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All About That Defense

The time has come. After multiple offseasons filled with reports that the Cardinals were trying to work towards a deal to acquire a certain 3rd baseman from Colorado, the blockbuster deal has once and for all come to fruition. That’s right; Nolan Arenado is finally, officially a St. Louis Cardinal. But that’s not exactly what we’re here to talk about today. Instead, we’re here to talk about how this move effects the team as a whole, but more specifically how it effects the defensive side of the ball. What happens when you add a top-tier fielder to an already elite defensive team? And which players give the Cardinals the best chance to win on defense? Well, those are the questions I hope to provide answers to today.

The Cardinals are already known around the league as one of the best—if not the best—defensive team in MLB, and while this move almost certainly puts them over the top, I want to focus on the Cardinals defense as a whole. After all, this is the team that has the 2nd-most Defensive Runs Saved, 2nd-most Outs Above Average and 2nd-best Ultimate Zone Rating in MLB between the 2019 and 2020 seasons (second only to the Dodgers, Astros and Athletics, respectively). At the very worst, this team could be considered a top 4 defensive team in the entire league, and that was before the acquisition of a multi-Gold Glove, multi-Platinum Glove and multi-Fielding Bible award winning third baseman. So let’s go position by position and explore how special this team could be going forward.

The Outfield Situation

So here’s the thing; the Cardinals have had a bit of an open competition in their outfield over the last couple seasons, with the following players getting outfield innings at one point or another: Harrison Bader, Lane Thomas, Justin Williams, Tyler O’Neill, Dylan Carlson, Austin Dean and even Tommy Edman. Clearly, there are some decisions for the Cardinals to make in regards to how they want to utilize their outfield, and I am certainly not clued in on what those decisions may be. So, given all that, I will simply be sharing with you what I believe to be the team’s best available options at each outfield position. This isn’t a prediction, it’s just my personal opinion. With that said, let’s get started.

Left Field: Tyler O’Neill

Let’s begin our tour of the St. Louis defense in left field, where I believe the spot belongs to Tyler O’Neill. Now yes, his offensive production was disappointing in the shortened 2020 season, and it may or may not be likely that he’s actually given the everyday spot in left field. However, this is absolutely the right call if the Cardinals are looking to create a defensive powerhouse, which they definitely should be. Tyler wasn’t just good defensively in 2020, he was the best defensive left fielder in baseball. Just look at how he ranked among other left fielders last season:

  • DRS: (+9) 1st in MLB

  • OAA: (+4) T-1st in MLB

  • UZR: (+5.7) 1st in MLB

  • UZR/150: (+15.4) 1st in MLB

  • RngR: (+5.3) 1st in MLB

In my opinion that’s pretty definitive, but don’t just take my word for it; Tyler was also unanimously chosen to receive two prestigious defensive awards: the Gold Glove and the Fielding Bible Award, both of which are awards that Yadier Molina, Kolten Wong, Paul Goldschmidt and newly-acquired Nolan Arenado have been recipients of as well. The only question for O’Neill now is his offensive production, which is a question we’ll never get an answer to if he isn’t given a real opportunity in a real, normal MLB season. My personal hope is that he gets such an opportunity in 2021, and after receiving such awards for his efforts in left field, one would think he’s earned that opportunity. Only time will tell in that regard, but in the meantime, let’s move on to our next stop in this virtual tour.

Center Field: Harrison Bader

Even though I believe much of the hate thrown towards Harrison is unwarranted—especially after he finished the 2020 season with above-average offensive production—that argument is redundant here. My goal is simply to select the best possible defensive lineup that the Cardinals are capable of producing, and that lineup cannot exist without the glove of Harrison Bader.

It’s honestly rare to watch a game with Bader patrolling center in which you won’t see him do something impressive. Whether that’s making a diving catch, getting to a ball so quickly he turns a double into a long single, or just generally showing great hustle. No matter what you think of him as an overall player, there is one thing on which we can all collectively agree: Harrison Bader is really good at playing defense. But really, how good is he? Between 2019 and 2020 combined, Bader ranks 1st among all center fielders in UZR/150 (+17.2), 1st in RngR (+11.8), 2nd in UZR (+14.1), 3rd in OAA (+17) and 5th in DRS (+15). He also did all of that while having played about 100 to 200 fewer innings than some of the guys in front of him.

