clock menu more-arrow no yes

Filed under:

The Cardinals defense is either really good or really terrible

It depends on the metric.

Wong and his colleagues have struggled in 2016. Or have they?
Wong and his colleagues have struggled in 2016. Or have they?
Michael Thomas/Getty Images

How have the Cardinals played this season? On the one hand, they've lost 19 games — as Deadspin continually reminds us — compared to a mere 21 wins. After last year's 100-62 finish, that's a bit of a letdown for St. Louis. On the other hand, the club has scored 5.38 runs per game while allowing just 4.15, giving it a Pythagorean record of 25-15. Adjusted for other factors, the team's performance improves further to 26-14 by BP's second- and third-order wins. The Cardinals, to put it simply, have had a weird 2016.

In one particular area, the weirdness magnifies. Through their first 40 contests, the Cardinals have excelled in the field, according to one metric. Their 21 Defensive Runs Saved trails only the Cubs out of the 30 major-league teams. But another metric disagrees: By Ultimate Zone Rating, the St. Louis defenders have been worth -16.8 runs, the second-worst figure in the majors. You have both ends of the spectrum — either the Cardinals are spectacular or terrible.

While these statistics sometimes diverge for individual players, they usually correlate well on a team level. From 2003 to 2015, the largest difference between DRS and UZR, in either direction, belonged to the 2009 Blue Jays. That squad finished 46 runs above average in the former and 40.8 runs below average in the latter, for an 86.8-run gap. With a 37.8-run difference through the first quarter of the season, the Cardinals are on pace to annihilate that record. Will they? If they do, which metric will be correct?

Part of the disparity stems from the pitching staff. UZR, for whatever reason, doesn't measure pitcher fielding, and the Cardinals have dominated in that area. No team in baseball has more pitcher DRS than the Cardinals' nine. St. Louis hurlers had saved 129 runs prior to this year — which also led the majors — so this seems like a trend, to say the least. The men on the mound can't explain everything, though. Position players field the ball most of the time, and their production accounts for the gap.

Perhaps the scouts can clear this up. FanGraphs' Inside Edge data divides all plays into six (subjective) buckets: Impossible, Remote, Unlikely, Even, Likely, and Routine. For each of these, they examine how often players and teams turn the balls into outs. Where do the Cardinals rank in the eyes of the human evaluators?

Play Remote Unlikely Even Likely Routine
Cardinals % 2.7% 38.2% 64.0% 80.5% 95.3%
MLB % 4.0% 26.3% 53.6% 74.9% 97.7%
Cardinals Rank 17th 5th 6th 7th 30th

Note: In the five-year history of these metrics, no player has ever converted an Impossible play. The name doesn't lie.

Oof. This just muddles things even more. Routine plays occur the most often — MLB-wide, they've made up 75.4 percent of all plays in 2016 — and the Cardinals have floundered on them. On 30 occasions this season, St. Louis has botched a Routine play; the next-worst team, Atlanta, has done so 20 times. Yet in the other areas, the Cardinals have fared much better. They've converted most of the plays in the middle, and although the Remote ones haven't gone their way, those are much flukier than the rest (since they're so rare and depend on luck). If the scouts can't solve the fielding metric dispute, maybe no one can.

In the preseason, FanGraphs predicted the Cardinals defense would finish in the middle of the pack, with two runs in the field. Sans Jason Heyward, the club theoretically had nowhere to go but down. Depending on where you look, they've either sunk to a low low, or continued to fly high. I can't say whether DRS or UZR is correct without knowledge of their inner workings, not to mention the small sample size so far. The 2016 Cardinals defense, like the team as a whole, has been an enigma. Whether they'll make history with their metric confusion or simply regress in one direction is up to anyone to guess.

. . .

All statistics as of Thursday, May 19th.

Ryan Romano is a contributing editor for Beyond the Box Score. He also writes about the Orioles on Camden Depot (and on Camden Chat that one time), and about the Brewers on BP Milwaukee.