We can find plenty of things wrong with the 2023 Cardinals. When your record is 27-42, the positives are minimal. This is a broken team with the worst record in the National League.
Some failures were predictable. Except for president of baseball operations John Mozeliak, no one is surprised by the Cardinals’ No. 21 ranking in starting-pitching ERA, or the burns of a combustible bullpen, or seeing the entire pitching staff ranked 28th in Win Probability Added. And I don’t think anyone headed for the fainting couch over St. Louis outfielders who spend more time healing than playing.
But I have to say I’m genuinely stunned by the unmitigated collapse of the Cardinals’ defense. There’s no justification for the extreme deterioration.
The team’s bedraggled defense has – among other calamities – subverted a vulnerable set of starting pitchers that ranks 27th in strikeout rate and 29th in swinging strikes. Because of the collective inability to miss bats, St. Louis starters have been struck for the second-highest contact rate (81%) in the majors.
This underscores the need for a rangy, efficient defense that’s adept at converting in-play batted balls into outs. And the Cardinals are pretty much the exact opposite of that … which is destructive for a pitch-to-contact style of pitching.
— The Cardinals are dead last in the majors for defensive efficiency, turning only 66 percent of balls in play into outs. Last season they ranked 11th in this category and were second in 2021. The decline is disastrous.
— The Cardinals as of Friday morning were tied for 27th in the majors – and 15th in the NL – in defensive runs saved at a negative 27 runs. The downfall is absolutely embarrassing for a franchise that ranked fourth in the majors in defensive runs saved in 2022, second in 2021, first in 2020, and fourth in 2019. All four of those good-defense St. Louis teams made it to the postseason.
— At present the 2023 Cardinals have only two position players that are on the plus side for defensive runs saved: first baseman Paul Golschmidt (+4) and shortstop Paul DeJong (+1). Several others are average.
— The list of below-average Cardinals has two notable surprises in Tommy Edman (minus 2) and third baseman Nolan Arenado (minus 1). Note: That’s the overall total for Edman who has been a +1 at both center field and right field. But he’s been below average at shortstop and second base.
— The outfield defense is horrendous, with a collective minus 19 in defensive runs saved. Edman is the only outfielder with a plus rating defensively. Rookie Jordan Walker is the third-worst outfielder in the majors with minus 10 defensive runs saved. Not surprised. The Cardinals didn’t move Walker from third base to the outfield last season at Double A Springfield until August – incomprehensibly wasting months of developmental time. He played outfield in 31 games, hardly enough to prepare him for full-time outfield duty in his first MLB season.
Manager Oli Marmol and Mozeliak have used injuries as an excuse for the awful outfield defense, and Marmol is quick to point out that he had to use infielders to play the outfield. No sale. Tyler O’Neill and Dylan Carlson were below-average defensively before getting hurt – and Lars Nootbaar was average at two outfield spots before going on the IL a second time this season.
The Cardinals have used a lot of outfielders, but part of that has to do with Marmol’s extensive use of hitting matchups and his decision to use Alec Burleson in left or right for a total 37 games and 32 starts. Again, Walker is accountable for a large percentage of the outfield’s negative defensive rating. I don’t blame him. I blame the Cardinals for their failure to prepare Walker to play corner outfield. Sad.
As for the infielders-playing-outfield excuse – well, consider it rejected. Why? First of all, we’re talking about two infielders – Edman and Brendan Donovan. Second, Donovan is just a tick below average (minus 1) as an outfielder and Edman is + 2 in the outfield. They’ve been fine out there. Third, when playing infield, Donovan is a minus 3 and Edman is a minus 4. The limits on defensive shifting is a likely factor.
By his standards, Edman wasn’t playing well at shortstop or second base long before moving to the outfield, so relocating to the outfield grass has nothing to do with his below-average performance as an infielder.
Donovan won a Gold Glove as a rookie last season for his capable defense at six positions – so moving around shouldn’t be an issue for him. He worked 158 innings in the corner outfield spots last year.
And I want to point out that Nolan Gorman has done much better at second base this season – he’s only 1 defensive run below average – and the change in the rules for shifting hasn’t affected him. His performance has improved in his second big-league season, so you can’t loop him in when criticizing the overall depreciation on defense.
The Cardinals have been terrible at the basic fundamentals this season in three areas: defense, baserunning, and situational hitting. (Productive outs, moving the runner over, etc.)
The crash has occurred under the supervision of Marmol and his coaching staff. Sure, individual players share some of the blame – but let’s keep it honest here, OK? If the manager and coaches were truly diligent and on top of things, we wouldn’t be seeing such an enormous brief in the fundamentals that are essential to winning. If the manager and coaches can’t clean it up, then what’s the point? Are they not responsible for ANYTHING to do with his wretched team in 2023?
Here’s an example: this season the Cardinals are the second-worst team in the majors for their outfield positioning (minus 6 runs saved.) In other words, they aren’t doing a good job of positioning their outfielders. Isn’t it the dugout’s responsibility to get that right?
If the disorder continues, the poor defense will undermine the St. Louis pitchers. And that doesn’t bode well for a team that’s already 15 games under .500 for the first time since late in the 1997 season.
How important is team defense?
Excluding the covid-truncated 2020 season, here’s a telling example of the role defense plays in a team’s postseason chances: Over the past five full seasons, 46 of the 52 teams that made the playoffs over that time had a plus defensive rating during the regular season. That’s 88.5 percent. Which means that only 11.5% of the postseason spots were claimed by teams that played below-average (or worse) defense.
And our friend Mark Simon of Sports Info Solutions offered this: from 2003 through 2017, teams with negative defensive runs made it to the postseason only 20 percent of the time.
One team that pulled it off was the 2013 Cardinals, a below-average defensive team that won 97 games and the NL pennant. But much of their defensive stress came in left field, and the Cardinals under Mike Matheny didn’t use many infield shifts, which added to their woes. But the 2013 Cardinals had a good and deep pitching staff, and offset their defensive troubles by leading the NL in runs per game and ranking in OPS+. And more than anything the ’13 Cardinals took advantage of their NL-best onbase percentage by hitting a preposterous .330 with runners in scoring position. Per wRC+, they were 37 percent above league average in RISP situations.
That type of thing doesn’t happen very often. And defense aside, the 2013 Cardinals were excellent in many areas. The 2023 Redbirds are weak in too many areas.
“It’s extremely difficult to make the playoffs with a bad defense,” Simon told me.
And yet … knowing that they came into the campaign with a shaky pitching staff that must have a great defensive behind them, the 2023 Cardinals have allowed their defense to slide in a drastic way. For a franchise that claims to aspire to high standards, this is unacceptable.
Per FanGraphs, the Cardinals have a 12.6 percent chance of winning the division and a 1% crack at making it as a wild-card entry.
The fundamental failures – especially on defense – are an immense factor in their fall as a contender.
Thanks for reading, and I hope you have a happy weekend …
Bernie invites you to listen to his sports-talk show on 590 The Fan, KFNS-AM. It airs Monday through Thursday from 3-6 p.m. and Friday from 4-6 p.m. You can listen by streaming online or by downloading the show podcast at 590thefan.com or the 590 app.
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Listen to the “Seeing Red” podcast on the Cardinals, featuring Will Leitch and Miklasz. It’s available on your preferred podcast platform. Or follow @seeingredpod on Twitter for a direct link.
All stats used in my baseball columns are sourced from FanGraphs, Baseball Reference, Baseball Savant, Sports Info Solutions, Fielding Bible and Baseball Prospectus.
For the last 35 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. 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.