All these numbers do is reinforce the fact that Bader is an elite defender. Does that warrant him an everyday spot in center? I believe—so long as he continues to be near-average offensively—that it absolutely does.

The Cardinals have something special defensively in Bader, and I think they’re smart enough to see that. Otherwise, they probably would’ve given up on him by now. No, he’s most likely never going to be an offensive presence or anything, but he probably is capable of being an average hitter, and when your defense is this good, that’s really all you need. A recurring sentiment we hear from pretty much everyone in the Cardinals organization on a semi-regular basis is that “defense wins ballgames”. While hearing it repeated so many times may ensue an eye roll here and there, it’s also undeniably true. Fortunately for Bader, he’s in an organization that believes in that style of baseball. After all, it’s been working for them for many decades at this point. I’m confident that this is not only the correct decision moving forward, but that the Cardinals are willing to make it. He’s been the incumbent center fielder for two straight years now, and I don’t see any reason to change the game-plan now that didnt exist before.

Right Field: Dylan Carlson

Before Arenado, Dylan Carlson was the player St. Louis fans were most excited to see play in 2021, and for good reason. Dylan is going to be a special player. Something that often goes overlooked however, is how good he is defensively. Unfortunately, we don’t have publicly-available 2019 defensive numbers for Dylan, so we’ll have to settle for just the 2020 sample size. For Dylan, that’s only 263 innings over all three outfield positions, which isn’t ideal, but it’s what we have to work with. Now, since he did play all three positions fairly evenly, I’m going to break down his stats at each one individually so that it’s easier to digest.

The following are Carlson’s defensive numbers at all three outfield positions in 2020:

As you can see, Dylan found most of his success in right field, which is perfect considering left and center are already covered on the defensive side. One of those numbers really jump off the page: a +109.2 UZR/150. In case you didn’t already know, UZR/150 is a variant of UZR (the aforementioned Ultimate Zone Rating) which extrapolates the stat to 150 games played defensively. That means that Dylan was so good in those 81 right field innings that if he had continued to keep that pace, in 150 games played he would’ve had a +109.2 UZR. Now, that’s almost certainly not what would’ve happened if he had actually played 150 games, but the point is that he was on that sort of trajectory. That number is pretty ridiculous, and to my knowledge nothing even close has ever been achieved—in the modern area or otherwise—so take it with a grain of salt. Even so, the point is that Dylan Carlson was really, really good in right field last year. With defense like that paired with the offensive ceiling we already know is there, I don’t think there’s a better fit in right field for the time being.

So, that’s that for the outfield. Next stop is the infield, and at the time of writing this, we don’t technically have an official decision made for one particular position just yet. Nonetheless, I will be writing under the assumption that the Cardinals do indeed re-sign their longest tenured player and franchise favorite, Yadier Molina. It’s going to happen, everyone knows it’s going to happen, and I honestly don’t want to write about the possibility of Andrew Knizner as our everyday catcher. It makes me too sad.

Catcher: Yadier Molina

Even though he has yet to officially re-sign with the Cardinals as of the time I’m writing this, it’s pretty much an open secret that Yadi will return to the Cardinals on a 1-year deal. So even though I would personally rather be writing about Mr. Knizner right now, I’ll be moving forward under the presumption that Mr. Molina will be the everyday starting catcher for the Cardinals in 2021.

I don’t need to list Molina’s excessive list of defensive awards and accolades, as many of you likely already know them by heart, so I’ll just cut to the chase: Yadi is... probably still an above average catcher. I wish we were still in 2013 and he was still the best in the league, but unfortunately Father Time is undefeated and he is no longer that caliber of a player. Even still, between the 2019 and 2020 seasons (min. 1000 innings) he proved to be a plus defensive catcher behind the plate, sporting +3 DRS (11th in MLB), +2.9 FRM (9th in MLB), +13.9 Def (8th in MLB) and found himself about 14% better than league average at Framing pitches in that span, according to Statcast. Not to mention, Yadi still very much controls the running game. He may not quite have the arm he used to, but don’t tell that to baserunners. From 2017-2020, the Cardinals are dead last in stolen bases allowed and second-to-last in caught stealing. That means, quite simply, that nobody tests Yadi. They’re still afraid of him, and who knows how many potential runs that saves in itself.

