When we wrote in April about Tony La Russa’s newfound penchant for strategic, sometimes en masse, late-inning defensive substitutions — we called them "fielding saves — we had no idea how regular the practice would become. Here we are nigh on July and TLR hasn’t slowed down, sending reinforcements into the infield and upgrading his outfield around the eighth inning. A big reason is that Skip "Howie Shanks" Schumaker is still playing nearly every day at second base, which, other than Chris Duncan actually being healthy enough to swing a bat (to say nothing of his .345 OBP — third-best on the club), is probably the most unlikely happenstance of the season. That means he can easily spell the less nimble (but, in our opinion, more adept that given credit) Duncan in left field, opening a role for the team’s more defensively inclined infielders, like Brian Barden and Joe Thurston to slide to his natural second base spot.
Tthe rules for a fielding save are:
- Player cannot be a starter at the position where he finishes
- Player must be in the field for the team’s final defensive out
- Player must enter the game with a tie or lead when he begins fielding (e.g., he can PH or PR then move to the field)
- Player must not commit an error at the new defensive position
As you might have noticed, a player can be credited with a fielding save regardless of the margin of the lead (unlike pitching saves), but in practice the Cardinals have had leads of more than four in only four of the 41 games in which they’ve tallied fielding saves.
So who has the most fielding saves and fielding save attempts so far?
Of the 67 games that the Cardinals have played, Skip Schumaker has attempted a fielding save in nearly half (33). And he’s been reliable in his old outfield spot (where he usually transfers), converting 32 of thost attempts (he made an error against the Cubs April 24). Joe Thurston and Barden, who typically join Schumaker in the deployment, account for the majority of the rest of the team’s fielding saves.
By now, we have a decent-enough sample to see if the strategy is paying off. By our count, the late shift has made only three errors. But errors are of course too blunt an object to measure fielding with, so let’s turn to Defensive-Efficiency Rate, the rate at which a defense turns batted balls into outs. Let’s break it down by thirds of the game — innings 1-3, 4-6 and 7-9:
The numbers are rough, since we had to hack the errors part of the equation (if anyone knows of a place to find fielding splits, please let us know), and since this data includes all games, not merely the ones in which a fielding save was in play. Still, it indicates that the team’s defense in late innings is more formidable than earlier in the game. Is it due to the practice of fielding saves? We’d say probably in no small part. Know, too, that La Russa has inserted his "hands" players when the team has been down a run, too, so those don’t show up based on our rules. We’d like to see the practice continue — not only is it fun to score, it also appears to have a salutary effect on the team’s ability to finish strong in close games.