A few weeks ago I had one of those God-awful experiences at a restaurant. It took forever to get a table even though the restaurant was half-full (which should have been my first clue, by the way). It took several minutes for the waiter to show up. It was well-nigh impossible to get my tea refilled. The waiter messed up one of the orders. The service was just horrendous and the food…well, not good enough to make me forget it. And I let everyone know it. I posted on social media, told people at work, mentioned it to friends and family…everyone within earshot knew about my experience at this restaurant.
Ever notice how that works? When we have bad experiences like this, we announce them from great heights for all to see and hear but when we have similarly great experiences – as I’ve also had at a restaurant recently – we’ll mention it to people but not at all to the same degree as we announce the bad ones. We’re all too willing to give one of those 1-star google reviews because we want to warn everyone else about what to expect but when we have a 5-star experience…well, that’s sort of expected so we don’t make as big a deal of those.
It may not be obvious, but there’s a parallel here to the Cards’ defense so far this season. There have been many complaints all over social media, the Post-Dispatch, and Cardinals’ broadcasts about their defensive problems, one of which is that the team leads baseball in errors. And we all know about the problems that Jose Martinez and Dexter Fowler have had in the field. There’s been, however, much less mentioned about how great Kolten Wong and Harrison Bader have been in the field and, as we’ll see in a minute, their greatness has been much greater than Martinez’s and Fowler’s awfulness. In other words, that 5-star experience has been much greater than the 1-star experience was bad. And yet, all we hear is about how bad the Cardinals’ defense has been.
This is not to say, however, that the team’s defense has been great. It hasn’t been but the talk about the Cards’ errors and about the “new initiative” which, apparently, means benching Martinez (despite how well he’s hit) and Fowler gives the appearance that the defense has been worse than it actually has been. For years, (and this may be showing my age here) Cards’ fans and baseball people recognized that errors weren’t the be-all, end-all for defense. Ozzie Smith routinely had between 15 and 22 errors in a season but everyone knew that he made more errors because he got to more balls and made more great plays than everyone else. Errors count, yes. But if you get to 10 more batted balls than everyone else gets to, taking away 9 hits and making an error on the other, you’re still better than everyone else.
In looking at the defensive metrics, DRS has the Cardinals as the 12th best defensive team in the big leagues while UZR has them at 18th – both squarely in the middle of the pack. Now, a lot is made about the inaccuracy of defensive metrics so, in general, I like to use an average of the 2 and sort of take in the whole package to get a sense of how well a team or player has played on defense.
Going forward, let’s understand that defensive metrics do have a margin of error. They are not meant to be precise but if they tell us that a player’s been 10 runs above average, he’s probably been an above average fielder so far this season. Is it 10? Is it 12? Is it 8…we can’t say for sure. But he’s been pretty good, especially if both UZR and DRS are telling us he’s been above average.
Second, the metrics are a snapshot of how they have played so far. They cannot be taken as conclusive about how good they will be going forward. In other words, if the metrics say the Cardinals as a team have been average so far in 2018, that does not necessarily make them “an average defensive team.” It takes a lot more than half a season’s worth of data to draw conclusions about defense going forward.
Finally, understand that it is possible for good fielders to have bad defensive seasons and for bad fielders to have good defensive seasons. It happens at the plate. It happens in the field. Dexter Fowler’s 2016 in Chicago appears to be an example of that. It doesn’t make the metrics wrong or useless. It just means he had an unusually good season in the field. I think we all hoped that this would be some sort of breakthrough and that he would continue to be a good fielder in St. Louis but he hasn’t. It happens.
So is it possible the metrics are wrong, that the Cardinals have not been an average defensive team so far in 2018, and that they are actually terrible, as their MLB-leading 74 errors would lead us to believe? Yes, of course, but I’m betting that the metrics paint a better picture of the team’s defense so far this season than the number of errors do. For one, Cards’ pitchers’ BABIP is .284 while the league average is .292. That may be due to some luck or random variation but if team is holding other teams to a lower batting average on balls in play than the rest of the league, there’s a decent chance that some of that difference is attributable to its defense.