While his years of being an elite defensive catcher are likely behind him, clearly there is still value in his glove. Sure, I would prefer to see Knizner get the starts he deserves this year, but when you already have an above-average defender behind the plate, it’s a little hard to complain. There’s not a whole lot else to say about Yadi or the inevitability of him starting everyday in 2021, so I’ll just leave it there. Here’s to one more year of the GOAT, and hopefully one that includes a final farewell in front of the fans. Safely, of course.

First Base: Paul Goldschmidt

I’ll be honest, it’s still pretty surreal to call this guy a Cardinal. I mean, what a player. After a good, albeit underwhelming 2019 season, he came back in 2020 and proved to everyone that he’s still That Dude. Obviously he’s here for his offensive production, but over the last several years, Goldy has established himself as one of the premier defensive first basemen in the league. The guy absolutely gets it done with his glove, and he’s won several awards in his career for exactly that reason.

Although I (along with many others) don’t necessarily believe in using advanced metrics to evaluate first base defense—due to the specific skill set of the position itself not being taken into account in the algorithms/formulas that these stats use—Goldy does find himself doing well in some of these metrics. For example: since joining the Cardinals in 2019, Goldschmidt has accrued +6 OAA (3rd in MLB), +3.8 UZR (3rd in MLB) and +1 DRS (10th in MLB). Again, I don’t personally believe these stats are an accurate way to evaluate first base defense, but it’s what we have for now. What Goldy truly does at a high level is get the little things right; making sure his foot doesn’t come off the bag, coming off the bag entirely to prevent a wild throw, scooping everything out of the dirt, so on and so forth. Goldy doesn’t really commit errors, either. Since 2018 (min. 2500 innings), he’s only committed 12, which is 1st in all of MLB.

The guy rarely makes a mistake at first base, and after watching the tandem of Jose Martinez and Matt Carpenter play quite a few games there, it’s pretty easy to notice. I don’t have to sell Paul Goldschmidt to anyone though, so I’ll leave my long-winded assessment of his defensive abilities here.

Second Base: Tommy Edman

The recent news that Kolten Wong signed a 2-year deal with the Brewers only solidified what we all pretty much knew to be true prior to the fact: going forward, Tommy Edman is the Cardinals second baseman. John Mozeliak hinted at it earlier in the offseason, and now it’s about as official as it gets. Whether you’re upset that Wong is gone, or you’re excited to see Tommy get a shot at the job, I think we can all agree that Mr. Edman has certainly been impressive up to this point. His rookie campaign took St. Louis by storm, and even though his sophomore season wasn’t close to the production-level we saw from him in 2019, there were still positives to take away for Tommy. Namely, his continued display of incredible defense.

It seems like no matter where you put him, Tommy Edman is going to be a plus defender. He’s played every single fielding position outside of first base and catcher, and honestly I wouldn’t be surprised if he gets a shot at the latter before Andrew Knizner does. Jokes aside, Tommy is the very definition of a super utility player, but in the limited time he’s had at second base specifically, he’s proven to be a superb fielder there—perhaps even on a similar level to his predecessor, Kolten Wong.

The following are Wong and Edman’s defensive numbers at second base:

Both are obviously very good defenders, and both outperform the other in separate categories. The difference in OAA is rather large, but Wong’s sample size is about 141 innings more than Edman’s. Of course, that won’t make up an 8 OAA gap even if we extrapolated Tommy’s innings to that of Kolten’s, but it would make up some ground. Frankly, based on what little we’ve seen so far, Wong appears to be the better defender at second. However, we would do well to remember that Kolten didn’t get there overnight. In fact, it took him several years to become the elite defender he is today, and it’s impressive that Edman has already put up numbers that compare to Wong’s in less than a full 162 games played at second base. So no, Tommy likely isn’t on Kolten’s level just yet, but he is absolutely a great defender in his own right, and the defensive “loss” at second base likely won’t be very noticeable going forward.

