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Thursday, December 19, 2013

Goold: Have the Cardinals found true glove?

Start with the premise that the Cardinals will score fewer runs in 2014.
That’s something that team has had to obviously consider.
In 2013, the Cardinals hit better with runners in scoring position than any lineup had in several generations. As we’ve detailed before here in the blog and in articles for the Post-Dispatch, the Cardinals’ uncanny .333 average with runners in scoring position (RISP) meant that they scored about 100 more runs in 2013 than they would have if they just hit the league average with RISP. The Cardinals led the National League with 783 runs scored.
Cast them as mere mortals in RISP at-bats and they slip to, oh, about Pittsburgh Pirates level. That’s average, but it’s not aspiration-killing because the Pirates made the playoffs and gave the Cardinals a push before the Cardinals pulled away for a baseball-best 97 wins. The Pirates won 94 games by scoring enough to support a strong pitching staff and the second-best team defense in the National League. In other words, they didn’t have to score as much because they didn’t allow as much. They maintained a strong run differential – plus-57.
The Cardinals had a plus-187 run differential, and they faced in the World Series the only team with strong run differential (Boston, plus-197). Run differential is an excellent way to judge the best teams when scanning the standings. Fourteen teams in the majors had a plus run differential in 2013 and all 14 had winning records. All 10 of the playoff teams in the majors had a plus run differential. Duh. But run differential isn’t just the act of scoring a lot of runs – though that does lead to the league-leading totals that say the Cardinals and Red Sox had. If the Cardinals accept that they are going to score fewer runs, they can still maintain a strong run differential. They must allow fewer runs.
This was the buzzphrase from a few winters ago: run prevention.
Given that the Cardinals’ pitching staff was also one of the strongest in the league in 2013, the way for them to improve their run prevention isn’t on the mound. It is in the field.
The Pirates were a plus-68 Runs Saved on defense.
The Cardinals were a minus-39.
Do the math.
While the club will have to find more power from internal sources, several of the Cardinals’ moves this winter have been done with the intention of maintaining the run differential by improving the defense. The addition of Peter Bourjos means a potential upgrade defensively in center field and cleared the way for Matt Carpenter to move to third base, his more natural position. Rookie Kolten Wong has the inside track on second base, but if he falters the Cardinals this past weekend spent at least $5.25 million to secure one of the best defensive second baseman in the game, Mark Ellis.
The Cardinals’ acquisition of Jhonny Peralta is a downgrade defensively – trading much better bat for lesser glove than Pete Kozma – but the numbers show that Peralta is an “even” fielder. The eyes, which are just as important to understanding defense as the improving metrics, tell us that Peralta uses positioning to make the most of his range and compensate for the reach he lacks at the position. In total plus/minus, Peralta is a minus-25 in his career at shortstop, but keep in mind that he’s a plus-12 in his last 4,184 2/3 innings at the position, and he’s had four Runs Saved in that stretch. He’s improved in the field from his youth. Has to be the savvy, right?
All of that leads to this question: Did the Cardinals substantially improve their defense?
The answer: It should be the most-improved facet of the 2014 club.
The Cardinals set a club record for the fewest errors committed last season. I’m going to assume that we’re all past the point where we believe that is a measure of good defense.
It’s not.
The Cardinals were a below-average defensive team. Subpar. Erratic. Fuzzy. At times, costly. This was on display in the postseason and whenever the team played in one of baseball’s bigger ballparks, like they did for the opening series in Arizona. Bill James Online and Baseball Info Solutions track more-enlightened defensive stats than errors (valuable, but not for defense) and fielding percentage (complete garbage stat). BJO has the plus/minus numbers you’ve seen here before and the Runs Saved metric that is calculated as a result. The Cardinals had a minus-39 Runs Saved, and only statuesque Philadelphia (minus-102) was lower. Seven AL teams were worse than the Cardinals, putting them right at the top of the lower third for defense.
For context, here were the best defensive teams, per Baseball Info Solutions:
  1. Kansas City, plus-93
  2. Arizona, plus-86
  3. Pittsburgh, plus-68
  4. Milwaukee, plus-58
  5. LA Dodgers, plus-47
  6. Atlanta, plus-46
  7. Texas, plus-39
