Our recurring list of the twenty-five greatest Cardinals of the last twenty-five years will run daily leading up to Opening Day 2021. In case you missed it, here are the prior entries.
25. Todd Stottlemyre
24. David Freese
23. Andy Benes
22. Lance Lynn
One of the defining characteristics of the last several years of the Tony LaRussa era and of the first several years of the Mike Matheny era as St. Louis Cardinals managers was a tendency towards moving players up the defensive spectrum. In layman’s terms, while the typical career trajectory involves players moving to less strenuous defensive positions (for instance, a large number of MLB corner outfielders played center field or the infield as amateurs, minor leaguers, or young MLB players, but very few if any MLB center fielders played in the corner outfield in high school and took up the more difficult position at the sport’s highest level), the Cardinals would try to put players into positions where they would theoretically be at high risk of being a defensive liability.
The reason behind this strategy is usually to bolster offense. Skip Schumaker had a mediocre bat for the outfield, where he began his MLB career, but it was solid for a Major League second baseman, so when the Cardinals moved Schumaker to second base, a passable defensive effort combined with his existing offensive abilities would make him a more relatively valuable player. In 2011, the Cardinals moved second baseman Ryan Theriot to shortstop and first baseman Lance Berkman to right field, with mixed results. And in the most notable single-season example of this phenomenon, the Cardinals moved third baseman Matt Carpenter to second base, where his offensive improvement and surprisingly average defense made him the most valuable second baseman in a sport which still had prime-ish Robinson Cano and Dustin Pedroia.
The Paul DeJong experiment, unlike the aforementioned cases, occurred before DeJong made his Major League Baseball debut during Memorial Day weekend in 2017. But the hypothesis the organization was testing was one so brazen and so seemingly ludicrous that it cannot be ignored in the grand scheme of the team’s wildest experiments gone right.
Paul DeJong played in two college baseball games while at Illinois State University as a shortstop. He played primarily at second base and third base (two less strenuous defensive positions), catcher (a position largely unrelated to the defensive skill set of a shortstop), and right field (a position which is far less strenuous than shortstop). For perspective, Albert Pujols was a full-time shortstop in college. Players like Justin Upton and Mike Moustakas, solid MLB players, were drafted as shortstops but slotted in at other positions by the time they reached the big leagues. Plenty of players considered defensively deficient at the Major League Baseball level are excellent compared to even high levels of NCAA baseball. This doesn’t mean that Paul DeJong was considered a bad defensive player in college, but it does mean that Illinois State didn’t see him as the full-time shortstop he would eventually become at the highest level of the sport.
DeJong spent 2015 and 2016 in the minor leagues almost exclusively at third base, which makes sense given his amateur track record–third base is generally regarded as less important than second base, and those were the two positions at which he spent most of his college career. He started a total of eleven professional games in these two seasons at shortstop. But starting with his time in the 2016 Arizona Fall League, DeJong played primarily at shortstop. In 2017, beginning the season with the AAA Memphis Redbirds, DeJong was dedicated to the position, but while, given that Rookie of the Year-candidate season of Aledmys Diaz the year before, it seemed unlikely that DeJong would be called upon at the position at the Major League level, an injury to Kolten Wong opened up a spot for a utility infielder with the Cardinals.
The twenty-three year-old DeJong, a semi-prospect with a decent bat who was still widely questioned as a defensive fit at shortstop, made his debut with the Cardinals on May 28, and in his first appearance at the plate, against the Colorado Rockies at Coors Field, he hit a pinch-hit home run. The next day, at home against the Los Angeles Dodgers, DeJong went 2-for-4 with a double. Playing at second base to start his big-league career, his bat proved to be more potent than the team had ever dared to dream, to a point where when Kolten Wong returned from the Disabled List, DeJong remained regularly in the starting lineup at shortstop.
That Paul DeJong hit 25 home runs, leading all National League shortstops, despite not debuting in the big leagues until nearly June was surprising, but given the generally positive marks DeJong had received in the minors for his bat, it wasn’t necessarily inconceivable. The true miracle of DeJong’s MLB career, rather, was that he wasn’t merely good enough at shortstop to survive in the big leagues, but excellent at the position to a point where it is seemingly the thing keeping his career afloat. DeJong was good enough at the plate in 2017 and most of 2018 that he could be a starting third baseman, assuming competent defense. But despite a career-high 30 home runs in 2019, he was merely league-average at the plate on the whole, with a .233 batting average and .318 on-base percentage. If he were only a decent defensive third baseman, these numbers would make DeJong a threat to be replaced as a starter.
But instead, Paul DeJong was a Gold Glove finalist in 2019. By Defensive Runs Above Average, he was the most valuable non-catcher defensively in the entire sport. Given that St. Louis is a city spoiled for a generation by Ozzie Smith, it is particularly understandable why DeJong’s defensive steadiness is often overlooked–while Ozzie Smith was spectacular and acrobatic, DeJong’s defensive value comes primarily from his steadiness and avoidance of making mistakes rather than defying our perceptions of what is possible. But DeJong has been a consistently premier defensive shortstop since arriving in St. Louis–since 2017, only Andrelton Simmons, Francisco Lindor, and Jose Iglesias have been superior at shortstop by Ultimate Zone Rating.
The elephant in the room when it comes to Paul DeJong is that his bat has declined in all four of his MLB seasons by wRC+. I don’t believe this is necessarily a sign of long-term decay–his walk rate has jumped in every year, and while his power dropped noticeably last season, I am willing to give players who struggled through the bizarre 2020 season a little bit more leeway (particularly thoes who themselves tested positive for COVID-19). But even if his small-sample struggles in 2020 are a sign of long-term decline, this list is about reflecting on what has been done to this point. And for four years, Paul DeJong solidified a position that is notoriously difficult to fill, and the found money nature of his out-of-nowhere Cardinals success is a quiet contender for the era’s greatest example of the vaunted Cardinals Devil Magic.