Fernando Tatis Jr. is very good and is probably soon going to be the best shortstop in the National League for the next decade, as long as he remains in the National League. The 20 year-old San Diego Padres phenom entered Major League Baseball this season with extremely high expectations and a consensus top-three prospect ranking (the other two, Vladimir Guerrero Jr. and Eloy Jimenez, haven’t displayed their superstar potential in the big leagues just yet, but it feels like a matter of time), but despite how great he has been, I can’t quite declare Tatis, who is currently on the Injured List, the league’s top shortstop after 111 plate appearances. Particularly when, by rate or by raw production, Tatis hasn’t been the best shortstop in the NL this season.
That honor belongs to St. Louis Cardinals shortstop Paul DeJong, who has been the best shortstop not only in the National League but in all of baseball so far in 2019. By both Baseball Reference and FanGraphs Wins Above Replacement, DeJong has been the third best player in baseball this season, training Cody Bellinger in both, Christian Yelich by FanGraphs, and Mike Trout by Baseball Reference. WAR isn’t a perfect stat, but it’s the best single metric by which to measure the totality of a player’s production, and the only players who rank ahead of DeJong by either version are the guy who is on pace for literaly the greatest season in baseball history, the defending near-unanimous National League MVP, and the consensus best baseball player of his generation.
Is Paul DeJong the fourth-best player in baseball? No, but he’s closer to being that good than his reputation suggests. Unlike the super-prospect Fernando Tatis Jr., Paul DeJong wasn’t supposed to be this great. He wasn’t even really supposed to even be particularly good–following the 2016 season, DeJong ranked as the 15th best prospect on the Cardinals alone, with two shortstops ranked ahead of him. DeJong had shown decent power in the minors and was a solid overall hitter, but he didn’t walk a lot, he did strike out a lot, and in order to make the big leagues at third base, he needed more offense than this.
But then Paul DeJong took up playing shortstop, the rare minor league move up the defensive spectrum, and his power improved at AAA Memphis in the early months of 2017. Following a Memorial Day weekend call-up to the big leagues, DeJong hit 25 home runs in 443 plate appearances, topping his 22 home runs in 552 plate appearances in AA Springfield the season before. After being a nonfactor in 2017 projections for the Cardinals, DeJong finished second in Rookie of the Year voting. The team felt strongly enough that DeJong was for real that they traded 2017 incumbent/2016 Rookie of the Year finalist Aledmys Diaz and signed DeJong to an extension. Yes, the extension was very team-friendly, but it would have looked much less so had DeJong reverted back to the minor league depth that he seemed to be a year before.
All statistical evidence suggests that Paul DeJong is at least a decent defensive shortstop. And we’re coming up on two years of fielding data to back up this conclusion. Some would argue that this still isn’t enough data, and in one sense, I agree, but after two years, I’m inclined to believe that the numbers aren’t a complete abberation. Since 2017, the year DeJong joined the St. Louis Cardinals, only three shortstops in baseball–Andrelton Simmons, Francisco Lindor, and Jose Iglesias–have saved more runs by Ultimate Zone Rating than DeJong, and only one of these shortstops (Iglesias, barely) spent any of that period in the National League. By UZR/150, which puts Ultimate Zone Rating on a rate basis, the list includes the aforementioned three and Los Angeles Dodgers shortstop Corey Seager ahead of DeJong, and that’s it. DeJong has been above-average by each of the individual components of shortstop defense which can be quantifiably measured: ability to turn double plays, range, and avoidance of errors.
When DeJong first arrived and played solid shortstop defense, it was generally viewed as an abberation and that the guy who primarily played third base in the minors would, long-term, be a Jedd Gyorko-type “he can play shortstop irregularly but you might want to avoid it” shortstop. But his defense has only improved over the last two seasons. In 2018, DeJong ranked 5th among shortstops in UZR runs saved and in 2019, he is tied with Andrelton Simmons, the best defensive shortstop I have ever seen (I only caught Ozzie Smith at the tail end of his career, so spare me your letters), for second place. Maybe you don’t believe DeJong is actually a top-five defensive shortstop, and I can see regressing his numbers so that you view him as closer to average than elite. To conclude that he isn’t at least fine defensively simply runs counter to all objective evidence on the matter.
But where DeJong really stands out has always been at the plate, and he keeps getting better. When DeJong first arrived in St. Louis, he was frequently compared to Randal Grichuk, for better or worse. On one hand, somebody who can hit home runs like Randal Grichuk while playing shortstop is a really valuable player. On the other hand, somebody who walks as rarely and strikes out as often as Randal Grichuk has a somewhat low ceiling, even if his defensive value gives him a relatively high floor. But particularly in 2019, he has developed a shocking level of plate discipline to those who followed him as a prospect. In his first 179 plate appearances this season, DeJong has a walk rate of 11.7% and a strikeout rate of 16.8%, both of which are by far career-bests, and are indeed well above-average for baseball as a whole. In 2017, DeJong’s strikeout-to-walk ratio was nearly 6 to 1. In 2018, it was better, but still, at 3.44 to 1, was hardly fantastic. Today, it stands at 1.44 to 1.