As you can see, defense and Runs Saved is not the indicator that run differential is or offense is when it comes to measuring playoff-bound or winning teams. Detroit, for example, had a minus-66 when it comes to defense. But the Tigers, like the Cardinals, had the offense and the pitching to overcome those heavy gloves. Teams like Seattle (minus-99) or Washington (minus-16) didn’t. Six NL teams were minus on defense. The Cardinals were the only one to reach the postseason, and they won the NL pennant.
The drag caused by the Cardinals’ defense is clearer when going position by position, through the spectrum of fielders (see my trusty Yellow Legal Pad doodle for more info). A look at the team Runs Saved totals for the Cardinals, by position (NL rank in parentheses):
P – minus-4 (12th)
C – plus-10 (2nd)
1B – minus-5 (15th)
2B – minus-3 (10th)
3B – minus-10 (14th)
SS – zero, or “even” (8th)
LF – minus-16 (14th)
CF – minus-5 (10th)
RF – minus-6 (11th)
Baseball Info Solution then adds those up to arrive at the minus-39 for the team. (Keep that in mind.) The Cardinals only had one position – catcher – that ranked in the top third for the league, and the club had five positions that ranked in the lower third. Catcher was buoyed by Yadier Molina, who was a plus-12 (third in MLB) at catcher. Leading individuals at the other eight positions that defined or defied the scores at their positions (MLB rank):
P Adam Wainwright … plus-4 (17th)
1B Allen Craig … minus-1 (20th)
2B Matt Carpenter … even (19th)
3B David Freese … minus-14 (33rd)
SS Pete Kozma … plus-8 (5th)
LF Matt Holliday … minus-13 (34th)
CF Jon Jay … minus-10 (32nd)
RF Carlos Beltran … minus-6 (25th)
It is through these individual scores and team scores that we can gauge whether or not the moves the Cardinals have already made this winter will/should improve the defense.
It takes some finagling with the numbers, some averaging, and some use of rates. But it works. It does hinge on past performance being an indicator of future production, but I’ve tried as much as I can to avoid the Small Sample Size Theater. It’s impossible with rookie Wong, who had 111 innings at second base in the majors in 2013. But that’s a good place to start.
Carpenter was an average second baseman by the end of the season, his first at the position at any level. He was an even fielder there, Daniel Descalso finished a minus-3, and Wong in limited exposure at second base was an even fielder. Ellis is an exceptional fielder there. Ellis’ 12 Runs Saved at second for the Dodgers last season was the second-best of any everyday second baseman. He has 47 Runs Saved at second in the past four seasons, and he’s a plus-48 at the position in his last 3,901 1/3 innings played there.
That takes second base from a minus-3 in 2013 to a potential even in 2014 if Wong takes over the position or a plus-14 with Ellis in the field.
To come to that number, I took Ellis’ average Runs Saved over his previous 3,901 1/3 innings played and stretched over 1,200 innings at second base in 2014. That would be the everyday player – or roughly the equivalent of 133 complete games played in the field. I used that same figure (1,200 innings) to calculate Carpenter at third base, Craig in right, Adams at first base and so on and on. As mentioned above, Peralta has four Runs Saved in his past 4,184 2/3 innings and that hints at one Run Saved as the everyday player in 2014.
Bourjos has to stay healthy and in the field to reach his potential, but with 33 Runs Saved in his past 2,635 2/3 innings in center field, he can be a run-stealer in center.
On opening day 2014, the Cardinals will have only two players returning to their positions: Molina at catcher, Holliday in left, and (from the Dept. of Obvious) Wainwright at pitcher. Six other players will be new to the team or new as the starter at their position or both. That’s a tremendous amount of churn for the pennant-winning team. But it does lead to an improved defense. Check out the same spectrum that we highlighted earlier from 2013 with the potential totals for 2014:
P – minus-4 in 2013 … returns with minus-4 in 2014
C – plus-10 in 2013 … returns with plus-10 in 2014
1B – minus-5 in 2013 … Adams projects for minus-2 in 2014
2B – minus-3 in 2013 … Wong projects for even in 2014
3B – minus-10 in 2013 … Carpenter projects for plus-5 in 2014
SS – even in 2013 … Peralta projects for plus-1 in 2014
LF – minus-16 in 2013 … returns with a minus-16 in 2014
CF – minus-5 in 2013 … Bourjos projects for plus-15 in 2014
RF – minus-6 in 2013 … Craig projects for minus-5 in 2014
(Note: I re-calculated many of these based on the 1,200-inning rate and have not updated the totals below from when the blog was originally filed. -- dg.)
As Bill James Online does to arrive at the team totals for Runs Saved, we can add those totals up to get a sense of how the Cardinals have improved in the field.
The total from the above would be plus-4.
That’s a plus-43 Runs Saved reversal.
Include Ellis as the everyday second baseman, and that jumps to plus-57.
That’s enough glove to get away with less bat.

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