When the St. Louis Cardinals signed Dexter Fowler to a five-year contract in December, his bat was a major consideration, but so too was his well-rounded game. His fielding, roughly average over the last two seasons, creates an indirect upgrade for the Cardinals defense—by allowing Randal Grichuk to slide over to left field, this represents a marked improvement over the defensive production the team received in 2016 at the position, primarily from Matt Holliday and Brandon Moss.
John Mozeliak spoke directly from the beginning of the off-season about the need to improve the team’s defense. The statistical logic behind this is sound—the Cardinals were in the bottom half of teams in Defensive Runs Saved in 2016 and their Base Running Runs rated even worse, ranking 29th of 30 teams. Despite baseball’s #5 offense, as measured by team wRC+, the Cardinals fell short of the postseason. By earned-run average, the Cardinals finished 12th, but finished 7th by fielding-independent pitching—the 0.2 run gap between their collective ERA and FIP implies that a defensive shortcoming may have left some run suppression potential uncovered in 2016.
The implication from the front office is that the Cardinals should seek a well-rounded approach in order to build a potential World Series champion. And there is certainly virtue in improving the less glamorized elements of the game—being good at certain baseball elements is better for a team than being bad at those baseball elements (citation needed).
But being good at everything is not the only path to building a World Series champion. The most recent Cardinals team to win a title, in 2011, are a definitive example of how to build a winner while practically disregarding the so-called “fundamentals” along the way.
“Fundamentals” is a bit of a misnomer, anyway, as it implies there is something more inherently virtuous about players who produce value in ways other than hitting. Joey Votto may be a one-dimensional player on offense, but he is still a more valuable player by Wins Above Replacement metrics than his Cincinnati Reds teammate Billy Hamilton, among baseball’s elite at base running and fielding.
The 2010 Cardinals, which won 86 games (much like the 2016 club) and missed the playoffs, were not an offensive juggernaut—they finished tied for 11th in Major League Baseball by wRC+ and were a stronger team defensively, ranking 7th by Defensive Runs Saved. But rather than preserve the relatively balanced approach they had taken, the Cardinals built their off-season primarily around emboldening their bats.
In late November and early December 2010, the Cardinals made a pair of moves after which the end result to the Cardinals lineup was the departure of Brendan Ryan and the acquisition of Ryan Theriot. Brendan Ryan had been a significant part of the Cardinals’ above-average defense in 2010, leading all MLB shortstops in Ultimate Zone Rating Runs Saved. But because of his, to put it lightly, lackluster offensive production, he was still no better than an average overall player—his 55 wRC+ could be rationalized because of his contributions in the field, but it was hardly ideal.
His replacement, Theriot, primarily played second base in 2010. He was undeniably a defensive downgrade, as the Cardinals were going from a premium defensive shortstop to somebody who was arguably not a shortstop at all. But he was an offensive upgrade—although Brendan Ryan was the better player in 2010 (and 2011), Theriot was slightly better offensively even in 2011, when he trailed his shortstop predecessor in FanGraphs Wins Above Replacement by 2.6 wins. That said, these trades are widely believed to have been the result of personality conflicts between Brendan Ryan and Tony LaRussa. This was an occasion where the offensive upgrade was so minimal that it would take the most ardent Cardinals apologist to argue that the move was successful on balance based on on-field results.
But the offense-oriented trend continued. On December 4, the Cardinals signed former Houston Astros and New York Yankees first baseman/designated hitter Lance Berkman. The Cardinals already had a first baseman in Albert Pujols and a designated hitter in, um, the pitcher, so the role for Berkman was a bit unclear (the Viva El Birdos post from that day regarding the transaction speculated that Berkman would play left field and that Matt Holliday would move to right field). But as it turned out, the Cardinals put Berkman in right field, a position which he had not played at all since 2007, and had not played primarily since 2004. The Cardinals essentially punted on right field defense, and as expected, Berkman’s fielding was poor. But he had a vintage Lance Berkman offensive season, making him still a valuable member of the lineup.
By July, friction between starting center fielder Colby Rasmus and Tony LaRussa had intensified, and Rasmus was traded to the Toronto Blue Jays for a set of rentals and Marc Rzepczynski. The new center fielder became Jon Jay, a fourth outfielder who had played some center field but had primarily played in right field up to that point, taking Ryan Ludwick’s place after he was traded for Jake Westbrook in 2010 and acting as a defensive substitution for Lance Berkman in the first half of 2011.
As it turned out, the defensive gap between Rasmus and Jay was not an enormous one (and Jay, who is slightly older, currently gets more playing time in center field than Rasmus, who has mostly moved to left field), but it did have a negative effect on the Cardinals’ defensive depth—Matt Holliday (not yet a major defensive liability, but hardly a standout) and Lance Berkman no longer had their go-to defensive substitute, with Allen Craig now serving as the primary backup in the corners.
For significant chunks of 2011, the Cardinals played a trained outfielder, Skip Schumaker, at second base; a second baseman, Theriot, at shortstop (while Rafael Furcal helped a little bit, he was still a below-average defensive shortstop by 2011); a right fielder, Jay, in center field; and a first baseman, Berkman, in right field. And statistically, as a team, it showed: the Cardinals fell to 20th in Defensive Runs Saved and were the second-worst base running team in baseball. On the 2011 Cardinals, only Tyler Greene, who spent a majority of the season in the minor leagues, reached double-digit stolen bases. But they were also tied for third in wRC+ and led the National League in runs scored. And this offensively-oriented team won the World Series.
Improving the offense isn’t going to mean an automatic World Series title. And improving in ways other than hitting the baseball is, in a vacuum, always going to be a good thing. But there is no one right way to construct a baseball team.
The 2017 Cardinals probably could have improved their defense more than they did—Fowler helps the defense, but there are better defensive center fielders that could be had for less than Fowler cost. It just so happens that these players are worse overall players than Fowler. And when the Cardinals, or any team, says that they want to improve their defense, this should be a means to an end. And the end result should always be winning as many games as possible, regardless of how an organization gets there.