Paul DeJong has a batting average on balls in play currently of .361, which is a bit high. This would be high for anybody, but particularly for a player with unexceptional speed. The easy conclusion is that DeJong is due for regression, and while this is probably true, this doesn’t make him some complete fluke. DeJong’s current wOBA, a number to measure offensive production where higher is better, is .411, and his expected wOBA, or xwOBA, a measure based on how hard he is hitting the ball, is .402. This is regression in only the most marginal sense. At .402, DeJong has the highest xwOBA among all middle infielders in baseball. Say DeJong finishes the season with a .402 wOBA (this isn’t the way regression works, as DeJong with a .402 wOBA for the rest of the season would finish the season with a .405ish mark, but let’s keep it simple). There have been nine shortstop seasons this century in which a qualified player had a .402 wOBA, seven of which came from two players (four from Alex Rodriguez, three from Hanley Ramirez).
Players with DeJong’s combination of power and defense (even if defense only entails “being able to play shortstop at all”) are extremely rare. 141 shortstops have had over 1,000 plate appearances in the 21st century, and DeJong ranks tied for fifth by wRC+. DeJong has a higher career wRC+ than Cal Ripken Jr., Barry Larkin, or Ernie Banks, and he has the same mark as Derek Jeter. Whether DeJong can keep this up is impossible to say, and players in general regress to the mean, but I think it’s worthwhile to appreciate just how fantastic DeJong has been.
By rest-of-season ZiPS, a projection system which evaluates future performance, there are five shortstops in the NL projected to produce more WAR than DeJong going forward. Here is my case for why Paul DeJong is the better shortstop than any of them.
- Manny Machado isn’t a shortstop. He has played some shortstop in the absence of Fernando Tatis Jr., but he is still, fundamentally, a third baseman. And a really, really awesome third baseman. But that would be like recommending a really nice ice cream place when I’m trying to evaluate my favorite pizza.
- Javier Baez will also soon be a non-shortstop, as Garbage Man Addison Russell is being re-assimilated to playing shortstop in the Major Leagues. But even if the Chicago Cubs have a moment of clarity and allow the actually likable Baez to remain their shortstop, there are reasons to believe DeJong is better. While Baez has been only marginally worse at the plate than DeJong, he also sports an absurd .402 BABIP. He is worse by xwOBA and while Baez is a plus (if overrated) defender at second base, he has been below-average at shortstop throughout his career.
- Trea Turner of the Washington Nationals has barely played this year. Granted, he has been pretty awesome in his 15 plate appearances, but that’s not very many! But over the previous two seasons, Turner has been nowhere near as good of a hitter as DeJong, sporting wRC-pluses of 104 and 105. He has been defensively solid, probably about a push with DeJong, and he is a superior base runner, but the sizable offensive gap makes it difficult for me to not go with DeJong.
- Trevor Story has the raw power numbers that catch your eye, with 37 home runs last season and 9 home runs so far this season. But while just yelling “Coors!” at any good offensive numbers from a Colorado Rockies player isn’t nuanced, it’s mostly fair. His 127 wRC+ was strong last season, stronger than DeJong’s, but it wasn’t quite what thirty-seven home runs sounds like it would be. He remains solid this season, with a 111 wRC+, but DeJong has closed the gap. Since the beginning of 2017, DeJong has a 119-107 wRC+ lead. These are similar types of players and I can see the argument for Story, but I lean towards the recency of DeJong.
- Corey Seager of the Los Angeles Dodgers is a wild card and I can very much understand the case for him. After all, Seager has had the best individual season of the true shortstops on this list, had the second best individual season, and is also the youngest of the group, and thus probably has the highest upside. But Seager is still recovering from Tommy John surgery and his performance this season has been nowhere near his peak performance. His wRC+ is below-average, at 89, striking out above career norms and showing little power. Long-term, I am still very much a believer in Corey Seager, but even ZiPS, which knows that Corey Seager ranked higher on MLB prospect lists than Paul DeJong did on Cardinals prospect lists, has the two as a push offensively for the rest of 2019. For 2020, 2021, or really any other year going forward, I’d take Seager. But at this moment, DeJong is the safer bet.
It is amazing that we have reached this point. This isn’t a weak moment for MLB shortstops–this is as acclaimed of a crop as baseball has had in twenty years. And Paul DeJong is among the best. The list of shortstops in all of baseball that are definitively better than Paul DeJong at this point is probably one (Francisco Lindor). And Lindor at least cost the Cleveland Indians an eighth overall pick. Paul DeJong seemingly entered our lives by accident. A beautiful, happy, stupid accident.