The St. Louis Cardinals’ defense has made huge strides over the last three seasons, and it could finally be enough to propel the team to the postseason.
The St. Louis Cardinals defense was woeful in 2016, but an emphasis on defense over the past three seasons has led to improvement every year, and the Cardinals are now near the top of most defensive statistics.
It hasn’t been easy to get to this point. The team’s defensive runs saved in 2016 was -13, and its ultimate zone rating was a putrid -48.5, according to Fangraphs. Much of the struggles were placed on the loss of third base coach Jose Oquendo, who was placed on a leave of absence because of an injured right knee at the beginning of the 2016 season.
Since that low mark, the team’s defense has trended upward. In 2017, it had a DRS of 21 and a UZR of 10.5. In 2018, the team had a DRS of 52 and a UZR of 22. Now, in 2019, the Cardinals’ DRS is 26, and its UZR is 25.2.
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The Cardinals seem to have made an effort in making players into quality defenders. Kolten Wong, previously a solid defender who would have lapses at times, has developed into one of the best defensive infielders in the game. Harrison Bader is another defender who has improved markedly during his time with the organization. A UZR of 10.5 makes him an elite fielder. Paul DeJong has improved every year at shortstop and now grades as well above average.
Many of the players without much major league experience also show some skills on defense, and they are likely to progress further with more time to mature. Randy Arozarena and Lane Thomas fall into this category.
Matt Carpenter remains average at the keystone, and Dexter Fowler has improved this year, with a -1 DRS after -18 and -5 in 2017 and 2018, respectively. The main outlier is Jose Martinez, whose fielding ability is very limited. With a DRS of -10, he is a liability in the field. Still, the defense as a whole is a strength of the team.
In addition to developing good defensive players, the organization has also sought out more players who have defensive talent. Paul Goldschmidt is one of the best defensive first basemen in the league, and Marcell Ozuna, while not flashing his Gold Glove-caliber defense from years past, is another example of an acquisition with a solid fielding history.
The front office and the management’s focus on the field are likely the main reasons the Cardinals have made such progress on defense. The addition of strong fielders and the ability to develop them in the minors is an attribute of the team that fans often overlook.
The Cardinals obviously made it a priority to improve their defense over the past few years, and the results are showing. While the bullpen is one reason the team finds itself in first place, the team’s fielding aptitude this year shouldn’t be overlooked. It could be enough to help the Cardinals make a deep playoff run.