ST. LOUIS — The St. Louis Cardinals found themselves with a new-look infield in 2014. Matt Adams took over first base on a full-time basis, Kolten Wong emerged as the second baseman of the future, Jhonny Peralta signed on at shortstop and Matt Carpenter made the transition back to third base.
When everyone was at their best, the infield hummed with efficiency. But each spot had its weaknesses, and at times -like during NLCS- shortcomings were exposed. They were thrown into sharp relief by the play of the Giants, most notably Pablo Sandoval. The San Francisco third baseman’s fielding changed the course of several games, sucking the wind out of multiple Cardinal rallies.
The Birds finished eighth in errors (88) with a fielding percentage of .985. 74 of those miscues came from the infield, which is what we will examine first.
Matt Adams surprised many observers with his soft hands and range at first. Primarily viewed as hitter, the 26-year-old quickly established a solid defensive reputation. Over the course of the year, he graded out eight runs saved above average, and anyone who watched him regularly saw surprisingly deft footwork and fast reflexes.
He went to his right with ease, taking away dozens of hits while making 22 plays outside of his defensive zone at first. He was able to run down foul pop ups along the line, handle bad throws and even go into the stands on occasion. The NL is full of great first basemen, and the Cardinals seem to have a contender at the position. His gaffes in Game 4 of the NLCS are still fresh wounds, but they are the type of mistakes that dwindle with experience.
Kolten Wong had the type of season rookies tend to experience. He has above-average range, and his hand speed makes his exchange lightning quick. Several times throughout the year, he made jaw-dropping plays, 15 of which were considered “remote” (10-40 percent chance of being made). He turned double plays that seemed impossible and covered so much ground his territory seemed limitless. But balancing that were 12 errors, some of which came on routine plays.
Wong is undeniably an elite fielder, and his first full season was a learning experience. That’s why a year’s worth of great plays were peppered with careless mistakes. Still, he finished 12 runs above average at the position (Carpenter was -4 at in 2013) and showed how game-changing a great mitt can be. His postseason was a demonstration of his potential, as he put together a near flawless October at the plate and in the field.
Peralta was the biggest surprise of the season at short, silencing critics with a tremendous season at a position that many thought was beyond his ability at 32 years old. While he does have middling range, Peralta’s consistency was phenomenal. He made 98.4 percent of all routine plays and 80.3 percent of all likely plays (according to fan graphs). His ability to get the ball out of his glove was a saving grace, as he erased time lost due to foot speed with a quick-fire transfer. At times, it seemed like the ball barely touched his mitt before he was throwing to first. He may not be able to cover a ton of ground, but as long as he’s making all the routine plays, the Cardinals will happily leave the impossible ones to shortstops who aren’t hitting 21 homers.
Carpenter’s season at third was inarguably rocky. He made 16 errors, most on the team and tied for 21st among qualified third basemen. Were it not for some generous official scoring decisions, that total would have finished in the mid-20s. A year after turning in an All Star season at second base, Carpenter was expected to easily transition back to his natural position. Instead, he seemed uncomfortable in the hot corner at times, making only 71 percent of the “likely” plays (60-90 percent chance of being made). For comparison, Pablo Sandoval made nearly 90 percent of likely plays. Josh Donaldson, who topped the list of errors by qualified third baseman with 23, made 77.4 percent of those plays.
Carpenter’s value as a leadoff man is unquestionable, but from a defensive point of view, he is the weak spot in the infield. Moving him back to second base isn’t the answer, given Wong’s superior defense. For example, Carpenter cannot track down a ball up the middle or leap and throw to first from the left side of the infield as Wong did more than once this year. There are no candidates beating down the door for the position currently, so he has time to iron out the wrinkles in the field. His obsessive work ethic would suggest he is capable of improving, and he must for sake of his pitching staff.
Yadier Molina is unquestionably an elite catcher, and likely the best in the game. He has mastered all facets of his position, and is often the standard by which backstops are measured. But the catcher’s spot is paper thin for the Cardinals. Behind Molina, the Birds have longtime backup Tony Cruz and mid-season signee A.J. Pierzynski. Cruz, for all his improvement and dutiful studying is still not ready for everyday action. He is a safety net, but his receiving skills are not sharp enough to engender confidence in tight games. The length of Pierzynski’s stay is still undetermined, but should it be extended, he is a step up from Cruz. His receiving and game calling skills have been honed over the better part of two decades, and his situational awareness matches Molina’s.
What he does not have is the ability to shut down the run game. His career caught stealing mark is 24 percent, four points lower than the league average over his 17 seasons and well below Molina’s 45 percent career clip.
When Molina is in, the Cardinals are rock solid behind the plate. The second he isn’t, a likelihood that will increase as he ages into his mid-30s, the position takes a sizable hit.
14 of the team’s errors came from the mound. Some of those will stand out (Randy Choate’s throw in the NLCS), but with the number of pitchers throwing over the course of the year, the number isn’t staggering. The Cardinals have an extremely athletic staff, and though there was concern in the middle of the season about properly covering first base, the pitcher’s spot remains largely reliable.
Overall, the infield has the potential to be an A. Unfortunately, inconsistency and unreliability marred an otherwise successful 2014 campaign. While Wong and Adams project to be quality gloves and Carpenter can only improve, the Cardinal infielders go home with a B. They are better than they played in the NLCS, but improvement must come in 2015. Despite the postseason's power surge, the offense still hasn't proven it can show up every night. Until the bats conosistently put runs on the board, the defense needs to do a better job of preventing them.