The simple answer is no. If anything, it is underrated, especially in the Tony La Russa era. Can you name one La Russa managed team that that had exceptional defense ? Oh, there were some solid defensive teams, to be sure, but that was a by-product of getting hitters who actually could play a position. It wasn’t by design. If it was, TLR wouldn’t have a different lineup for each day of the week.
Let’s start with the math. Baseball games are won and lost on run differential. Before you give me a collective “doh”, let me continue. A run prevented has a cascading effect. It shortens games, innings and most important – it lowers the number of pitches the staff has to throw. Since the Cardinals don’t have a bunch of 29 year olds competing for the Cy Young Award, that is even more important. Ask a winless Chris Carpenter.
Fine, so why again is defense more important than pitching and hitting ? Because it is one of the two things you can depend on, game after game.
Hitting can be neutralized by good pitching, especially if you have a vulnerability to, I dunno, lefties ? Just ask the 1968 or 1985 Cardinals how well the hitting worked out for them ? The ’68 team won 97 games and ’85 won a whopping 101. Neither could get past a very good pitching staff from their American League opponents, who both featured some killer lefties.
Occasionally, not often, but good hitting can defeat better pitching. Ask the 2004 Cardinals or New York Yankees about that one. The Boston Red Sox were in the middle of a hot hitting streak, and not even the Cardinals rotation of Matt Morris, Chris Carpenter, Woody Williams and Jeff Suppan could cool them off. On the flip side, the 1987 NL East Championship Cardinals team played that way for the first half of the season, putting up six runs a game. The lesson to be learned here is that they cooled off significantly in the second half, and if not for some pitching heroics from John Tudor, Danny Cox, Joe Magrane and Greg Mathews, a different team might have represented the NL East in post-season.
If not defense, what is the other thing you can control ? The running game. But even the running game can be somewhat put into check when runners don’t get on base, a pitcher has a particularly good (or borderline illegal) pickoff move (Bert Blyleven), or the other team has a Molina behind the plate.
That brings us back to defense, and it starts up the middle and then fans out to the corners. You can have weaknesses, sure. But they better not be in the middle.
Consider the case of Nelson Briles. We remember the young right hander. Tremendous talent, but never quite seemed to be able to put it together. In fact, he was almost traded at the start of the 1967 season, which would have proved disastrous for both ’67 and ’68. Why is he so important to this conversation ?
In 1965 and1966, Briles was 7-18 with a 3.38 ERA. No, Briles was not a hard luck loser. He did this to himself. During those two seasons, his WHIP was about 1.4. He was striking out around 5 batters per 9 innings, but as a result he was also walking 3. Briles did not have swing-and-miss stuff like Gibson (or later Carlton), but that’s how he pitched. It caused him to walk a lot of batters, and eventually he had to start throwing the ball over the heart of the plate. The joke about late movement on his pitches, generally after contact with the bat applies here, and was a big part of that lopsided win-loss record.
In the following two seasons, he put up a record of 33-16 and shaved 3/4 of a run off that ERA. He threw twice the number of innings and cut his WHIP down by 10%. He still gave up the same number of hits, but the difference was his walk rate – it dropped when he quit trying to strike everybody out. He still managed the same number of strikeouts – because those guys were going to strike out no matter who was pitching.
Why the difference ? Pitch to contact and let the defense make the plays. Behind Briles was a world class middle infield (Dal Maxvill and Julian Javier). The corners (Mike Shannon, Orlando Cepeda) were solid, not exceptional, but they made the plays they had to.
Nelson Briles was a very good pitcher. He became a staff ace when he learned how to use the defense behind him.
John Tudor was a good pitcher when he came to St. Louis. Not a staff ace, but still a good pitcher. Like Nelson Briles. He had a 51-43 record with an ERA of 3.79 in Boston and Pittsburgh. In his five years in St. Louis – sit down for this one – 62-26 with a 2.52 ERA. That includes a brutal 1-7 start in 1985. It also includes a 12-4 record when he pitched with a sore arm at the end of his career. The difference ? Ozzie Smith, Tommy Herr and Willie McGee – defensive strength up the middle. Double plays got turned to end rallies, grounders are cut off – even if an out is not recorded, they prevent runners from taking extra bases and scoring from second.
Dave Duncan did not invent that concept. Billy Moffat preached that, along with the no-windup delivery to simplify pitching mechanics and improve repeatability. Mike Roarke did similarly in the Herzog era.
Games go Quicker with Outs
To paraphrase the lyrics this KSHE classic by Autograph, “Daytime, Nighttime, all we know, innings go quicker with outs”.
You can win with offensive might. The 1982 Brewers did just that, until beaten by a bunch of punch-and-judy’s in St. Louis. The Mets and Cardinals had an amazing rivalry in the 1980s. Both teams had exceptional pitching. It came down to the Mets bats vs Cardinals legs and gloves. History tells us that those Mets were one of the best 2nd place teams in the history of the game. Sounds sort of familiar, doesn’t it ?