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John Dewan's Stat of the Week - Nolan Arenado

Stat of the Week: Cardinals May Be MLB's Best Defensive Team in 2021

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The Cardinals led the majors in Defensive Runs Saved in 2020.

There’s a good chance that they’ll do so again in 2021.

Yes, the Cardinals lost three-time Fielding Bible Award winner Kolten Wong to the Brewers in free agency. But that's trumped by the acquisition of Nolan Arenado.

Arenado replaces Tommy Edman and Matt Carpenter at third base and that represents a huge upgrade. Arenado has ranked in the top three in Defensive Runs Saved among third basemen in each of the last six seasons. Arenado and Joey Gallo tied for the MLB lead among all players with 13 Defensive Runs Saved in 2020.

Wong is the only significant loss among their position players. Though Wong is gone, the Cardinals have a capable replacement in Tommy Edman.

Edman, who played second base, shortstop, third base, and both corner outfield spots last season, is expected to transition from a utility role into a full-time second baseman. He’s well suited to succeed there having saved eight runs in just over 250 innings at the position the last two seasons.

The other two primary starting infielders have productive histories to draw upon. Though first baseman Paul Goldschmidt has saved only six runs in the last three seasons, he hasn’t had a season with a negative DRS total since 2011. Shortstop Paul DeJong rated as an average shortstop last season (0 Runs Saved) but is two seasons removed from saving 24 runs there, which ranked second to Javier Baez’s 31.

In the outfield, left fielder Tyler O’Neill led all players at the position by saving nine runs last season. Center fielder Harrison Bader is two years from a season in which he saved 15 runs at the position. Likely right fielder Dylan Carlson is working with a small sample size, but he saved two runs in right field and two more in center in brief stints there last season.

What’s somewhat humorous about the Cardinals is that their defensive “weakness” might be catcher. But we say that with the greatest of respect for possible future Hall-of-Fame catcher Yadier Molina. Molina’s days of saving 29 and 30 runs (2012 and 2013, respectively) are well in the past. The last five seasons, he’s maxed out at five Runs Saved. So any projections done for his defense are going to take that into consideration and keep his expected value down.

But Molina’s still got a great throwing arm as Astros baserunner José Siri learned the hard way last Sunday. Siri made the mistake of taunting Molina after a failed pickoff attempt, only to be thrown out when Molina challenged Siri to steal second. So who are we to doubt that Molina still has great defensive value?

Lastly, at pitcher, the Cardinals should be fine after 11 Runs Saved in 2019 and 1 Run Saved in 2020. They’ll get a boost from the return of Miles Mikolas from flexor tendon surgery. Mikolas saved six runs in 2019, one shy of the MLB lead.

In sum, the Cardinals are our projected leader in Defensive Runs Saved for 2021. And they’re the only team to avoid a negative projected Runs Saved total at any position on the field. 

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