St. Louis Cardinals: Infield Outs Above Average with Nolan Arenado

The St. Louis Cardinals had an excellent defense in 2019, with the 5th fewest runs allowed, 3rd best Ultimate Zone Rating (UZR) and 3rd most Defensive Runs Saved (DRS). But how much would Nolan Arenado improve things?

The St. Louis Cardinals were well established in 2019 for their strong defense, having an MLB-high six players nominated for the Rawlings Gold Glove Awards. Kolten Wong was the sole winner, but the only infield position without a nominee for the Cards was the third base position. This Gold Glove was won by the undoubtedly best third baseman, Nolan Arenado, who has been strongly linked with a trade to the St. Louis Cardinals.

The 2019 Cards finished 3rd in Defensive Runs Saved (DRS) and behind the Los Angeles Dodgers & Arizona Diamondbacks. They were also 3rd in Ultimate Zone Rating (UZR) behind the Oakland Athletics & Cleveland Indians.

If the Cards were to replace their 2019 third basemen with Nolan Arenado, that would have improved their DRS by six runs (assuming Edman kept up his strong 2019 numbers and playing time) and would have upped their UZR by 12.6. This UZR increase would have propelled the Cardinals to 1st overall UZR in 2019 (45.6), which would have been the 2nd best UZR of any team of the last 5 years behind only the 2017 Cubs (47.1).

Both of these advanced stats are heavily run-based and take into account the defense of the entire team, not just the infield. So looking to dig into the Cardinals specialty of infield defense more the team at MLB Statcast, lead by the statistical genius of Tom Tango, have developed a new metric to identify how strong infielders are individually.

This new statistic is called “Infield Outs Above Average” and this, per the MLB Glossary – details can be found here, is defined as a range-based metric of skills that shows how many outs a player has saved.  Specifically for infielders, this takes the following into account:

  • How far the fielder has to go to reach the ball
  • How much time he has to get there
  • How far he then is from the base the runner is heading to
  • On force plays, how fast the batter is, on average

If you’re interested in the math behind the stat, Tom Tango has written a publicly available mini-dissertation on this that is a fascinating read which can be found here!

So with this new metric, if we look into the St. Louis Cardinals infield from 2019 we see that the Cards had the highest-ranked infield per Outs Above Average (OAA) by a long way. The Cardinals had a total of +42 OAA, which was nine more than the second-best team and 15 more than the third-best Houston Astros.

And who were the second placed team?  None other than the Nolan Arenado-lead Colorado Rockies.

So if we were to trade for Nolan Arenado and include him into the infield for 2020, what would that look like for the St. Louis Cardinals?

Paul Goldschmidt – 3rd best Outs Above Average (OAA) of all MLB first basemen. He accrued +5 OAA in 2019, with his top skill being moving forwards to field any infield tricklers and help out the pitcher/second baseman with anything hit short.

Kolten Wong – 2nd best Outs Above Average (OAA) of all MLB second baseman. Wong had +10 OAA in 2019 and was second overall to the Pirates Adam Frazier. Wong could quite easily step up into first place in 2020, with his 2019 downside being his defense when stepping in to field towards home plate.

In 2018 prior to the arrival of Paul Goldschmidt, Wong had +2 OAA when fielding inwards. So after an entire season playing together and a full spring training one would hope Wong will be able to re-improve this aspect and push back to top the leaderboard.

Paul DeJong – 5th best Outs Above Average (OAA) of all MLB shortstops. DeJong is the best shortstop at moving laterally to the first base side where we added +10 OAA over the season, but his downfall is moving laterally to the third-base side where he had -5 OAA. The question here is, was the drop in OAA for DeJong due to the Cardinals having a weaker third base position?

Therefore, would the addition of a top-quality third baseman (for example Nolan Arenado who is elite at fielding the first base side of third) allow DeJong to improve his overall fielding?

Nolan Arenado – the BEST third baseman in all MLB by Outs Above Average (OAA) with +17. He added +12 OAA when moving laterally to the 1B side, which would help out DeJongs inefficiencies and that +12 is also the largest single direction OAA value in all MLB.

So with such strong lateral defense at third, this could free up the Cardinals to invest in a Left Fielder who has a big bat to help the offense and who’s defensive inabilities could be masked by Arenado’s mastery.

Therefore adding Arenado into the starting infield for the St. Louis Cardinals in 2020 would give the Cards a top-five-in-MLB infielder at every position and with the addition of Arenado to improve DeJong, that could feasibly step up to them all being top-three.

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Presently, the Infield Outs Above Average data goes back to 2017, and the 2019 Cardinals had by far the best infield of the last three years with a +42 OAA. If the team were to add Arenado this offseason, this would increase to +47 OAA. Could this put the 2020 St. Louis Cardinals on the path to having the best infield defense of all time?

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