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Give them a hand: Cardinals' need offensive mettle to help golden defense grasp title aspirations

From the Catch '22: The Cardinals have a superb defense, but do they have a subpar offense? series
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St. Louis Cardinals start day 4 of team workouts in Jupiter

CARDS PREVIEW SECTION -- Fans watch all five 2021 St. Louis Cardinals Gold Glove Award winners, from left to right, left fielder Tyler O'Neill, third basemen Nolan Arenado, first baseman Paul Goldschmidt, second baseman Tommy Edman and center fielder Harrison Bader cross paths between drills on the fourth day of team workouts on Thursday, March 17, 2022, at the Cardinals spring training facility in Jupiter, Fla. Photo by Laurie Skrivan, lskrivan@post-dispatch.com

JUPITER, Fla. — One groundout, one strikeout, and three batters into the Cardinals’ first game of spring training, Houston’s Marty Costes turned on Adam Wainwright’s sinker and scalded a grounder bound for left field. The baseball left his bat at 110.2 mph, the third-swiftest of the first 221 balls put in play during a Cardinals game at Roger Dean Stadium this spring and the only one of the top three that was not a home run.

As quick as it came off the bat it was in Nolan Arenado’s glove.

The Cardinals’ third baseman lunged to his forehand, extended his 12-inch Rawlings glove and intercepted the sharp grounder as he left his feet. Arenado spun on his left hip and plucked the ball off the dirt with his right hand, his back now facing first base. From his knees, he turned and fell forward, whipping a throw that one-hopped to first baseman Paul Goldschmidt for the third out. It was just another play at the office, the Cardinals’ spectacularly routine with a dash of Arenado’s routinely spectacular. Glove, at first sight.

“I was like, ‘OK, OK, we’re back,’” infield coach Stubby Clapp said. “Game on.”

“I got chills from Arenado when he made that play in the first inning of the first game,” shortstop Paul DeJong said. “That reminded me why we’re out there and what we’re trying to do making an impact, how we can change the game.”

“That’s just what we do,” Goldschmidt said.

While the Dodgers did Dodger things and refortified one of the game’s brawnier lineups, and the bullish Mets did new Mets things by investing millions on pitching for a hostile takeover, the Cardinals stayed true to just what they do. No one does defense better.

A recommitment to their brand resulted in the 2021 Cardinals becoming the first team to win five Gold Glove awards in the 65 years of Rawlings’ top defensive honor. No franchise has won more than the Cardinals’ 96 Gold Gloves overall, and they’ll enter this season will all five reigning winners — Arenado, Goldschmidt, Tyler O’Neill, Tommy Edman, and Harrison Bader — in Thursday’s opening-day lineup. The Cardinals have the active leader in Gold Gloves at four positions: catcher Yadier Molina (nine), first baseman Goldschmidt (four), left fielder O’Neill (two), and third baseman Arenado (nine consecutive). Opening-day starter Adam Wainwright tells teammates “no” when they ask if he’s won “a” Gold Glove. He’s won two, thank you.

The Cardinals’ devotion to defense has such range that even players signed solely for their bats have won a Gold Glove. During spring, they added two veterans to be a left-right combo as the National League adopts the designated hitter. Corey Dickerson and Albert Pujols, who returned to St. Louis just before his number will be retired, have three Gold Gloves combined.

“During that stretch when they won 17 (consecutive) games they played as good defensively as anyone,” said Ozzie Smith, Cardinals Hall of Famer and shortstop’s all-time leader with 13 career Gold Gloves. “They play as good of team defense as we’ve seen in a long, long time. Easily the best.”

Or, as Bader put it: “Just clowning on fools.”

The Cardinals begin their 131st season in the National League and pursuit of a 12th World Series championship Thursday against Pittsburgh at Busch Stadium with Wainwright and Molina making their 305th start as a battery. That puts them 20 away from the major-league record for a tandem. Molina has affirmed his 19th will be his final season — check the souvenir stands for licensed merchandise — and Pujols joined him for a “last run.” Wainwright, now 40, could throw a curve and return.

The Cardinals have history to make, history to mark, history to relive, and history to maintain. Their 14 consecutive winning seasons won’t mask how the past 10 have ended shy of a pennant. They’ve won one of their past eight playoff games and hit .210 in 17 playoff games since 2015. The Cardinals have not won a game in the National League Championship Series since 2014. The Dodgers dispatched the Cardinals in last fall’s wild-card game with a walk-off home run and remain heavily financed and hellbent on usurping the NL’s championship throne. As the playoff field expands to 12 teams, six in each league, the path through the postseason becomes more random and more challenging as teams like the Mets and Dodgers spend far more to get through it.

