“Offense wins games, but defense wins championship”. Everyone has heard this ancient sports cliché countless times, but the Cardinals 2016 season proves it yet again.
Just days before the Giants eliminated the Cardinals from the playoffs, general manager John Mozeliak spoke about his team’s biggest drawback: their defense. The GM made it well known that improving the Cardinals’ defense this off-season will be of top priority— “we’ll certainly explore all the available options that can help us improve.” Is defense really that important? Was the Cardinals defense lacking this season? Would the Cardinals be competing in the playoffs this year if they had a better defense? The answers to all three of those questions is simple: Yes.
The Importance of Defense
Breaking it down to the basics, in order to win a game you need to score more runs than your opponent. Having an offense that scores 10 runs a game means nothing if the teams pitching and defense gives up 11. For the Cardinals, having a top 12 pitching staff in terms of ERA and a top 4 lineup in terms of runs scored shouldn’t add up to being in a 3-way tie for 11th most wins on the year.
Seven teams tallied a better run-differential on the year than the Cardinals, and all seven made the postseason (Cubs, Red Sox, Nationals, Indians, Blue Jays, Dodgers, and Giants). So how does the Cardinals above average offense and pitching lead them to missing out on October baseball?
The answer is their abysmal defense. Before I go into an analysis of why the Cardinals defense is so bad, here is a little background on defensive metrics to determine a player’s defensive value:
Fangraphs.com and other advanced Sabermetric websites have formulated metrics to determine the efficiency of individual fielders for what happens after a ball is hit into play. Two of the most eminent statistics used to judge defense are Ultimate Zone Rating (UZR) and Defensive Runs Above Average (DEF). UZR determines the amount of runs a player saved or gave up while playing defense by combining statistics about arm strength, ability to turn double plays, range of motion, and likeliness to make an error.
After many observations and calculations, the resulting number signifies, in terms of runs, the defensive contribution of an individual player relative to his position’s average. Meanwhile DEF takes into UZR and adjusts it based on the position of the fielder, to give the player’s defensive value relative to league average, centered around 0.
Still confused? Don’t be. The details aren’t as important as how to interpret the meaning of DEF, and that is approximately 10 runs of DEF equals 1 win for a team. By aggregating all of a team’s player’s DEF, you can find out the total defensive value of a team. And in the case of the Cardinals, that value is extremely negative.
The Cardinals Abysmal Defense
The Cardinals had the 5th worst DEF in all of baseball during the 2016 season. The only teams who had a worse DEF on the year were the Brewers, Padres, Twins, and A’s. Those 4 teams were some of the worst in baseball, and combined they averaged 67 wins on the year!
The Cardinals team DEF was -34.8, meaning that on the year the Cards defense caused almost 35 runs scored against them. Meanwhile, the Giants, who beat out the Cardinals for the second wild card spot, had a DEF of 48.6 while the Cubs, who won the Cardinals division, had a DEF of 69.7 (They finished 2nd and 1st in the MLB, respectively).
-34.8 runs amount to over 3 losses on the year strictly from poor defense. If the Cardinals defense was perfectly average (a DEF of 0), they would have finished with 89 wins and the top Wild Card spot. So which players are to blame for the pathetic defensive performance?
Individual Players Defensive Performances
11 Cardinals had over 600 innings in the field this year- Piscotty, Molina, Carpenter, Grichuk, Diaz, Moss, Gyorko, Wong, Holliday, Peralta, and Adams. All of these players went through periods when they started consistently, and each contributed greatly offensively. But not all of these players performed well defensively over the year.
(All statistics found on fangraphs.com)
Wong and Molina have had above average seasons defensively, and Gyorko and Grichuk were productive, but the rest of the starting lineup severely brought down the team’s overall defense. Added together, these 11 position players had a -28.4 DEF, equaling nearly 3 full losses on the year just from the starters. Once you add in bench players, that number decreased by an additional 6 runs. Peralta, Holliday and Carpenter had particularly bad DEF on the year, each nearly being a sole reason for a single loss on the year.
Looking Forward to 2017
So what needs to change before the start of the 2017 season? Major defensive upgrades need to be of high priority, and fortunately GM Mozeliak agrees. Although Matt Holliday’s booming bat and clubhouse presence will greatly be missed, finding a replacement who can play defense can do a lot to make up the hole. As the off-season progresses, Cardsblog writers including myself will be talking about key players to target so I won’t get into depth about that now, but all the players the Cardinals do target and eventually present to us in April will hopefully be of greater defensive value to lead us back to relevancy in October 2017.
Photo Credit: Jeff Curry- USA TODAY Sports