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The effect of Paul Dejong batting 3rd

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It’s been a tale of two seasons after this lineup switch

MLB: Atlanta Braves at St. Louis Cardinals Jeff Curry-USA TODAY Sports

On July 23rd, the Cardinals, almost predictably, surrendered an early lead to the Cubs and fell to 47-51. It was the third consecutive series the team hadn’t won. At 4th place in the Central and 9 games out of the wild card race, the outlook was bleak. Rumors started to swirl. Would the Cardinals sell? With Lance Lynn most likely gone at years end, would he be traded? Michael Wacha’s name started to be mentioned as well.

While pitching occupied most minds, others identified the need for a big bat, especially if the Cardinals were to contend for a championship. Giancarlo Stanton and Josh Donaldson were a couple of the names tossed around. As we would see, John Mozeliak and Mike Matheny had other ideas.

On July 24th, preparing to face the Colorado Rockies, the redbird manager tried something new. He penciled in rookie Paul DeJong to bat 3rd. Up to this point, Dejong had performed well. He was slashing .284/.299/.574. He also had 12 HRs—an impressive number for a rookie over a 7 week period. The average numbers for a player batting 3rd are .274/.352/.476.

The rookies numbers compared favorably, but doubts remained. Were the Cardinals really going to allow a rookie with such an extreme hitting profile (who strikes out 30+% of the time) to bat 3rd?

These are the rankings of the Cardinals 3-hitter from the beginning of the season to July 23rd and from July 24, when DeJong first hit 3rd, to now.

Here’s what happened:

Cardinals 3 hitter rankings

Time Period AVG OBP SLG RBI wRC+
Time Period AVG OBP SLG RBI wRC+
Beginning of Season - July 23 30th 20th 30th 27th 28th
July 24 - Now 7th 12th 8th 5th 8th
Fangraphs

These changes are astounding. Essentially, the team went from the bottom third of all teams to the top third, from a mediocre team to a playoff contender.

Before Matheny made the lineup change, the Cardinals were getting no value from this spot in the lineup. With the current lineup, the team is getting elite value. Ranking 8th in slugging, the 3-spot has consistently hit for extra bases. The result is having the 5th most runs driven in since July 24.

Since that date, the Cardinals have gone 14-6 and currently sit one game out of first place. Now, instead of looking to sell, the team is preparing for a playoff push.

This renewed outlook is due to a number of factors. First, the man who is actually batting 3rd, Paul Dejong (Since July 24, only once has a player other than Dejong hit 3rd: Matt Carpenter).

Since moving to the 3-spot, DeJong has hit .325 with 6 home runs. It’s easy to see that he looks comfortable. And the stats back that up.

Fangraphs

After the lineup change, DeJong has been much more patient at the plate. The switch happened at game 47. Since then, his chase rate has dropped steadily as his comfort level continues to rise. This is an encouraging sign for fans who don't want a 30% strikeout-rate player batting 3rd.

However, DeJong can’t take all the credit. While moving him to 3rd in the order was the most significant move, he has benefitted from other players.

The players ahead of DeJong have been getting on base. This is due in large part to the one-two punch of Matt Carpenter and Tommy Pham--the two most valuable qualified hitters on the team with wRC+s of 121 and 137 for the season, respectively.

Cardinals 1 and 2 hitter rankings

Time Period AVG OBP R wRC+
Time Period AVG OBP R wRC+
Beginning of Season - July 23 24th 13th 14th 15th
July 24 - Now 10th 1st 11th 4th
Fangraphs

Although the improvements aren't as drastic as they were from the 3rd spot in the order, these are still noteworthy, with improvements in every category listed.

Over the last 3 weeks, in addition to combining for the highest OBP of any two players at the top of any lineup in Major League Baseball, they also posted the second highest walk rate. With Paul DeJong coming up behind them, Carpenter and Pham know they can be patient. They don't feel the need to make things happen on their own. The bottom line: this comfort allows them to reach base at a higher rate and the team wins more games.

The next couple spots have been a different story. The cleanup spot has been occupied by a number of different players over the last 20 games: Gyorko, Fowler, Martinez, Grichuk, and even Piscotty got a turn. The fifth spot has been largely filled by Molina.

The importance of these two spots in the order cannot be understated. According to The Book, they combine for the most plate appearances with runners on base of any two positions in the order. Where do the Cardinals stack up compared to the rest of the league?

Cardinals 4 and 5 hitter rankings

Time Period AVG SLG RBI wRC+
Time Period AVG SLG RBI wRC+
Beginning of Season - July 23 10th 28th 23rd 24th
July 24 - Now 12th 22nd 13th 19th
Fangraphs

There’s been improvement here. Moving from 24th in overall value to 19th isn't a huge step up, but it’s a start. Cardinals fans should be encouraged. If the team can go 14-6 with the two of the most important spots in the lineup producing below league average, what can the team achieve with average or even slightly above average production?

Despite the obvious inconsistency from these spots, they have provided DeJong with a decent amount of protection. Pitchers have not intentionally walked DeJong even once since he was moved to the 3rd spot in the order.

Perhaps not quite as obvious is the contribution from Kolten Wong, usually batting between 6th and 8th. He has quietly had a very impressive year. When evaluating a lineup, it is important to understand that it is a continuous loop. Wong’s numbers, specifically his above .300 average and almost .400 on-base percentage, show that he keeps the line moving. Whether that gives Matt Carpenter an RBI opportunity at the top of the order or forces the pitcher to face one more batter, he adds to the pressure the Cardinals can put on an opposing team’s pitching staff over the course of a series.

Statistically, the recent stretch of production isn't sustainable. But what's important is the lineup construction. Following Carpenter and Pham at the top of the order has given DeJong RBI opportunities. With the cleanup spot, most recently occupied by Fowler, plus Molina providing decent protection, Dejong has emerged as a successful 3 hitter, who continues to settle in. While the credit for performing certainly goes to the players, the credit for making this move to begin with, goes to Matheny.