The St. Louis Cardinals grade well in Outs Above Average in 2020

Statcast has released its key defensive statistic, Outs Above Average, for 2020 and there are some real surprises for the St. Louis Cardinals!

The full Statcast Outs Above Average (OAA) statistic has gone live for 2020 and, similarly to its release in 2019, there are hours of fun to be had digging into your favorite defenders. For St. Louis Cardinals fans, it is unsurprising to see the Redbirds in the top four defenses per Outs Above Average with the highest percentage success rate.

This is made all the most impressive by the fact OAA is a cumulative stat and the Cards have played an average of four games fewer than the rest of the league.

By the eye test, the Cardinals have been an elite defensive side over the last few years. They consistently finished in the top five per a variety of statistical defensive metrics in 2019, coming second in Outs Above Average, third in UZR and fourth in Defensive Runs Saved.

MILWAUKEE, WISCONSIN – SEPTEMBER 14: Harrison Bader #48 of the St. Louis Cardinals catches a fly ball in the fourth inning against the Milwaukee Brewers during game one of a doubleheader at Miller Park on September 14, 2020 in Milwaukee, Wisconsin. (Photo by Dylan Buell/Getty Images)

Heading into 2020, there were no major changes to the infield nor the outfield. So although the offense does suffer on account of this, the St. Louis Cardinals were expected to maintain their strong defensive prowess throughout this shortened season. Although errors are up on last year (they averaged an MLB low error every ~2.5 games whereas in 2020 that number is up to an error every 1.6 games), the team has performed well so far defensively.

At present they sit second per Fangraphs’ UZR/150 metric (6.1), top of the Fielding Bibles DRS leaderboard (+35), and fourth on Statcasts’ newly released Outs Above Average metric (+7). The joy of the Statcast analysis is that you can dig deeper into the numbers and find some interesting trends. For example, in 2020 the Cardinals infield has actually struggled in comparison to prior years whereas the outfield has excelled.

The outfield defense has been hot so far in 2020!

The St. Louis Cardinals currently have the second strongest defensive outfield in all of MLB with +7 OAA, behind only the Los Angeles Dodgers. They have saved the most runs in the majors, with six runs saved, and are the only team in MLB with at least one Out Above Average at every fielding position (namely moving inwards, backward, left and right).

This is a major improvement from 2019 where the Cardinal outfield had a -10 OAA which was predominantly driven by the -17 combined OAA of Jose Martinez and Marcell Ozuna (yes who can forget THAT fielding attempt!)

2020 has seen Harrison Bader maintain his elite defensive performances. After ranking as the fourth-best outfielder in 2019, he is currently sitting as the joint fifth-best in 2020 (having played fewer games) and will likely creep further up the standings in the coming week!

Additionally, there have been significant defensive improvements by both Lane Thomas and Tyler O’Neill. Both outfielders finished 2019 with net-zero OAA (Thomas having a 79% success rate and O’Neill maintaining an 86% success rate), but already in 2020, both are sitting within the top 15 outfielders in all MLB.

Thomas has accrued +2 OAA and has an exceptional 92% success rate, then O’Neill has really stepped up with +4 OAA which puts him at joint fifth overall among all major league outfielders and is currently the number one left fielder defensively per Statcast!

Now it may shock some to see Tyler O’Neill so high up on the leaderboard. Although he may not always look like a natural in the field, he is certainly performing like one in 2020! As stated he sits as the joint fifth-best outfielder per Statcast, which is mirrored by Fielding Bible where his +9 DRS sit him at fifth overall and he has the 11th most UZR / 150 in the majors (with at least 300 innings played), per Fangraphs, which is marginally behind Nolan Arenado in tenth.

CHICAGO, ILLINOIS – SEPTEMBER 07: Tyler O’Neill #41 of the St. Louis Cardinals catches the fly out by Victor Caratini #7 of the Chicago Cubs during the fifth inning of a game at Wrigley Field on September 07, 2020 in Chicago, Illinois. (Photo by Nuccio DiNuzzo/Getty Images)

O’Neill is one of only 21 players in the entirety of the majors to make a catch which has a <5% catch probability and one of only two shortstops to do so! He hasn’t missed a single “easy” catch (i.e one with at least a 90% catch probability) in 74 attempts, which a lot of the fielding elite can’t match – for example, Nolan Arenado has missed three plays with a greater than 90% completion probability! So accept it, folks, Tyler O’Neill is legit in the field.

Where it starts to go a little downhill for the Redbirds is when we head to the infield.

At present, the Cards rank as the 17th best team in MLB for infield defense with zero OAA which is a stark contrast to their league-leading +38 OAA from last year. It has been evident from watching games that errors have been way up in 2020, and additionally following the COVID-19 outbreak in Cardinals camp there was a lot more shuffling of the infield than normal. For example, Paul DeJong has already missed more games in 2020 that he did in the entirety of the 162-game 2019 season!

Last season, not a single Redbird infielder had negative Outs Above Average and the Cards fielded someone within the top 7 players in all of MLB at each position on the diamond. They had Paul Goldschmidt ranking third among first baseman, Gold Glove-winning Kolten Wong ranking second of all second basemen, Paul DeJong sitting at fifth among shortstops, and Matt Carpenter was seventh.

To date in 2020, only three players have positive Outs Above Average, with Tommy Edman sitting on +3 OAA and both Kolten Wong and Paul Goldschmidt having +1 OAA. Then that leaves us with the more troublesome numbers, namely Matt Carpenter who has -1 OAA, Brad Miller who is not known for his defense and has -2 OAA in very few appearances and most surprisingly Paul DeJong with -3 Outs Above Average.

Edman performed well in 2019 also, amassing +6 OAA in his late joining stint in the majors. He has continued that trend into 2020, currently sitting at +4 OAA which is joint best in the team and has been gained mostly from third base, but also from second base, shortstop and the corner outfields. Edman has a 100% success rate on all plays when he’s been at second and right field (although all of those plays had at least a 75% estimated success rate).

MILWAUKEE, WISCONSIN – SEPTEMBER 14: Paul DeJong #11 of the St. Louis Cardinals throws to first base in the seventh inning against the Milwaukee Brewers during game one of a doubleheader at Miller Park on September 14, 2020 in Milwaukee, Wisconsin. (Photo by Dylan Buell/Getty Images)

Paul DeJong though has had somewhat of a regression in his defense so it seems. He was elite defensively in 2019, but currently sits with -3 Outs Above Average which ranks as the joint second-worst shortstop (although there will be no catching Willy Adames and his -8 OAA). Overall, Statcast estimate that DeJong has performed 4% below expectation and this sits in the bottom fifth of all MLB shortstops which based on his defensive abilities is not where PaulyD should be sitting!

DeJong has struggled with fielding balls hit short and also balls hit down the third base line, particularly those classed as being more difficult to field. Of the ten plays which DeJong has attempted which have less than an 85% success rate, he has managed to only complete two of those which has added -4 to his overall Outs Above Average total. By comparison, of the 60 similar attempts he had in 2019 (with success rate of less than 85%) he converted 30 of which was elite!

Next: Setting up the postseason race one week out

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Now there’s all to play for in these final two series with the St. Louis Cardinals making a run towards the expanded 2020 playoffs. If the team can make it, a three-game series looms in which a lot of pressure will be on the rotation to try and force out two wins. We all know the offense has a tendency to go to sleep for the Redbirds, so keeping a tight ship defensively could be paramount. Therefore with the Cardinals holding one of the best defenses in the majors, that could go a really long way to seeing progression into the 2020 National League Divisional Series!