Just a few weeks into the season, Cardinals’ Nation already has many opinions on basically the entire roster. Paul DeJong has been a hot topic and early returns have been varying. Whether it be his offseason extension or his insane strikeout rate, I bet his ears have been burning since the beginning of his 2018 campaign.
Though most noticed him in spring training last year, I began reading and keeping an eye on the St. Louis Cardinals‘ Paul DeJong during his tenure with the (AA) Springfield Cardinals. I really jumped on the bandwagon when The Wizard himself, Ozzie Smith, mentioned the potential of the young shortstop. That is a huge compliment from one of the greatest to ever do it.
In 552 plate appearances at (AA), his OPS was decent at .784, but his wRC+ was 123 and he slugged 22 homers in the process. At the time his strikeout rate was 26.1% and his walk rate was 7.2%. That was the last season his walk rate was above 5%, not great to say the least, but I saw something in DeJong’s swing and style. Plus he is solid defensively.
A Rookie Ride
Paul gave us a whirlwind of a rookie season, quickly becoming one of my favorite players and I’m sure many of yours. Including his numbers in (AAA), he hit more than 30 home runs last year, 25 with the big club. An OPS of .857 and a wRC+ of 122, he finished second in the NL Rookie of the Year voting, and it seemed Paul was destined for great things wearing the Birds on the Bat.
I know, I know…90% of the people reading this are thinking, the warning signs were already there, you should have taken a step back and looked at this objectively, not as a fan of your favorite team. Well…I chose to be cautiously optimistic, but I will always remain objective, maybe even more so when it concerns the Cardinals.
So here is my objective opinion on Paul DeJong right now. He is, for me, the most frustrating at-bat in the lineup. His swings and misses are ugly, pitchers have learned to work him outside-in varying speeds, and he watches strike three way too much. When he hits his hot streaks, such as this past weekend, he remains one of the most exciting at-bats in the lineup.
That being said, I thought a few of these same things mid-season last year, and then he seemed to figure a few things out later in the season. An improvement in plate discipline without a loss in power. In the few days since I began writing this piece, he already seems to be seeing the ball better. He went 5 for 12 with 2 homers, 5 RBI, and even walked once against the Reds.
Casual Observations and The Numbers
My contradictory thoughts on DeJong’s appearance at the plate led me to dive deeper into the numbers. Were my casual observations wrong? Is there reason to be concerned about his ability to put the ball in play, now, as well as in the future? Let’s find out.
Even the casual fan who loves DeJong has to have noticed his insanely high strikeout rate that sits around 37% right now. It is only through 83 plate appearances, but it is alarming nonetheless.
If his, albeit short, career tells us anything, its that he is going to strikeout and smack homers. It also tells us that he only strikes out around 25% of the time since 2015.That is still a lot, but it isn’t Joey Gallo carrying a nearly 37% K rate over 500 plate appearances bad. Of course, great hitters can keep this number in the low teens and even single digits.
It always used to seem to me that striking out can shatter a hitters psyche, causing more strikeouts, compounding the problem. Over the last few years though, I’ve noticed that I care less and less about the amount a player strikes out. An out is an out regardless of how you get there, but that kind of ignores major things like runners on base and position in the order.
Striking Out and Striking Gold
As mentioned above, Joey Gallo struck out 196 times last year, a nearly 37% K%. He hit 41 dingers, with an OPS of .869, and a wRC+ of 123. I’ll take that. Aaron Judge, the AL ROY last season, struck out 208 times, a nearly 32% K%. He hit 52 bombs, with an OPS of 1.049, and a wRC+ of 173. I’ll definitely take that. Those two led the league in Ks a season ago.
Once again, just looking at these numbers can be flawed, as it ignores many in-game factors and situations. The point is this, whether striking out drives you crazy, or whether you are willing to take them as long as it comes with upside, players with extremely high strikeout rates have not only found a way to be productive, they have found a way to be elite in today’s game.
Trouble With The Southpaws
I’ve been concerned early this season with his ability to hit left-handed pitching or complete lack thereof. The sample size is still small, but he has looked lost at the plate against LHP this year and is only 1 for 14 thus far. Of course, the 1 ended up over the left field wall, because, you know, its Paul DeJong. Oddly his walk rate is up against lefties as well. 3 in 17 plate appearances.
