WASHINGTON — For an early showcase of how adding Nolan Arenado, one of the finest defensive players ever to play third base, to the infield has shifted the Cardinals’ positioning and thinking around the horn, consider the counterintuitive: His two errors.
Both of Arenado’s fielding errors this season have come with him at the shortstop position, on a shift, moving his feet to make an aggressive throw as he was Monday, and even against the same hitter — Washington’s Josh Bell.
It is not a spot, nor a play, the Cardinals had third basemen regularly handle.
“He’s an aggressive player,” manager Mike Shildt said. “Most players who are successful … they want the baseball. They want to go make that play. It’s a great trait. It shows self-confidence in your ability. I love the fact that he’s going to make plays. When you look to make plays you’re going to make a lot of plays. The old proverbial basketball analogy: All the shots you don’t take, don’t go in.”
During spring training, the Cardinals approached Arenado about how he preferred to handle the shift. Third basemen often go to the right side of second base, so that only one position, his, is changed and the shortstop is not uprooted. Arenado preferred to turn the double play from the shortstop side, coach Stubby Clapp said, and was comfortable on that side. It also gave him open range on grounders he had to charge on that side.
“We defer to his experience — and his ability,” Clapp said.
The Cardinals have also aimed to continue what has been a three-year expansion in the use of defensive shifts, especially this season against righthanded hitters. The shifts against lefthanded hitters like Kyle Schwarber and Juan Soto in this series are now textbook. The shifts to have three infielders on the third base side for righthanded sluggers are more conspicuous. The Cardinals have shifted 58 times on righthanded hitters through their first 16 games, according to Baseball Savant.
They had 59 shifts vs. righthanders in the entirety of 2018.
Their percentage of shifts on righthanded batters in 2019 was 3.5%. It is up to 14.4% this season, partially based on recent opponents.
“What’s the trend in hitting, right?” Clapp said. “The trend in hitting is pull-side homers. If they’re not hitting that ball in the air and they cap it and it’s on the ground, hopefully it’s pull-side groundballs and we’re standing in front of those groundballs. To make sure we’re in the right spot. I think we’ve been a little more aggressive on the righthanded pull.”
And there as an anchor for it is Arenado.
A winner of the Gold Glove Award in all eight of his major-league seasons and a four-time Platinum Glove winner, Arenado has put his teammates on their toes.
Whether he’s stationed at short on a shift or rushing in from third on a bunt, Arenado has shown he will try to get the lead runner from any angle. He caught the Cardinals’ infielders unprepared in Miami when he looked to make a throw to second base instead of the direct throw to first. They had not seen him try that before because game-speed bunts weren’t prominent in spring with so few pitchers hitting.
“You can do drills and stuff like that, but you don’t get a full glimpse until you actually run things at game speed,” Clapp said. “He’s aggressive with what he does and we’re making that adjustment quickly to be able to accommodate that.”
For shortstop Paul DeJong, that means moving to the second side on most shifts and inching closer to second usually. Arenado’s span at third has allowed DeJong to play closer to second, he said, and he’s learned to yield on some of the plays to his backhand because Arenado is eager to cut those off. The Cardinals’ shortstop also said he’s seen Arenado try a play other third baseman rarely do.
He cut off a throw recently and made a jump throw trying to back-pick a runner who might be rounding the base.
His teammates knew to be ready for it.
“Those are the types of plays he makes,” DeJong said. “That’s the type of aggressiveness he has. Getting used to that. I haven’t seen that from a third baseman on this Cardinals team. So he really makes some unbelievable, high IQ plays, and I think that’s what we’re adjusting to.”
Shildt on experimental changes
Back in the Arizona Fall League, as he made the climb as prospect toward the majors, Shildt participated in one of Major League Baseball’s experiments with the rules, so has a feel for how patient to be with changes attempted. He got to see replay in its infancy, and this year the Atlantic League, MLB’s lab, will explore what happens with two changes:
• The pitching rubber and mound will be moved back 1 foot, to 61 feet, 6 inches.
• The designated hitter will be tethered to the starting pitcher, so when the starter leaves so too must the hitter, opening a spot for pinch-hitters.
“They’re wanting to clearly get the velocity down a little bit,” Shildt said of the mound move, which would be the most significant since Bob Gibson forced its height to change after 1968. “I’m not a traditionalist for the sake of being a traditionalist. I do think the game has adapted some positive things over the last couple of years that have changed the game for the positive. One of my biggest things is player health. I don’t know what that’s going to look like for player health — the extra foot. Time will tell. I am a little apprehensive on that one.”