Outs Above Average and how defense affected St. Louis Cardinals batters
Statcast has updated it’s Outs Above Average leaderboard to show how batters were affected by the defenders they faced. It makes for interesting, although potentially worrying, reading for the St. Louis Cardinals.
The Statcast Outs Above Average (OAA) statistic which we’ve talked about previously really is a marvel and well worth taking a look at to dig into your favorite defenders. It now has an additional ability to be able to see how pitchers were affected by the defenses behind them and how batters were affected by the defenses they faced. This change shows some interesting results for the St. Louis Cardinals.
From a team perspective last season, the St. Louis Cardinals benefited the second most from defensive performances of all teams in the majors. Their cumulative OAA for 2019 was -20, which was joint with the Minnesota Twins and bettered only by the Boston Red Sox (-25). This implies that overall, the Cards may have had over-inflated offensive numbers due to other teams’ throwing errors, poor defensive positioning and ability to deal with the Redbirds speed.
On the other end of the scale, the Houston Astros had +33 OAA against their hitters. Implying that the Cardinals benefited from 53 additional outs above average than the Astros in their defenses faced.
Another excellent feature of the dashboard is that you can identify where these came from. Breaking down the Cardinals -20 OAA, they had the largest offensive gains from first base (-4), third base (-3), left field (-14) and right field (-5). By looking into the other teams in the National League Central with whom the Cards play 47% of their games, we see that the reason for this could lie within the division.
The NL Central had two of the worst five first basemen by OAA (Josh Bell of the Pittsburgh Pirates & Anthony Rizzo of the Chicago Cubs). The division also contained the worst team defensively at third base in the Pittsburgh Pirates who had -13 OAA. Finally, the NL Central combined for a total of -38 OAA at left field which was the worst division in the National League.
Evidently, the team faced some lacking defenses, but let’s take a look at which players benefited the most from this.
Looking at specific hitters on the St. Louis Cardinals, one can see from the numbers that two key bats were affected negatively by the defenses they faced. Marcell Ozuna had +7 OAA against and Dexter Fowler had +4 OAA against in 2019.
Ozuna had the majority of his OAA accrued against him (5) for balls hit short which were well fielded by defenders coming in towards the diamond. This aligns to his large differential between his xwOBA (.382) and actual wOBA (.336) which was a league “leading” -.046. The big difference between expected and actual wOBA implies a hitter under-performing, which for Ozuna may have been in part due to the superior defensive performances against him.
Fowler, although not having as large of a differential between his xwOBA and wOBA, still had a -.012 difference. Contrary to Ozuna though, Dex received the majority of his OAA against with defenders moving to laterally.
Meaning in 2019, Fowler could potentially have seen his average, and therefore effectivity, reduced by strong defense. Thus if Fowler can maintain his numbers from last year, there is the potential for some improved offense in 2020 if he were to face some weaker fielders. If Fowler could perform closer to his expected wOBA (.338), this would be comparable to 2019 players like Jose Ramirez of the Cleveland Indians or Whit Merrifield of the Kansas City Royals.
On the other hand, if we look at players that benefited from poor defense (namely negative OAA), we see Kolten Wong (-10) and Goldy (-7) likely had their offensive numbers slightly inflated due to opponents defense.
Kolten Wong had one of his best years offensively in 2019 with a .334 wOBA and 108 wRC+. Though seeing how defenses performed poorly against KoWo, 2020 could see a regression closer to the mean for Wong as he may not benefit from such poor defense. With -10 OAA against, Wong gained the second-highest benefit of all players in the majors. Bettered only by Kris Bryant (-11), this could point towards opponents defense allowing Wong his best year to date.
Digging a little further into Wong’s OAA against and comparing them to his wOBA on a monthly basis, we see:
March / April
League average wOBA for 2019 was .320, so interestingly you can see in general the months in which Wong had an above-average wOBA were when he benefited from poor defense (namely March/April, July & August).
However, May is a real outlier here since this was the month where Wong faced the worst defensive performances but himself had his worst wOBA. This consequently was the Cardinals’ worst month offensively also. So perhaps there were team factors outside of poor defense faced which were overriding here.
If we look to break down where the OAA for Wong were gained, we see the majority of his OAA came from first basemen (-4) and the fewest from shortstops (0). The -4 OAA at first base were mostly made up with balls down the first base line, so this will likely be due to a mixture of Wong’s speed and being shifted below league average.
Kolten Wong’s speed (average of 27.6mph per Statcast) isn’t necessarily elite but is above average which has him ranked as the Cards 6th quickest player of 2019 and in the top 36% of all MLB players with at least 50 PA.
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Additionally, left-handed hitters were shifted on 41.9% of the time in MLB in 2019, but Wong was only shifted on 30.2% of the time. When not facing a shift, Kolten saw a .014 uptick in his wOBA which could be driven by line drives down the first baseline causing this OAA uptick at first base.
If Wong were to face improved defenses in 2020, there remains a possibility that his OAA against could regress back to the mean and therefore reduce his wOBA from the .334 actual down closer to his 2019 xwOBA of .308. Wong thrived on his improved offensive performance in 2019, so how likely would it be to see that drop off again?
The Outs Above Average metric has been created to allow for teams to have both positive and negative outcomes. Looking back historically, the St. Louis Cardinals have swung from +7 OAA in 2017, up to +13 OAA in 2018 and then down to the -20 OAA from 2019. So there is every chance of a drop towards positive defense against again for the Cardinals.
There is scope for regression from Wong and other Cardinals batters if the team are to regress back to the mean of facing more challenging defenses. But realistically, the defenses within the division have not changed drastically or have switched out for worse defenders. Therefore there is still scope for the Cards hitters to continue down the path from last year and kick on even further to improve their offense even more in 2020!