When the St. Louis Cardinals promoted Paul DeJong to the big league squad last May, I didn’t think too terribly much of it. Unless you’re a relative of Paul DeJong’s, you probably didn’t either. It was a fine, defensible move given the circumstances of the team, but it wasn’t exactly Kris Bryant or Ronald Acuna Jr. being promoted following the requisite service time manipulation levels of hype. And then, Paul DeJong was awesome.
Because of his late arrival in Major League Baseball, he didn’t accumulate enough plate appearances to qualify for league leaderboards, but among the 27 shortstops with at least 400 plate appearances (DeJong had 443) in 2017, Paul DeJong ranked fourth by wRC+, the FanGraphs metric of a player’s overall contributions at the plate. Despite being a relative non-prospect and not arriving until Memorial Day weekend, DeJong was a better hitter on a rate basis than Francisco Lindor.
While DeJong was certainly a pleasant surprise at the plate, arguably more shocking was his defensive competence. Prior to 2017, Paul DeJong was primarily a third baseman, but to start the season in AAA Memphis, the Cardinals tested him at the more demanding defensive position of shortstop. And by Ultimate Zone Rating, he was above-average at shortstop at the MLB level in 2017. He wasn’t Andrelton Simmons or Francisco Lindor or Brandon Crawford at the position, but that he could be representative at shortstop while hitting as well as he did gave the Cardinals cause for excitement.
But the Cardinals had also been excited about an out-of-nowhere shortstop success story the season before in Aledmys Diaz, and he was so underwhelming in 2017 that he was sent to the Toronto Blue Jays for a high-A prospect who was released two weeks ago to virtually no fanfare. While there wasn’t really much reason to believe that Cardinals shortstops were, like, inherently predisposed to being one-year wonders, it was carved in the backs of many of our minds.
Not that he could have done so sufficiently, but Paul DeJong hadn’t demonstrated himself as a sustainable MLB success. His defensive numbers were good, but the sample size was far too small to draw significant conclusions from them; the eye test suggested he was probably not a terrible defensive shortstop, but even this was probably a bit presumptuous. Defensive metrics take a few years to stabilize, not a few months. And while offensive statistics stabilize more quickly, there was evidence within DeJong’s 2017 numbers to suggest regression. The 25 home runs were promising, if unexpected, but a 4.7% walk rate with a 28% strikeout rate are cause for concern. His .349 batting average on balls in play wasn’t cartoonish, but it was certainly higher than one might expect from any player, much less one with very ordinary speed.
There was a distinct Randal Grichuk vibe to what DeJong did in 2017, which wasn’t necessarily a bad thing. The Cardinals accepted Grichuk’s offensive style in center field and were less tolerant of it at the less impactful position of left field; they would surely accept Grichuk’s level of offense at the most important non-battery defensive position. Paul DeJong was probably going to regress, but how much? If DeJong could be an average MLB hitter and an average defensive shortstop, that’s still a valuable player. If he became a black hole offensively and barely passable defensively, that’s another Aledmys Diaz on their hands.
To this point, Paul DeJong has a 107 wRC+. He has clearly been worse offensively in 2018 than in 2017 from a results standpoint, but there have been several signs of more sustained success from DeJong in 2018. His walk rate has jumped from the fours to the eights–he isn’t Matt Carpenter, but he’s walking like a normal Major League Baseball player should. Usually, the trade-off for a higher walk rate is a higher strikeout rate (because he hasn’t fallen victim to the latter, Yadier Molina has been largely immune to criticisms of the former), but in the case of DeJong, he’s actually striking out less often. While DeJong is hitting for less power, he’s still hitting at a 20 some-odd home run pace for a full season. For a first baseman, this isn’t worth writing home about. For a shortstop, even in this golden era of young shortstops, it is invigorating.
DeJong has lost over 60 points of BABIP from last season. Instinct says to label this as bad luck and move on, but his .286 BABIP is closer to what one would expect from Paul DeJong than his .349 mark from last season. But to dig a step further, DeJong’s batted ball numbers via Statcast have improved across the board. His “barrel” percentage (essentially “balls he hit really good”, to use another technical term) has increased. His exit velocity and hard hit ball percentage have also increased. While his wOBA (which measures results) has declined, his xwOBA has increased. The numbers suggest that Paul DeJong, who has been a little bit above-average on the whole this season, has been unlucky.
This isn’t to complain about the BABIP gods or anything on Paul DeJong’s behalf. He has gotten unlucky, but not to such a dramatic degree that it warrants much directionless grievances. But what Paul DeJong is demonstrating is that he has a much, much higher floor than it seemed before this season. Paul DeJong isn’t bottoming out; he may not be quite 2017-level in terms of results, but he’s sustaining his above-average defense (while the sample still isn’t large enough to declare him definitely an above-average defender, it’s starting to look more and more in that direction) while being above-average at the plate.
If Paul DeJong were an acclaimed prospect, I’d be fully on board the “Paul DeJong is legitimately awesome” train, but because he was a surprise, I’m a little more muted. But, like I said before, if he becomes just average on both ends of the game, he’s a very valuable player, particularly under his current contract. When the Cardinals signed DeJong to an extension before the 2018 season, rather than simply sitting back and paying him league minimum for the next two years, they locked up DeJong for rates which would be an overpay if DeJong wasn’t a worthy Major Leaguer, but if he’s, say, a 3 WAR-level shortstop are a dramatic underpay. And if the Cardinals choose to exercise the team options in the last two seasons of the contract, they will have Paul DeJong at their disposal through the 2025 season.
And while Paul DeJong may not be a Alex Rodriguez or Carlos Correa-style middle of the order masher at shortstop, having a thoroughly competent shortstop like Paul DeJong committing little of the team’s payroll resources while not being a complete offensive black hole i.e. 2013 Pete Kozma is extremely valuable to have. DeJong may not be the driving force of the Cardinals offense, but he provides the stability to raise the lineup’s overall floor.
And if he keeps hitting walkoff dingers in the heat of a playoff push, that would be cool too.