me. Walker starting the year in St. Louis was a mistake and Carlson should have always been in center field instead of O’Neill.

Now a month of game action has shown the folly in those decisions and the Cardinals have gone back to the outfield alignment they should have always had - O’Neill in left, Carlson in center, and Nootbaar in right. I’ll add that O’Neill is currently injured but I expect him to take over the left field role when he’s healthy again, barring a Brendan Donovan hot streak.

In the infield, the Cardinals defense has gotten worse as they have occasionally had to deal with Gorman’s glove. He seems to have gotten better, but his infield work still doesn’t grade out well with -1 DRS and -1 OAA in a little over 100 innings.

Even Brendan Donovan hasn’t been great in the infield, according to the numbers, as he’s put up -4 DRS and 0 OAA at second base.

Few people, if any, would argue against Nolan Gorman and Brendan Donovan being in the lineup, but enjoying their offensive production means living with their less than stellar defense.

The problem with a pitch-to-contact, ground ball oriented staff is that it’s built to be played specifically with a good defensive team. If that defense gets worse by necessity, the staff is going to feel the effects.

To put it more bluntly, a pitch-to-contact staff isn’t adaptable. A bat missing staff can afford sacrificing defense for offense but a contact-oriented staff can’t make that same tradeoff.


Beyond a few young players pushing their way into playing time, the Cardinals have also seen a defensive decline at some key positions.

Take Tommy Edman as an example.

Tommy Edman’s Defense Slide

Year Position DRS OAA
Year Position DRS OAA
2022 2B 12 8
2022 SS 6 11
2023 2B -1 -2
2023 SS -1 -1

Anytime a defensive stalwart up the middle becomes average to slightly below average, it’s going to hurt. But, again, it especially hurts a staff like the Cardinals’.

And, finally, there’s the position everyone is talking about - catcher. I’ll keep this short. Willson Contreras isn’t Yadier Molina. Neither is Andrew Knizner. Neither is any other option the Cardinals have.

What Does This Mean Going Forward?

The Cardinals roster has changed from what it was two years ago. The young players entrenching themselves into starting roles aren’t elite defenders. Some of them aren’t even average defenders. And Jordan Walker is on the horizon too. At the same time, there’s a new catcher in town and Paul Goldschmidt and Nolan Arenado aren’t getting any younger, and, typically, defense doesn’t get better with age.

All this goes to say, that the Cardinals days as an elite defense may have run their course, at least for the next few years. And that means the team must adapt. It can no longer rely on elite defense to prop up an average rotation.

The rotation will need more swing-and-miss than it’s had in the last few years.

The good news is that the Cardinals will have the chance to remake their rotation in the offseason. Whether they will take that chance remains to be seen.

Miles Mikolas and Steven Matz are both under contract and either of them, or both, could move into the bullpen if they don’t find their effectiveness. That means there are at least 3 and as many as 5 rotation spots open next year.

So if the Cardinals are looking for an opportunity to shift their pitching philosophy, now is a good time to do it. And it shouldn’t be too hard to improve the strikeout rate of a rotation that ranks as the 6th worst in the league in that metric. A deadline acquisition that is controllable through next season could help. Free agents could help. Matthew Liberatore could help. There are options.


With all that being said, I do think this rotation is better than it has shown. I do expect the BABIP to improve, regardless of the defense, and I do expect the ERA to come down to more reasonable (if still high) levels.

The problem is that this rotation doesn’t have an ideal defense behind it and pitching to contact means the defense needs to make a lot of plays. That may have worked well enough when the Cardinals had a top-5 defense but that doesn’t work too well when the Cardinals have an average to below defense.

Thanks for reading, VEB. Have an amazing Sunday!