THE REDBIRD REVIEW
The Cardinals have lost an integral part of their identity, a reality that was on full display in Monday’s exasperating 4-3 loss at Texas.
And while there are other problems that explain STL’s abominable 25-36 record, the area that bothers me most of all is the flagrant collapse in the basic fundamentals.
The tomfoolery surfaced again Monday in Arlington. There was a costly baserunning gaffe in the top of the eighth that involved three disoriented Cardinals: Nolan Gorman, Tommy Edman and Nolan Arenado. It began with Arenado striking a double into the left-field corner.
Gorman, the runner at second, wasn’t sure if the ball would be caught, and his hesitancy nearly caused Edman, the runner at first, to run into him. Gorman scored on the play, but Edman had to stop at third base – until he realized that Arenado was crashing into the bag. Edman tried to make it home but was thrown out in a rundown. Just a mess.
Instead of having men on second and third with one out, the Cardinals had two outs and a runner on third. The inning stalled on a Willson Contreras groundout. Instead of having a good shot of taking a 4-3 lead, the Cardinals settled for a 3-3 tie.
As for the defense … in the ninth Arenado failed to make the catch on a pop fly to short left field. It went for a single and set up the Rangers’ game-winning single. You may recall that an Arenado error became a pivotal moment that led to three unearned runs in Saturday’s 4-3 loss at Pittsburgh.
This team likes to talk about tough luck, bad breaks, and one-run losses that could have been one–run victories. But this doesn’t jibe. The Cardinals make too many mistakes, and that the failure to play clean baseball is on them. It has very little to do with luck. It has a lot to do with a severe decline in overall defense and the fault baserunning.
The Cardinals were very good in both areas over the past several years, but the strength has deteriorated into a debilitating weakness in 2023.
I’ve been over this several times this season, and it’s time for an update.
Via Fielding Bible, here are the Redbirds’ year-to-year rankings in Defensive Runs Saved:
4th in 2019
1st in 2020
2nd in 2021
4th in 2022
26th in 2023
Obviously the Cardinals have time to get their defense in shape, but to this point their defensive downfall in 2023 is stunning.
Arenado is contributing to the demise; the 10-time Gold Glove is a minus two this season in defensive runs saved, which puts him 21st among the 30 MLB third basemen that have played at least 200 innings there.
The Cardinals’ outfield is minus 15 in defensive runs saved – the second-worst in the majors. And this is more than just the injuries to Dylan Carlson, Tyler O’Neill and Lars Nootbaar. Among the three only Nootbaar has a positive rating in defensive runs saved, and he’s a modest plus 1.
Utility dudes Brendan Donovan and Tommy Edman have played average defense as outfielders this season, and Edman looks good in center field.
The problems are Jordan Walker (minus 5), Juan Yepez (minus 4), Oscar Mercado (minus 3) and, to a lesser extent, Alec Burleson (minus 1)
Walker has struggled in the outfield but what do we expect? The Cardinals made a huge mistake in 2022 by not moving Walker from third base to outfield until August. Incomprehensible. I don’t blame Walker. This organization messed up by failing to give him more outfield reps in the minors.
The problem spot in the infield is second base (minus 7) but don’t blame that on Nolan Gorman. He’s slightly below average at minus 1, and that’s nothing considering the load of offense he provides. Brendan Donovan (minus 4) and Edman (minus 2) haven’t played well at second base.
I don’t want to hear about the imposed restrictions on defensive shifts. The 2022 Cardinals used shifts less than all but a few MLB teams last season; it wasn’t a big part of their strategy. And the new rules apply to all 30 teams, which wipes out any attempt to make excuses for the 2023 Cardinals.
Final words on this: the 2023 Cards rank last among the 30 MLB teams in defensive efficiency, converting only 66 percent of batted balls in play into outs. Last season the Cardinals ranked 11th by converting 70.2% of balls in play into outs.
Let’s go to the baserunning-gain totals supplied by Bill James Online. These ratings do not include stolen-base data and the Cardinals have been effective there. But a larger issue is running from base to base to score or put yourself in a position to score. How many times does your team pick up an extra base with smart baserunning? How many times does your team run into outs on the bases? (Example: Monday’s loss to Texas.)
What’s the net rating in terms of plus/minus?
Here you go — net gain on the bases:
2018: + 35
2019: + 19
2020: + 5 in the short 58-game season.
2021: + 23
2022: + 25
2023: minus 10
The 2022 Cardinals ranked fourth in the majors with an extra-bases-taken percentage of 46%.
This season the Redbirds rank 28th with an extra-bases-taken percentage of 36%
According to Bill James Online, these Cardinals have done the worst at gaining bases on non-steals:
Nolan Arenado, minus 8
Willson Contreras, minus 7
Tommy Edman, minus 6
Jordan Walker, minus 4
Tyler O’Neill, minus 4
The best are Gorman (+5), Nootbaar (+4), Paul Goldschmidt (+3), and Brendan Donovan (+2).
Note: I’m surprised to see Edman with a minus 6 rating. I knew he wasn’t being as aggressive this season, which makes little sense, but the caution is notable. This is another highly questionable aspect of Oli Marmol’s managing. Last season Edman was rated as the best runner in the majors per Bill James. Excluding stolen bases, Edman was a +25 last season and a +20 in 2021. What the heck is happening here?
The Cardinals need a serious upgrade in the quality of their defense; this is essential to protect their pitch-to-contact starting pitching. Excluding the 2023 Cardinals, the team has a positive history of generating run-scoring opportunities (and runs) with sharp baserunning.
The players share responsibility. But Marmol is the manager, and in his first season he maintained the high standards established for sound fundamentals. I’m surprised that Marmol has let his team’s defense and baserunning decline in such an obvious way in 2023.
I’m also surprised that this receives such little attention in the public square.
All of Marmol’s position-shuffling lineups and moves are a factor in the defense – and the price that’s being paid for seeking an advantage in platoon-split matchups. That’s something to think about.
The baserunning? Part of it is a matter of simple neglect. But from the start of this season until now, the Cardinals are less ambitious when traveling the bases, and they make it worse by using questionable judgment.
Apologists would say that Marmol must play it safer because of his team’s tendency to fall behind early in games, but that’s mostly rubbish. Caution is necessary at times, sure. But despite a more deliberate style of baserunning, why do the Cardinals make so many outs on the bases?
It doesn’t add up. It’s just careless, sloppy baseball and proof of the Cardinals helping opponents by beating themselves too often. This is a major element in why you’ve arrive at the 61-game mark with a .410 winning percentage that’s at the bottom of the NL and 28th in the majors.
I don’t think the late, venerated field instructor George Kissell would appreciate the breach of fundamentals we’re seeing from the 2023 Cardinals. Sad.
Thanks for reading …
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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All stats used in my baseball columns are sourced from FanGraphs, Baseball Reference, Baseball Savant, Bill James Online 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.