Another factor is that, according to baseball-reference, the Cardinals’ defensive efficiency is .690. The National League average is .691. So, again, there’s another indicator that, despite the high number of errors, the team is staunchly in the middle of the pack.
Obviously, any discussion of the quality of the team’s defense is dependent on the performance of its players so let’s look at what the metrics say about the players’ defensive performance. For our purposes here, I’ve combined the players’ performance at multiple positions into 1 number. So, for example, Matt Carpenter’s DRS and UZR numbers are a compilation of his numbers at 1B, 2B, and 3B. The same is true for Jedd Gyorko and Harrison Bader. The numbers are rounded and are taken from Fangraphs (UZR and DRS) and Baseball-reference (DRS). Both sites use the DRS number and, if you consider rounding, the numbers reported on both sites are nearly identical.
As I said earlier, I like to use averages because some of these numbers show a big difference in their performance but a lot of them are nearly identical regardless of which metric you use. It’s pretty safe to say, for example, that Jose Martinez and Yairo Munoz have been pretty bad defensively. But it’s also pretty safe to say that, despite the variance in Bader’s numbers, he’s been pretty good defensively. The same is true for Wong. Notice also that Gyorko and Paul DeJong have been slightly above average performers. Marcell Ozuna, despite complaints about his throwing arm, has been right around league average. (If you doubt that to be true, a little digging into those numbers will show you that his arm has been below average which certainly rings true to the “eye test” but his range has been above average.) Even the low range on Matt Carpenter’s defense has him right around league average.
Baseball savant also includes statcast’s Outs Above Average for outfielders and that metric shows some of the same things that DRS shows for Cardinals’ outfielders. Bader is 5th among all outfielders with 10 OAA. Tommy Pham is a little better than DRS shows at 1 OAA. Ozuna is at -1 (which, like Pham’s +1, puts him basically at league average) and Fowler is at -5. So, like the others, Bader is very good, Ozuna and Pham have been fine, and Fowler has been pretty bad. Their numbers fit right in with the others.
What stands out to me is how consistent most of these numbers are. Bader’s and Carpenter’s numbers show some variance but most of the others are very similar and also fit right into what we would think based on what we’ve seen so far this season. Would anyone doubt that Munoz hasn’t been very good or that DeJong has been solid? Both metrics have Fowler being slightly below average. Maybe the biggest surprise here is Pham’s performance in center field but that surprise is in response to how good he was last year. (As an aside, it’s interesting that, for much of last year, there was talk about moving Fowler out of CF and installing Pham there and that there’s already been similar talk about exchanging Pham for Bader this season.) And notice that both of the metrics are pretty consistent on Pham’s defense.
In looking primarily at the variances with Carpenter’s and Bader’s defense, you can see why the team shows up a little better in DRS’s rankings than in UZR’s but the larger point here is that the team’s defense hasn’t been as bad as we’ve been led to believe. They’ve made too many errors, to be sure, but it’s also pretty clear that they’ve gotten to a lot of balls, both in the outfield and the infield, that other players on other teams wouldn’t have gotten to. Why? I have no idea but it’s possible that Oquendo and Shildt are doing a pretty good job of positioning the fielders where they need to be in order to make plays. In other words, maybe what appears to be pretty good range shown by fielders is actually a pretty good job done by the coaching staff in getting the fielders in the right spot to make plays. Whatever the reason, the team is getting right a lot of the stuff that doesn’t show up in a traditional box score.
What does that mean for the 2nd half of the season? I have no idea. Hopefully replacing Munoz with DeJong now that he’s back from injury will help. Hopefully Pham will get back to being the defensive player he was last season. Hopefully Wong will continue to improve at the plate so it becomes much easier to get him in the lineup every day to take advantage of his outstanding defense.
Thanks to @cardinalsgifs for the great Bader pic and to baseball-reference, fangraphs, and baseball savant for the great data.
Thanks to everyone for reading.