To my complete surprise, other than an abysmal 33% K rate over 88 PA against LHP last season, his OPS and wRC+ are actually higher than against RHP. His OPS was .952 and wRC+ of 144 against lefties, .835 and 117 over 355 PA against righties. Fewer PA of course, but in comparison to this year’s OPS of .521 against lefties and .968 against righties, a clear step back against LHP.
Working the Count and Pitch Location
He has also taken a step back in his ability to work a count. He often takes first pitch strikes, acceptable, but he watches way too many 0-1 pitches that are in the zone. Often on the outer third of the strike zone. He also has a tendency to chase down and in on pitches outside the strike zone. Pretty easy to get to a 2 strike count if you know he takes 0-0 and chases 0-1.
As I was putting this piece together, Zach Gifford over at Birds on the Black put together his own evaluation of DeJong. Zach examined the relationship between his FB pull % and his contact rate. His findings are both concerning and extremely intriguing. I advise anyone reading this to check out his piece on DeJong here.
Zach’s findings seem to indicate that DeJong, like much of the league, is trying to pull more fly balls which in turn could be causing his contact rate to drop. When aligned with what I have found which is that he is seemingly watching fastballs, as well as other pitches, on the outer third for strikes.
It would make sense that he is taking these pitches almost intentionally, knowing that he is unable to pull them. The problem is some of these pitches are not only hittable but easily in the strike zone. He may have to be less selective at the plate to reduce his K% until he is able to maintain his contact rate while attempting to pull more.
Putting the Ball in Play
Traditionally, he has hit fastballs extremely well throughout his career, about 10 runs above league average when thrown a fastball. However, he has been much less efficient with breaking balls and also over 3 runs below league average when thrown cutters. He especially has difficulty with cutters thrown down and in.
His BABIP, which is concerning for most, isn’t as alarming for me. Typically a higher BABIP can mean regression. The league average is usually around .300. and with luck being a factor, most assume a player will run out of it, and into more outs. Paul has always hit for a high average while putting the ball in play.
This is also consistent with a high strikeout, home run hitter, as you have fewer balls in play. With most players, their own BABIP over a large sample size is more telling. His was .349 last year, it is .333 now, and has never dipped under .318 in his professional playing career. I do not expect it to now.
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Pauly D, as he is affectionately known amongst fans, will always draw comparisons to the Dodgers’ Cody Bellinger, and rightfully so after both of their rookie campaigns last year. As many playoff and World Series onlookers might have noticed, pitchers figured out the Dodgers’ young stud as well. Cody’s K rate last season was just 1.4% lower than DeJong’s at 28% and 26.6%.
Of course, Bellinger has his rate under 20% early in this season, while DeJong’s soared over 40% at one point last week. Their other stats line up pretty well though. Cody with the higher AVG and OBP, and Paul with more homers and a higher SLG%. Both players have the potential to be perennial all-stars and I think they will be.
Before Pauly D can think about becoming an all-star, he has to think about how to become a perennial starter for this team. Some much-needed consistency at the shortstop position. The Cardinals in recent years, while not reluctant to extend young players, have also not been reluctant in quickly moving them if they are sub-par and have a replacement within the system.
The extension itself has also become a hot topic as of late. The 6 year/26 million dollar extension could look like a steal for a guy that knocked 30 bombs last season. The issue most have is the timing. His numbers justified a signing, but his age, experience, and years of control may not have.
At Paul’s age and with his 1 year of major league experience, if I am making the signings, I would have made him prove he could sustain his early returns for at least 1 more season. When you factor in that we would have controlled him for the next half-decade on a much cheaper salary without the extension, it is easy to understand the frustration of many.
Maybe without the burden of performing for a contract, he will excel. As Dan Buffa recently stated in an article for KSDK news, “The Cardinals didn’t hamper their future with this DeJong extension. What they did was lock up a fine young talent at a very reasonable rate. It may be aggressive and carry some concern, but it’s hard to dispute the long-term chemistry.”