The Cardinals' oft-discussed defensive issues from last season, many would argue, can be traced back to the club's relaxed approach to spring training. Players weren’t regimented in their day-to-day efforts, and lacked sharpness when the real season rolled around. As the summer progressed, they never really found it.
St. Louis made a pointed effort to improve on that atmosphere this spring, and now it appears the team is committed to carrying that emphasis to defense over to the regular season–even for the pitchers.
Before Tuesday’s game, the Cardinals pitching staff ran a fielding drill on the Busch Stadium infield, something not typically seen last season. One group lined up behind the pitcher’s mound, the other just a shade close to second base than a first baseman would normally play. The pitcher would simulate a throw to home plate before a coach hit a grounder to the player stationed near first base. The pitcher had to go cover the bag for the out.
It's a simple drill, but the kind that the Cardinals feel can enhance their defensive polish during the year.
“Most likely you’re going to see something going on every single day,” Mike Matheny said. “Kind of building off what we did in the spring, giving the guys a say in some of the things they felt they could do better. Obviously, they wanted to field their positions better. We kind of put them in a place then to talk about the work we were going to do through the year–and that’s something they were excited to do.
“Instead of just talking about being better at it, we’re going to work at it on a pretty consistent basis.”
Another change surrounding the Cardinals this season is less pertinent to daily performance, but could still have a positive effect on the team. The team has given spaces in the locker room for former Cardinals greats like Willie McGee and Ozzie Smith. Matheny believes increased exposure to the experience and expertise those guys offer could influence the team in a positive way.
“I want them here,” Matheny said of McGee and Smith. “Willie was here for opening day, and obviously Ozzie was. We’d like to have them around. We’d like to keep them engaged. They’re valuable to our organization and we know that they can help these guys.”
Matheny said he doesn’t know how often the pair would be around the team this season, but he would like to take advantage of the opportunity when both are able to be there simultaneously.
“A lot of times we’ll coordinate when Willie is coming into town, and maybe get them both at the same time," Matheny said. "Make sure that we stay in communication. If there’s something we see we need, or (Smith) sees something, he knows how to get ahold of us.”
Cardinals infielders could probably benefit from as much time with Ozzie Smith as they are permitted, after their struggles last season. Pregame drills for those infielders won't get quite the same radical change as the pitchers, but Matheny still anticipates that group buckling down on their preparation, as well.
“More focused, individualized.” Matheny said of the defensive preparation for infielders. “I don’t think that’s anything erratically different, except just making sure each guy getting what he needs. That’ll change day-to-day, week-to-week, month-to-month.”
Aledmys Diaz led the team in errors at 16 last year, and Matt Carpenter committed 13. Carpenter’s defense is supposed to improve now that he has a stable position–first base–but he already cost the Cardinals an out on opening night when he wanted to throw a runner out at second instead of taking the sure out at first.
Though that seems to have been an isolated mental lapse, it’s the kind of thing the Cardinals are hoping to minimize as they exert more focus to their fielding.