Yesterday, Paul DeJong and Matt Bowman became the 9th and 10th Cardinals presently on the disabled list. Having 2/5 of your team on the DL is never great, but we’ve weathered these storms before. Consider the impact of each non-Paul DeJong injury:
- 4 of our injured players are relievers. While each of Bowman, Gregerson, Lyons, and Leone projected to be core bullpen arms this year, they’re relievers, and thus utterly fungible. We can fill those gaps without really breaking a sweat.
- Losing Carlos Martinez has hurt, and I won’t even try to soften that, but the team’s starting pitching has remained strong in his absence.
- Losing Wainwright to the 60-day is probably a net positive, as much as it pains me to say.
- Alex Reyes was always going to start the year on the DL, and he’s nearly back.
- Seeing Yadi and then Kelly hurt is both freakish and bad, but neither is putting out star-level production in 2018. Francisco Pena and Steve Baron are a significant downgrade, but probably not devastating so long as Yadi and/or Kelly comes back soon.
Losing Paul DeJong for a significant stretch is different. It hurts more.
Baseball is funny – if you had asked me before the season whether losing DeJong or Carlos Martinez would hurt the team’s chances of winning more, I’d have said Martinez, hands down. There was always a chance, if not a likelihood, that DeJong’s breakout rookie campaign was a mirage. Stars don’t strike out 30% of the time, walk 4% of the time, and keep being stars, down here in the real world. I was bullish on DeJong, but I expected regression to something maybe above average, like what you’d get if you put Randal Grichuk in a cromulent shortstop’s body.
If you’d asked me to pick DeJong or Martinez last spring, I’d have laughed at your very funny joke. The year before that, I wouldn’t have known who you were talking about. And yet here I am, writing about how DeJong’s injury is the worst 10% of the Cardinals’ current DL population. The Cardinals have depth at every other position, but DeJong brings two things to the table that the Cardinals can’t easily replace, or coast without for that matter.
1. Good shortstop defense.
We don’t have enough data to trust the advanced fielding metrics on DeJong’s shortstop chops, so we have to act like cavemen on this and resort to stuff like the eye test, and quoting defensive metrics that we know aren’t reliable. That said – DeJong was a breath of fresh air after the Aledmys Diaz Experience. Diaz put up a UZR of -9 in his breakout 2016, on the back of 16 errors and a pedestrian range over 107 games. Every ball that was hit to him felt like a unique adventure. Will he catch it? Will he throw it into the dugout?
DeJong, despite having just started working at SS in the 2016 AFL, took to it like a duck to water, and many of the questions that Diaz had conditioned fans to ask were quickly silenced by DeJong’s steady 2017 performance. He’s no Ozzie Smith, but he can hold his own. The (still completely meaningless) advanced stats peg Paulie as having slightly above average range, slightly better than average error propensity, and overall good defense at short. The eye test backs this up. He’s been charged with ten fewer errors than Diaz was in his time at short. So take all that with as much salt as you want, but DeJong looks and acts the part of a major league shortstop.
John Fleming wrote about DeJong’s replacement options yesterday, and the defense picture isn’t great. Jedd Gyorko, Matheny’s favorite to take the lion’s share of starts in DeJong’s absence, is a fine third baseman but a bad shortstop. Yairo Munoz, Mo’s preferred stopgap, was been moved over to third base from his original position of SS by the A’s after gaining 30 pounds. John Sickels over at Minor League Ball thinks he can still hack it at short, while Eric Longenhagen at Fangraphs seems less sanguine. Only time will tell, but think Jhonny Peralta at best and like, I don’t know, late stage Derek Jeter at worst. Greg Garcia, who is apparently nobody’s favorite, is probably comparable on defense to DeJong.
To sum it up, DeJong is a better defender than Gyorko or Munoz, and Greg Garcia looks like he’s going to continue being treated as a defensive replacement/spot starter.
This is important, too — Just yesterday, Gyorko committed two errors that resulted in three runs, in a game where we lost by one run. (He had a little help from fellow defensive maladroit Jose Martinez on the second one, but still.) I expect Gyorko to receive the most starts unless and until the front office intervenes, so we can probably expect the biggest defensive dropoff possible in DeJong’s absence.
2. Excellent offensive production.
Per Fangraphs, Paul DeJong has been responsible for 6.6 offensive runs and another .9 on baserunning this season. That puts him at third place on the team in overall offensive production, behind only Tommy Pham (who is gunning for MVP) and Jose Martinez (who has given up so much value on defense and baserunning that he is still at half of DeJong’s overall fWAR). DeJong’s wRC+ of 128 is fourth on the team, behind only Pham, Martinez, and Gyorko. Among qualified shortstops, DeJong is 5th in fWAR and 7th in offensive value, keeping company with such luminaries as Carlos Correa, Trea Turner, and Eduardo Escobar.
DeJong’s performance shouldn’t be dismissed as SSS theater, either. ZiPS ROS likes DeJong far more than Munoz or Garcia, and while it prefers Gyorko by about 11%, it’s also beginning to buy into DeJong’s power and newfound plate discipline. His projected rest-of-season wRC+ has risen by 3 points from his preseason mark, and that’s nothing to sneeze at when your preseason projection was accompanied by the note, “DeJong may be in for a sophomore slump based on how productive his 2017 was and how his power and plate patience skills may require some fine tuning.”
Losing DeJong’s production hurts when we consider how much value he offers over his replacements, but it’s also helpful to consider it in terms of what proportion of the Cardinals’ offense he has provided to date. After all, Gyorko would still be starting most nights even if DeJong was healthy, filling in at the other three infield positions–it’s not either-or between these two guys’ bats, and Gyorko gives much less value back with the glove at the other positions. Looking at Fangraphs Offensive Runs, the Cardinals are at -8.7 as a team, largely on the backs of -5.2, -6.9, and -9.0 marks from the brutal early-season slumps that Matt Carpenter, Marcell Ozuna, and Dexter Fowler are weathering. Without DeJong’s 6.6 Runs, the Cardinals would be at -15.3. If we only look at positive contributions (of which the Cardinals only have 7, including part-timers Gyorko, Bader, and Francisco Pena, and Mike Mayers’ 0-0 with 1 walk in 1 PA), DeJong owns almost 20% of the overall team production.
Here’s to a speedy recovery for Paul DeJong. His offense and defense are impossible to replace. As Andy Schrag reminded us recently, the 3/8 of the lineup who were supposed to be the best but have been the worst will almost certainly rebound soon. Until they do though, this team is liable to lose more games in DeJong’s absence.
In the meantime, check out this delightful video detailing how DeJong studied baseball over the offseason with Dr. Larry Rocks, the guy who founded the Department of Energy: