Five Gold Gloves? Gee, wizz. Or maybe we should say Gee, Wizard — as in Ozzie Smith. The Cardinals made history in 2021, winning the most Gold Gloves, five, by any MLB team in a season.

The gilded five are first baseman Paul Goldschmidt, second baseman Tommy Edman, third baseman Nolan Arenado, left fielder Tyler O’Neill, and center fielder Harrison Bader.

Did the Cardinals deserve to win five NL Gold Gloves? It isn’t a team award, per se. But c’mon now. When your team has been rewarded with the largest pile of gold in a MLB season, it’s a reflection on the overall team defense, and it conveys a best-ever status.

And with all due respect, I don’t think it’s possible to make that case, so I won’t even try. And we don’t have to make that call. There’s even a disagreement of sorts inside the advanced-metrics wing.

FanGraphs had the Cardinals rated No. 1 in the majors this past season with 83 Defensive Runs Saved. Fielding Bible had St. Louis first in the NL — and second to Texas overall — with 81 Defensive Runs Saved. Is there a tiebreaker? We could go with Baseball Savant, which rated the 2021 Cardinals No. 1 in the majors in Outs Above Average (50) and Runs Prevented (39.)

Even if we focus solely on the Cardinals, it’s difficult to come up with a conclusive answer.

The Defensive Runs Saved measure didn’t become a thing until 2002. This would exclude a comparison to Whitey Herzog’s Cardinals, a spectacular defensive team that stacked 17 Gold Gloves from 1982 through 1990 — with multiple winners in Ozzie, Willie McGee, Terry Pendleton and Keith Hernandez. That esteemed fleet of defenders would win all, or at least most, eye tests.

The Tony La Russa Era (1996-2011) brought a haul of Gold Gloves totalling 25. The multiple winners included Jim Edmonds, Yadier Molina, Scott Rolen, Albert Pujols, Mike Matheny, Fernando Vina and Edgar Renteria.

And that group pulled off something that could rival the five Gold Gloves won by the ‘21 Cardinals. The TLR Cardinals won 11 Gold Gloves over a three-year period, 2002 through 2004. That stretch included four Gold Glove recipients in back-to-back seasons, 2002 and 2003. During the three-year stretch the gold went to Rolen (three times), Edmonds (three), Renteria (two), Matheny (two) and Vina (one.)

More Gold Glove winners were tabbed during Matheny’s six-plus seasons as manager, but Molina won five of the seven handed to those teams, and the team’s defense went into decline. I’ll explain in a bit.

To me, the five St. Louis Gold Gloves in 2021 symbolize something meaningful: the return of the Cardinals to an elite defensive level. Which is to say, the Cardinals fielded their way back to the historically high standards established by a franchise that almost always has valued defense.

Former manager Mike Shildt deserves substantial credit for making defense a priority again. Shildt — who replaced Matheny in mid-July 2018 — vowed to clean up the defense, smarten the base running and sharpen the fundamentals. And he did just that in his first spring training as manager in 2019.

From 2016 through 2018, the Cardinals had a total of two Defensive Runs Saved over three seasons. (FanGraphs version.) That ranked 17th in the majors.

According to FanGraphs the Cardinals led the majors with 174 Defensive Runs Saved over Shildt’s three full seasons (2019-2021.) Yep, 174-2. A stunning improvement of 72 runs saved over the last three seasons compared to the 2016-2018 seasons.

Those five Gold Gloves won’t have Shildt’s name on them, but we could probably see his fingerprints. Metaphorically speaking, of course.

The front office wasn’t a bystander to this; trades for Goldschmidt and Arenado provided an instant and dramatic upgrade at the infield-corner spots. John Mozeliak’s front office also acquired O’Neill — a prospect in Seattle’s system — in July of 2017. And of course the Cardinals drafted and developed Bader and Edman.

I frequently wrote about this team’s defense through the entire 2021 defense. It was obvious, from the outset, that defense would save the Cardinals a bunch of runs in 2021, and that’s exactly what happened. And by saving so many runs when other areas of the team were below average, the STL defense helped save the opportunity for a wild-card playoff spot.

How important was this defense in 2021?

Let’s talk about FIP, which stands for Fielding Independent Pitching. It basically takes a pitcher’s strikeouts, walks, and home runs allowed and converts them to an ERA — removing defense from the equation.

The Cards’ FIP in 2021 reaffirms what we know: the defense provided a huge lift for a starting rotation that had one of the lowest strikeout rates in the majors. The Cardinals converted 71.4 percent of batted balls in play into outs last season — second in the majors to the Dodgers.

Over the last 84 games of the regular season the Cardinals rotation had the third–best ERA in the majors at 3.58. And that ERA was compiled with the starters striking out opponents at a weak rate of 17 percent, which ranked last in the NL and 29th overall. But the Cardinal defense made lots and lots of plays.

