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Cardinals among most defensively improved teams

Team shows advances in defensive runs saved, ultimate zone rating

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ST. LOUIS -- Much of general manager John Mozeliak's work last offseason was done with an eye on defense, and while a final grade can't be handed out 99 games into the 2014 season, the Cardinals have already distinguished themselves among the most defensively improved teams in the Majors.

Using the defensive runs saved metric for comparison, the Cardinals went from 22nd in the Majors with a minus-39 DRS in 2013 to first with a plus-52 this year. The Cardinals' plus-91 differential from last year represents the largest improvement in the Majors, equal to the Mariners'.

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"I do believe that there are two different components -- one would be the metrics, and two would be what we see," manager Mike Matheny said. "And what we see, I like. You go around the field, and I see guys with, one, good defensive ability and potential, and two, having good season."

The Cardinals have seen improvements both from returning players changing positions and new additions who have added a boost. The team has also been more aggressive in its defensive positioning, to which the Cardinals believe there has been a payoff.

"I don't get too much into the analytical stuff, but definitely the thing we've done better this year is position our players for the opposing hitter and to complement our pitching staff," said longtime infield instructor Jose Oquendo. "You have overall positioning for the normal speed of pitches, but our pitchers throw a little bit harder than average, so we have to make adjustments to that. I think we're doing better with that when we did last year."

Cardinals starting pitchers rank third in the Majors in average fastball velocity (92.4 mph), according to FanGraphs.com, only placing behind the Marlins and Reds.

The breakdown below allows for a closer evaluation of how the Cardinals are faring defensively at each position compared to 2013. It is not a complete look, as there are dozens of defensive metrics available to help quantify defensive ability. Two -- defensive runs saved and ultimate zone rating -- are highlighted here. Also noted below in parentheses is the Cardinals' rank among all National League teams in each category.

Defensive runs saved is the number of runs a player saved or cost his team in the field compared to an average player at that position. Ultimate zone rating is a measurement of how effective a fielder is at getting to balls in his "zone" of the field compared to an average player at that position.

CATCHER

2014: 3 DRS (5th)
Team's primary player: Yadier Molina (4 DRS, over 81 games)

2013: 10 DRS (2nd)
Team's primary player: Yadier Molina (12 DRS, over 138 games)

This is one of two positions (left field being the other) in which the player with the most innings played last year currently leads the team in that category this season. Molina has long been one of the game's best defensive catchers, so it's no surprise that that has been and remains one of the Cardinals' strongest defensive positions.

FIRST BASE

2014: 7 DRS (3rd), 3.6 UZR (3rd)
Team's primary player: Matt Adams (8 DRS, 3.5 UZR over 77 games)

2013: -5 DRS (15th), 0.9 UZR (9th)
Team's primary player: Allen Craig (-1 DRS, 2.1 UZR over 95 games)

An underrated defender, Adams ranks first among all NL first basemen in DRS in his first full Major League season starting at the position. He is especially adept at picking balls out of the dirt and has worked with Oquendo to get more comfortable in positioning himself further from the base.

SECOND BASE

2014: 10 DRS (2nd), 2 UZR (9th)
Team's primary player: Kolten Wong (4 DRS, -1.1 UZR over 52 games)

2013: -3 DRS (10th), -3.2 UZR (10th)
Team's primary player: Matt Carpenter (0 DRS, -1.6 UZR over 132 games)

Carpenter was a capable second baseman last season, but Wong has the potential to be an elite defender at the position. Given the defensive reputations of both Mark Ellis and Wong before this season, it's not too much a surprise that the Cardinals have been among the league's steadiest at second this year.

SHORTSTOP

2014: 13 DRS (2nd), 7.7 UZR (2nd)
Team's primary player: Jhonny Peralta (15 DRS, 8.7 UZR over 93 games)

2013: 0 DRS (8th), -0.6 UZR (10th)
Team's primary player: Pete Kozma (8 DRS, 6.7 UZR over 139 games)

The Cardinals went after Peralta last offseason for his bat, not knowing they'd also be getting one of the year's best defensive shortstops. Among NL shortstops, only Cincinnati's Zack Cozart has a higher DRS and UZR than Peralta. Oquendo believes Peralta has become more comfortable at short this year largely because of the way the Cardinals are positioning him.

THIRD BASE

2014: 3 DRS (6th), 5 UZR (6th)
Team's primary player: Matt Carpenter (5 DRS, 5.9 UZR over 98 games)

2013: -10 DRS (13th), -16.7 UZR (15th)
Team's primary player: David Freese (-14 DRS, -16.5 UZR over 132 games)

There has been improvement at third base, though the Cardinals believe Carpenter can still perform better than he has. Carpenter had a rough defensive start to the year but has shown improvement through increased repetitions back at his natural position.

LEFT FIELD

2014: 0 DRS (6th), -2.5 UZR (8th)
Team's primary player: Matt Holliday (-3 DRS, -5.9 UZR over 91 games)

2013: -16 DRS (15th), -8.8 UZR (12th)
Team's primary player: Matt Holliday (-13 DRS, -5.1 UZR over 136 games)

As the numbers indicate, Holliday has been a superior defensive player this year. He credits his improved quickness and reaction time to health, noting that he feels as strong as he has in some time.

CENTER FIELD

2014: 7 DRS (5th), 8.1 UZR (4th)
Team's primary player: Peter Bourjos (5 DRS, 4.5 UZR over 65 games)

2013: -5 DRS (10th), -5.2 UZR (10th)
Team's primary player: Jon Jay (-10 DRS, -7.3 UZR over 152 games)

Though Jay has earned the bulk of the center field starts recently, Bourjos has still covered more innings there than anyone. Bourjos has been a boost defensively, as the Cardinals anticipated he would be upon acquiring him via trade last fall. He's lost playing time, though, because of his bat. After a step back defensively in 2013, Jay has not been a defensive liability this year.

RIGHT FIELD

2014: -4 DRS (13th), -3.3 UZR (10th)
Team's primary player: Allen Craig (1 DRS, 3.7 UZR over 67 games)

2013: -6 DRS (11th), -15.7 UZR (14th)
Team's primary player: Carlos Beltran (-6 DRS, -15.3 UZR over 137 games)

Beltran had lost a step by the time he arrived in St. Louis, and replacing him with Craig has improved the Cardinals defensively in right field. Craig has long insisted he's more comfortable in the outfield than at first, and the defensive metrics reflect that.

Jenifer Langosch is a reporter for MLB.com. Read her blog, By Gosh, It's Langosch, and follow her on Twitter @LangoschMLB. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.

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