The Cardinals, on the 100th anniversary of the Birds on a Bat logo, need a bigger offense upon which to perch. They cannot get by on glove alone.

The Cardinals’ defense has the range to shift average run production into a contender, but not even the finest fielders in the game can cover the gaps another season of subpar offense creates in the standings.

That’s the Catch ’22.

It’s not just liners and grounders the Cardinals have to catch; it’s rivals.

“Our nine against any nine any day, and we’re not chasing anybody,” first-year manager Oliver Marmol said. “Yes, defense is a contributor to winning championships, but you have got to hit. We’re not just going to rely on our defense to have a successful season. No, we’re going to have to hit. We’re going to hit.”

Under the tent

The latest in a long line of exceptional Cardinals center fielders, Harrison Bader followed in the footsteps of Terry Moore, Curt Flood, Willie McGee, and grass stains of Jim Edmonds, winning the Cardinals’ 17th Gold Glove by a center fielder in the past 59 years.

He first got that golden gleam in his eye at 8.

“As with any kid who had access to the Internet, I was watching YouTube and then you go on Baseball-Reference.com and you start to look around and there are these awards,” Bader said. “Rawlings hands these things out. And you see pictures of shiny gloves. I’m a young kid, and a shiny gold glove on a pedestal is just about the coolest thing ever.”

The spoils of Bader’s first career Gold Glove are the gold patches on the back of his glove that Rawlings permits only winners to receive. The symbolism is just as shiny.

In 2018, the Cardinals had a ragged spring training and played frayed defense for months. When Mike Shildt took over as manager at the All-Star break, he “really pushed us that we’re going to be good at something,” said Marmol, then Shildt’s bench coach. The staff identified baserunning and defense as immediate emphases. The “controllables,” they called them. Only defense was independent, because the most exceptional baserunning can be halted if a team struggles to reach first base. Infield guru Jose Oquendo rejoined the staff, and DeJong said it was then that he learned “what playing defense at a high level really looks like.”

Bader, emerging as a darling of defensive analytics, personified this sharpened focus. Despite hitting .220, Bader started 29 of the team’s final 31 games as Shildt prioritized defense, and the Cardinals caught fire and made a late push for the playoffs.

“We knew we needed to clean things up,” Wainwright said. “When you miss the playoffs by a game and you look back at the times we beat ourselves, it was a lot. Like, really a lot. Just doing fundamental things right was the difference in us not making the playoffs. How many more games can you win?”

That question followed the Cardinals into the next spring training, and so too did a 6-foot-3 answer. Acquired via trade in December 2018 and signed to a record extension in March 2019, Goldschmidt reduced the number of errors at first base for the Cardinals from 20 to five. By increasing their use of shifting, the Cardinals had already turned shaky defense into steady defense, then Goldschmidt made it a strength. In 2021, the Cardinals added Arenado, the third baseman of his generation. It was like Ronnie Lott suddenly strutting onto the set of the Super Bowl Shuffle to join the ’85 Bears, minus the rhymes.

At the same time, young, speedy outfielders O’Neill and Dylan Carlson flanked Bader. The defense started to dance. A revival was afoot.

“The way I look at it is when we played (in the 1980s), it felt like it was a tent out there. You know what I’m saying?” outfield coach McGee said. “I got that same sense last year. It’s like one piece here, once piece there, and not one thing is missing — everything is covered. It was just a tent, man. A tent covering the whole field.”

Like the Gold Gloves, modern metrics glisten for the Cardinals. One of the significant advances in the game has been using Statcast and radar technology to better understand and grade defense. Free from misleading nonsense like fielding percentage, teams are able to track where a fielder starts, what route he takes, how fast he takes it, and when there’s a high probability of a play. The catches made on low-probability plays help measure the elite, and the more reliable data is allowing teams to better identify above-average fielders and the runs they prevent.

Since 2019, the first full season of the defensive turnaround, the Cardinals lead all teams in Defensive Runs Saved with 172, 41 more than any other NL club. The Cardinals are the only team in the past two seasons to be above average in DRS at all nine positions. According to Sports Info Solutions, a leader in advanced defensive data, the Cardinals “don’t have a weakness” defensively.

Six Cardinals finished first or second in DRS at their position.

Five won a Gold Glove.

Shortstop DeJong was the sixth.

“You don’t want to be that weak link who doesn’t do their part,” Goldschmidt said. “You start to see how defense can win ballgames, and then it becomes even more contagiousand you’re like, ‘Wow, maybe I went oh-for-four, but we turned an awesome double play or I made a diving catch with two outs and the bases loaded, and we won by 1.’ Our defense really kept us in it.”

