In the eighth inning Wednesday, as the Cardinals tried to cobble together innings from the bullpen, manager Mike Shildt met his infielders on the mound for his sixth and final pitching change of the game. The switch, from lefty Andrew Miller to righthander Giovanny Gallegos, meant different alignments for the infield, a shift to their shifts, and while Shildt came out to take the ball from the pitcher he also had something to give the fielders.
In the palm of his hand was a token of what could be a historic turnaround.
For the past few weeks, Cardinals infielders have carried onto the field small, laminated cards that direct where to position themselves and when for each opposing hitter. Call them a Pocket Oquendo. These new cards, which look like slender Monopoly property cards, have a splash of color and use a number system to suggest how far to shift, if at all. They’ve helped cut down on the “whistling back and forth” with the dugout, one coach said, and they’ve augmented an aspect of the most dramatic defensive improvement in baseball.
“It’s not just about standing in the same spot that you’ve stood in for 150 years,” said shortstop Paul DeJong, who can be spotted glancing at those cards between batters. “It’s more about playing your opponent as opposed to playing the game like it’s been. It’s just a starting point — a suggestion. Teams are looking to take outs any way they can, especially up the middle. I think we’re all looking for the edge.”
To become a division leader and one of the game’s best run-suppression teams, the Cardinals have re-sharpened a longtime edge that had gone dull. With 22 games remaining in the regular season, the Cardinals have committed the fewest errors in baseball (59). They had the most in the majors, at 133, a year ago. No team in major-league history has ever gone from worst to best in errors in consecutive seasons, according to research by Stats, Inc. The 1935 White Sox come the closest with the second-fewest errors after leading the majors in 1934. The Cardinals could set a club record for fewest errors, besting the 2013 team’s 75. They lead the National League in double plays turned (144), and advanced metrics love their gloves, too. They are tops in the league in Ultimate Zone Rating — a measure of a team’s defensive proficiency — and no infield has saved as many runs as the Cardinals plus-41, according to Bill James Online.
That little card Shildt brought to the infielders is just the latest example of what’s been a concerted, collaborative effort between players, their skill, coaches, and analytics to fix the fielding.
Reflected in its tiny details are Jose Oquendo’s instincts, Ron “Pop” Warner’s research, the baseball development group’s advanced metrics, Mike Maddux’s strategy, Yadier Molina’s insight, Stubby Clapp’s synthesis, and the craftsmanship of what he joked was the “arts and crafts department.” Merged with the agility and commitment of the players, the Cardinals have restored what Kolten Wong described as the “kind of Cardinal baseball I knew coming up.”
With a data upgrade.
“I think the shifts are part of the game now, and we’re seeing it have a drastic effect defensively on saving runs,” said Clapp, who coordinates the defense — and makes the cards. “I think if you look at it we’re not up there in the amount of shifts that we do, but I think we’re defensively doing a lot more than in years prior, and we’re doing it with intention that it’s going to full benefit the pitcher. We’re not just doing it to do it.”
Since Baseball Savant at MLB.com started tracking shifts, the Cardinals have annually been one of the bottom five, and ranked last in 2017. They’ve had a modest increase this season to shifting 15.8 percent of the time and ranking 24th. The average team shifts 41 percent of plate appearances by lefthanded batters; the Cardinals do on 30.9 percent. But, with 806 defensive shifts already this season they are on pace to shift more in 2019 than they did from 2016 to 2018, combined. They have saved more runs on shifts than all but three teams in the majors: Arizona and baseball’s two tech-savvy Terminator teams, Houston and the Dodgers.
This reboot of the Cardinals’ defense began at its bottom.
At the end of last season, Shildt tasked third base coach Warner and video coordinator Chad Blair and his staff to audit all 133 errors the 2018 Cardinals made. They watched and watched again the 20 errors the Cardinals had at first base or the 87 committed by the four infield positions — as many as the Cubs had total. The purpose of this video autopsy was to carve out the unavoidable and aggressive errors and diagnose the cause of “careless errors.”
The Cardinals felt the addition of Gold Glove Award-winner Paul Goldschmidt would immediately address the infield defense, and it certainly inspired his peers.
“When Goldschmidt came on, we talked about it before spring training how we knew we weren’t that good defensively, but we wanted to make sure we changed that this year,” said Wong, who is likely to win his first Gold Glove this season. “Paulie (DeJong) and I getting down there early, right after Winter Warmup, and Goldy getting there gave us some decent amount of time to get some work together. A head start.”