Shortstop: Paul DeJong

Paul DeJong’s defense at shortstop has been sort of perplexing over the last two seasons. In 2019, he was legitimately one of the best defensive shortstops in all of MLB, posting a ridiculous +26 DRS (T-1st in MLB), an +11.4 UZR (1st in MLB), a +12 OAA (5th in MLB) and a +2.0 RngR (7th in MLB). Without question, Paul DeJong was an elite defensive shortstop two seasons ago. Unfortunately, 2020 was a very different story. Not only did DeJong not find himself ranked among the best in the league in any of the stats mentioned above, he actually ended the year with a negative OAA (-4), which would indicate that he was well below average with the glove, at least according to that metric alone.

Of course, the 2020 numbers do include a dramatically smaller sample size, and DeJong was diagnosed with Covid-19 during the year, which outfielder Lane Thomas has attributed to personal experience with breathing issues, dizzy spells, sudden lack of energy and overall fatigue while playing in-season. Could DeJong have been experiencing a similar case of “Covid Hangover”? I certainly wouldn’t rule it out. Thomas also talked about how difficult it was to re-adjust after the Cardinals Covid outbreak forced a 16-day quarantine, while having no access to exercise equipment to stay in shape or perform even the most basic baseball-related activities. This could be another contributing factor to DeJong’s disappointing 2020 season, both defensively and offensively.

The numbers are what they are, and no matter the reasons behind them, DeJong would likely tell you that they should’ve been better. But with that being said, I’m personally banking on Paul being the player we saw in 2019 and not the one we saw in 2020. If that turns out to be true, then we’re all in for something incredibly special with this Cardinals infield, especially on the left side.

Third Base: Nolan Arenado

A man whose defensive prowess truly speaks for itself, but I’ll list off his accolades anyways. He’s an 8x Gold Glover, 4x Platinum Glover, 4x Fielding Bible Award winner and 3x Wilson Defensive Player of the Year. Season after season, he’s consistently at or near the top of every defensive metric imaginable. Even Ozzie Smith hinted that he believes Arenado could be a Hall Of Famer one day. That’s incredibly high praise coming from The Wizard, and it’s well-deserved.

Of course, I don’t have to pitch the case for Nolan Arenado to anybody. The man is already beloved by St. Louis fans and he hasn’t even stepped foot inside Busch Stadium as a Cardinal yet. But we’re here to talk numbers, and you’d be hard-pressed to find a player whose defensive stat-line is more fun to look at that Arenado’s, so let’s do just that.

The following are Arenado’s defensive rankings among qualified 3B over the last three seasons:

Boy, are those fun to look at or what? It really does seem like Nolan has just continued to get better and better with age, which is a pretty great sign considering he’s expected to be a Cardinal for the next 7 years, presuming he doesn’t use either of his opt-outs of course. So, what should we look forward to seeing at the hot corner this year? More of the same, I would assume. Which is to say a top 2 defender in the league, likely ahead or behind his former high school teammate Matt Chapman. It doesn’t get much (or perhaps any) better than Nolan, and his addition to the Cardinals’ infield definitely reinforces an already incredible defense.

Final Thoughts:

So that’s the Cardinals defense for 2021. Perhaps one of the greatest defenses St. Louis has ever seen, and almost certainly the best defensive team in MLB today. What a quick turnaround it’s been since the Cardinals lead the league in errors and found themselves among the bottom half of the league in most advanced defensive metrics—which occurred just three seasons ago in 2018. Say what you will about the front office and the decisions they’ve made in recent years, but one thing they’ve done especially well in that timeframe is put a team on the field that wins with their gloves. It probably isn't a coincidence that the Cardinals returned to the playoffs after a 3-year dry spell once their defense was shored up, and hopefully that trend continues into the foreseeable future.

It’s really encouraging to see the Cardinals front office really double down on their identity as a defense-first club this offseason, as well as making the necessary changes to improve the offense. Obviously the Arenado move is one that accomplishes both, but I would argue that moving Dexter Fowler is one that does the same. Trading Dex is, of course, a move that opens up an outfield spot for #1 prospect Dylan Carlson, but it also clears a path for Tyler O’Neill to build upon a year in which he was celebrated for his defensive dominance, and provides him with an opportunity to prove that he can get it done with the bat as well. Overall, I’m a huge fan of the game-plan Mozeliak and company have had this offseason, and am looking forward to see how well that plan translates into results in the regular season and beyond.


Credits to BaseballSavant and FanGraphs for the stats referenced in this piece.

As usual, credit to @cardinalsgifs for the sick gifs and even sicker cover photo.


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