Failing at boring

The Cardinals believe they take infield practice more often than other teams, and Arenado quickly noticed two things the Cardinals do differently: First, they push each other at game speed, which, he said, is why 12 pitches into spring he made a play on a 110-mph grounder. Second, they take drills as a group. Infielders get individual grounders, too, but the Cardinals spend time tuning work into concert. They have enhanced and refined their use of defensive shifting, too, so that the drills and the data work hand in glove to position fielders for a routine play more often.

In 2021, the Cardinals led the majors in defensive efficiency, turning groundballs in play into outs, at 78%. The next closest team was 75.9%, or roughly two more outs for every 100 balls in play.

It’s the third year the team has led in SIS’s defensive efficiency. Since the stat became available in 2003, the Cardinals are the only club to lead three consecutive seasons.

Their defense is an ecosystem. Bader’s range in center is wide enough that O’Neill and Carlson can cut off balls down the lines and keep opponents to singles. That allows infielders to turn more double plays, and they do because Edman is nimble and Arenado is willing to try. The Cardinals changed how they react to some groundballs after Arenado threw aggressively to get a lead runner at second base — and no one was covering.

“It just creates a whole different bag of apples for you as far as defending the game,” Clapp said. “Everybody knows the setup. Everyone knows the options. We try to make defense boring.”

They are, um, totally failing.

During the franchise-record 17-game winning streak that lofted the Cardinals into the playoffs in 2021, the Cardinals glistened with web gems. Lars Nootbaar robbed a home run from the Mets at Citi Field. The Cardinals won a game in extra innings after Goldschmidt started a 3-2-5 double play that connected players with 20 Gold Gloves and kept what would have been the walk-off run from scoring. At Wrigley Field, the Cardinals won their 15th consecutive game only because of a 3-2-5-4-2-8-6 double play. Including the pitcher’s delivery, seven of the nine Cardinals on the field touched the play on that sequence. Bader raced in from center to take a throw at second. Boring is not the adjective that leaps to mind. The phone-number rundown made Marmol a meme with his mouth agape.

“Those two plays are two wins,” Arenado said. “Those little things for us make a huge difference for us. Having guys with a great baseball IQ that can make the right play, make the great play, and make the routine play.”

Said Edman: “Everybody on our team is a ballhawk.”

“What we’re watching, what we’ve experienced the past two years, this defense is at another level,” Molina said. “That’s the defense that helps you win championships, and I cannot wait to do that.”

What once was viewed as a way to salvage a sinking season is now one of the engines propelling the Cardinals, right down to player acquisition. The Cardinals saved their postseason aspirations in 2021 by retooling the pitching staff around sinkers and strike-throwers who put the defense to work. This winter, the Cardinals did the same — re-signing T.J. McFarland, pitching free-agent lefty and sinkerballer Steven Matz a four-year deal, and luring strike-throwers Drew VerHagen and Aaron Brooks back from Asia.

Welcome to the Cardinals. Contact encouraged. Sinkers preferred.

“Right now, balls in play aren’t as scary for us as they are for some other teams,” general manager Michael Girsch said. “Might as well try to leverage that.”

The catch

The ball even the Cardinals could not catch reached the Dodger Stadium bleachers and sent the crowd into ecstasy and the visitors into their offseason. The 90-win Cardinals took the 106-win Dodgers into the ninth inning with a 1-1 score, and that’s when the Cardinals’ offense caught up with them. Edman had three of the team’s five hits. Their only run came in the first inning when he scored on a wild pitch. The lineup went zero-for-11 with runners in scoring position, daring the Dodgers to rally.

The power of glove took them only so far.

There’s a wall they must get over.

“If the ball is on the ground we are usually in front of it, and our guys catch it,” Marmol said. “If the ball is in the air, we’ve got three jackrabbits out there to get almost everything. Pitching aggressively with that mentality is key. We can count on our defense. We’re not only our defense. We need to hit.”

Marmol is the third handpicked, homegrown manager hired since the team’s most recent World Series, and he has been blunt: Anything less than a championship is a “disappointment.” There is increasing pressure on the front office to do more than adrenalize nostalgia with Pujols’ signing or cash in on the Gold Gloves with value plays for pitching. The Brewers reign in the division, the Braves over baseball. The Dodgers loom. The Mets have money. Marmol’s club, like any great fielder, needs to get a grip. The first club ever to return five Gold Glove winners has one trophy that’s remained out of reach for 11 years.

There’s one more thing the Cardinals must prove they can catch.

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