Said rookie infielder Tommy Edman: “You can see it’s a point of pride, and they all talk about it – not having those blunders to help the bullpen, get starters deeper into games.”
Shildt used a layer cake approach to drills in spring that reviewed fundamentals sometimes taken for granted and then stacked on advanced defense from there. One emphasis of that was shifting. Long discussed and sometimes used, now it would embraced. The Cardinals introduced shifting to their infield drills, made it part of their cutoff and relay packages, and got over the stigma. Or tried.
“It goes against the grain of what we’ve all been brought up to do, and now it’s part of the game,” said Clapp, the team’s infield coach. “You’re seeing it’s turning and it’s turning quickly. … You try and practice and you try and poke holes in it as much as you can prior to it happening at game speed. It does feel like you’re recreating a new type of infield.”
He had recent experience doing so.
On his way to a second consecutive Pacific Coast League championship as Class AAA Memphis’ manager, Clapp had his roster plundered in late 2018 by the Cardinals and received an infusion of younger, greener fielders. With the Redbirds “ready to clinch, giving up hits was not exactly what I wanted to do,” so Clapp wanted to accelerate the learning curve “without having to make an adjustment after the damage was done.”
Clapp dove into the metrics available to him and mapped shifts for outfielders and infielders alike. As a result, when he was promoted to Shildt’s staff and assigned to oversee infield defense and shift implementation, he was familiar with the data and more deft with it. He’s already seen it evolve.
“I think the best thing is I’m starting to see them constantly communicating,” Clapp said. “In the beginning, it was like, ‘OK, we’re going to shift.’ There would be limited communication. Who is going to cover second base if the ball is hit to Kolten and Goldy? Is it the third baseman or shortstop that is playing up the middle? We’ve had some situations where it got hairy, where it got sticky, and some balls go through. It’s not fun. It makes my heart skip beats when it happens. But we learn from it and we understand.”
Several examples of that happened in the past week, as the Cardinals shifted often against the lefthanded hitter deployed by San Francisco. In the seventh inning Tuesday, Stephen Vogt dumped a line drive up the middle of the field that has been a base hit for generations – only for it to find DeJong there, leaping to snag it. In Milwaukee late last month, DeJong felt a shift was too much against Brewers lefthanded hitter Eric Thames and remained straight up. He then watched as a single went right where the shift would have put him. In the same week a double play became an error when the shift created a traffic jam at second.
Flipping the thinking has been key as several Cardinals interviewed for this story recalled more times a shift stole a hit than when it cost them one.
“It’s more about playing in a place where if they hit it hard we can make a play,” DeJong said. “But if they don’t hit it hard, you’re still in position to at least make an attempt. If he hits it hard in a place that we’re not positioned then that’s a win for them. That’s always been a win.”
The gradual warming to shifts by the Cardinals traces back years to Oquendo and bench-coach Oliver Marmol working with the team’s analytics group to shape the stats they felt made for the most successful fielding arrangements. Each series, game-planning coach Joey Brebynski plays a role in distilling and conveying analytic guideposts to the coaches. Through planning with Maddux and catchers Molina and Matt Wieters, Clapp then organizes how the team will defend individual hitters. He’ll get input from pitchers as well, and sometimes the plans will shift game to game, as they’ll great a hitter one way for Adam Wainwright on the mound and another way if Michael Wacha is the starter. It’s a mix of hardware and software, with a human touch.
Onto the card, Clapp gives each suggested shift a number, ranging from minus-4 to plus-4. Think of the fielders on a number line with zero being “straight up” and plus-4 being a shift into shallow right for the second baseman. Minus-4, and he’s playing on the shortstop side. Infielders read their Pocket Oquendo, read the situation, and then merge the two for their positioning.
With preparation in place, skill takes over.
“You have to want the ball, and our guys do,” Wainwright said. “Ball hawk.”
The outfielders have used similar cards for more than a season, and each day outfield coach Willie McGee and Clapp form the Cardinals’ “arts and crafts department.” Printing. Copying. Laminating. They do it all. And then clip the cards into the size that fits in Shildt’s hands or perfect for Wong to fish from his pocket before snagging a grounder in shallow right.
The next advancement for the Cardinals is already clear. Expanded rosters have not yet meant expanded office supplies. Since Clapp started making cards in August, he and McGee have had to share the clubhouse scissors.
“When you’re in crunch time,” Clapp joked, “it would be nice to have two pairs.”