WASHINGTON • Before there was The Cardinal Way – and all of the variations and realities and punch lines that phrase has inspired – there was the actual way the Cardinals played.
They had the best gloves in all the land.
As much as three-time MVP Albert Pujols, the MV3, and the three-headed monster on the pitching staff propelled the Cardinals to success through the past decade, there was another constant that kept the Cardinals competitive: their defense. They have, only in recent, drifted from their defensive reputation.
No franchise in baseball has won as many Rawlings Gold Glove awards as the Cardinals, helped of course by the run of gold by Hall of Fame shortstop Ozzie Smith and the deed Jim Edmonds took out on the award while playing center field in St. Louis. The Cardinals’ current team has a Gold Glove battery – six-time winner Yadier Molina catching two-time winner Adam Wainwright. The supporting cast isn’t as good at stealing runs as the fielders the Cardinals had during the 100-win teams a decade ago. The Cardinals may publicly point to their franchise record for fewest errors last season and their fielding percentage. But they won’t do so loudly because they know neither is an accurate measure of defense. A statue gets to every ball hit in its direction and never makes an error on one that’s not. Doesn’t mean you plant David at third.
From 2004 through 2010, no team in the National League stole as many runs on defense as the Cardinals. Each year they were a plus defensive team, according to metrics kept by Baseball Info Solutions, and only once in that stretch did they finish lower than second in the NL. How many Runs Saved the Cardinals had on defense, per BIS:
2004 – 50 (3rd)
2005 – 76 (2nd)
2006 – 55 (first)
2007 – 48 (2nd)
2008 – 67 (2nd)
2009 – 35 (first)
2010 – 48 (2nd)
And then …
2011 – minus-22
2012 – 12
2013 – minus-39
The Runs Saved statistic for a team is the sum of the Defensive Runs Saved from each of the nine positions. Defensive Runs Saved is a measure of the runs a fielder steals/saves with his defense. Exceptional defensive players are plus (plus-11, plus-12, etc.) and some positions have an average that is minus, though not too far from even (zero). This metric gives fielders credit for plays they make outside of a prescribed zone to steal a hit, and it dings the fielder for the play that isn’t made within that zone, whether an error was assigned or not. For example, entering tonight’s game at Washington, the Cardinals are even (zero) at pitcher and catcher this season. They are a plus-1 at first base, plus-2 at second base, and plus-1 at third base. They are also a plus-1 in right field. At shortstop, left field, and center field they are minus-1, minus-3, and minus-1, respectively. Add them all up and the Cardinals so far are an even defense.
One area where they are a positive is … the shift.
The Cardinals, according to BIS, have saved two runs with their use of the defensive shifts – baseball’s new black.
As discussed in this past week’s Cardinals Insider, there is a power shift afoot in baseball as more and more and more team embrace more and more and more imbalanced infields. The Cardinals have seen shifts used against Matt Adams, Jhonny Peralta, and Molina already this season. Adams continues to confound the shift, which shouldn’t be a surprise. As discussed in the weekly chat, Adams was not the stereotypical lefty pull slugger in the minors so why do major-league opponents assume he’ll be Adam Dunn in the majors? In the insider, I focused mostly on the Cardinals’ shifts and the shifts in the NL Central, where the Pittsburgh Pirates are the team that’s popularized the trend.
This is not just a Central thing.
“If it gets more outs, I’m certainly in favor of it,” Cardinals general manager John Mozeliak told us during spring training. “I think that one of the things we want to do from an organizational standpoint is make sure that we implement that in the minors so that when they get to the big leagues they’re used to it. … We’ll provide the information.”
Said Twins’ manager Ron Gardenhire: “It gives you a little bit of a chance if you can execute.”
According to numbers Ben Jedlovec at Baseball Info Solutions provided me, there has been a startling surge in shifts over the past five seasons and already this season teams are on their way to crushing the high for shifts set just last year. In 2010, BIS counted 2,464 shifts on balls in play. (This does not count shifts like the Pirates do between pitches if the ball does not go in play.) In 2011, that number climbed to 2,357. From 2012 to 2013, the shifts surged from 4,577 to 8,134.
At the current pace, MLB teams will make 12,862 shifts this season.
One team, the Astros, is on pace to shift more often than either league did in total just four seasons ago.
Here are the teams, their pace for this season, ranked by last year’s total shifts:
Orioles … 595 … 35 …. 630 pace
Rays … 556 … 20 … 324 pace
Brewers … 538 … 41 … 738 pace
Cubs … 506 … 34 … 612 pace
Astros … 496 … 112 … 1,814 pace
Pirates … 494 … 33 … 594 pace
Red Sox … 478 … 23 … 373 pace
Yankees … 475 … 62 … 1,004 pace
Royals … 386 … 28 … 567 pace
Rangers … 355 … 18 … 324 pace
Indians … 312 … 29 … 470 pace
Athletics … 311 … 18 … 324 pace
Reds … 297 … 29 … 522 pace
Mariners … 261 … 16 … 324 pace
Blue Jays … 249 … 29 … 551 pace
Angels … 249 … 16… 288 pace
Diamondbacks … 191 … 14 … 189 pace
Marlins … 180 … 9 … 146 pace
Mets … 177 … 14 … 252 pace
Braves … 160 … 3 … 54 pace
Giants … 149 …11 … 178 pace
Tigers … 139 … 15 … 347 pace
Cardinals … 107 … 14 … 252 pace
Rockies … 95 … 0 … 0 pace
Padres … 88 … 11 … 198 pace
Twins … 84 … 25 … 450 pace
White Sox … 73 … 38 … 616 pace
Dodgers … 51 … 20 … 324 pace
Phillies … 45 … 5 … 90 pace
Nationals … 37 … 14 … 252 pace
As you can see, the American League East is well-represented in shifts. That’s not a surprise. David Ortiz roams there. The designated hitter – the extra hitter in the lineup – is going to automatically make AL teams more likely to shift. But the NL Central has two of the top teams, too. There at the bottom, however, is the Cardinals opponent for the next four days. Even the Nats have seen an increase in their use of shifts. Last year, the Nats were just ahead of the Cardinals in total defense, ranking 13th in the 15-team NL with a minus-16. The Cardinals were minus-39, and the Phillies were way, way, way down at minus-102 Runs Saved.
The Cardinals aimed to upgrade their defense this season by acquiring center fielder Peter Bourjos to cover more ground and by moving Matt Carpenter to third and Kolten Wong/Mark Ellis to second base. All three infielders are above average at those positions.
But, where the Cardinals may reclaim their defensive rep is on the shift.
Already this season, BIS has credited the Cardinals’ shift with two runs saved, more than they have had in any of the previous three seasons combined. It’s a small sample size to be sure. It’s s start. It shows that the way to better defense may not only be through better players, but through better positioning.