When we take defense out of the equation, the STL rotation had a FIP of 4.44 which ranked 15th in MLB. And the expected FIP was even worse at 4.69, which ranked 23rd.

Over ther final 84 games, the St. Louis starters had the highest gap between standard ERA and FIP by a MLB rotation. Translation: the defense reduced that gap and shaved points off the ERA. Without the excellent defense, the rotation ERA would have swelled and put the Cardinals at a disadvantage. But that didn’t happen. The defense made these pitchers better. It was a prime factor in the Redbirds’ 53-31 finish (.631) over the final 84 games.

That’s why the five Gold Gloves are appropriate. The gold-plated defense helped prevent a jumbled rotation from falling apart, and that was important.

Before I go, just a quick capsule look at the five winners, and I’ll try to keep the stats at a minimum:

PAUL GOLDSCHMIDT: The smooth-fielding first baseman was absolutely deserving, and the stat that highlights his value is the MLB-leading 10 Defensive Runs Saved according to FanGraphs. The Cardinals infield led MLB at converting ground balls and bunts into outs, and Goldschmidt was a leading figure in that with his range in making plays and saving runs by capturing errant throws bThat’s four Gold Gloves in Goldy’s career, and he should own at least two more.

TOMMY EDMAN: I was surprised, but not stunned. I just assumed that the voting managers and coaches would stay with a known quantity in Milwaukee second baseman Kolten Wong, who had another good season defensively in his case for a third consecutive Gold Glove. But hey, give the managers and coaches credit for being observant. Edman won his first Gold Glove by leading all MLB second basemen in Outs Above Average (13) and Runs Prevented (10) in ‘21. Edman is a special defender who can save runs at multiple positions. And might even win a Gold Glove at another position before his career comes to a close.

NOLAN ARENADO: I’ll pass on being a phony here. I sincerely believed that other NL third basemen had a stronger profile than Arenado in 21. Not by much, but let me put it this way: if he had played for another team and edged out a more deserving Cardinal at the same position, many of you would be complaining … at least a little. But that said, Arenado was very good in 2021, even if he posted a career-low six Defensive Runs Saved, finishing under double digits in runs saved for the first time in his career. He was tied for second among league third baseman with 10 Outs Above Average, and tied for third with eight Runs Prevented. Arenado’s impeccable reputation undoubtedly led to his selection — and casting ballots based on rep is a Gold Glove tradition. Previous Cardinals have won Gold Gloves based on rep — and the equity can be powerful. Arenado is one of the all-time greats defensively at his position, and if some voters gave him the benefit of the doubt for his brilliant consistency — well, this is hardly a new trend. Nine Gold Gloves and counting.

TYLER O’NEILL: That’s two Gold Gloves in a row in left field for the mighty slugger. In a nod to his British Columbia roots and his love of ice hockey, let me just say that O’Neill’s glove hand rates up there with Carey Price, Andy Moog, Cesare Maniago, Martin Jones — and other NHL goaltenders from B.C. He led all MLB left fielders in Defensive Runs Saved, League left fielders with 12 Defensive Runs Saved in 2021. And as Fielding Bible pointed out, O’Neill also had the best range-arm combination at his position — finishing first in runs saved on range, and tied for second in runs saved on throwing.

HARRISON BADER: The expected winner got his Gold Glove, the first of his career. Bader led NL center fielders with 15 Defensive Runs Saved, 14 Outs Above Average, and was tied for second among all NL outfielders with his percentage (81.8) of four-star plays. No outfielder made more four-star plays than Bader in 2021. Bader has been building to this moment. Since 2018 he ranks third in Defensive Runs Saved by MLB center fielders. And over the last three seasons Bader ranks second in DRS at the position. In 2021 Bader’s position-best 15 runs saved were notable because seven center fielders logged more innings.

Thanks for reading …


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* All stats used here are sourced from FanGraphs, Baseball Reference, Stathead, Bill James Online, Fielding Bible, Baseball Savant, Statcast, and Brooks Baseball Net unless otherwise noted.


Bernie Miklasz

Bernie Miklasz

For the last 36 years Bernie Miklasz has entertained, enlightened, and connected with generations of St. Louis sports fans.

While best known for his voice as the lead sports columnist at the Post-Dispatch for 26 years, Bernie has also written for The Athletic, Dallas Morning News and Baltimore News American. A 2023 inductee into the Missouri Sports Hall of Fame, Bernie has hosted radio shows in St. Louis, Dallas, Baltimore and Washington D.C.

Bernie, his wife Kirsten and their cats reside in the Skinker-DeBaliviere neighborhood of St. Louis.