I was at the game yesterday, watching from section 150 as Miles Mikolas pretty much overwhelmed the Reds and the Cards’ offense just kept not putting the game away. Well, until they did, of course, but I have to admit it felt like one of those afternoons where the opposing team was going to just hang around and hang around, and somehow you were going to end up losing it, then look back at all the missed opportunities to add on runs as the reason.
Luckily, though, Miles Mikolas was on the mound, and Miles Mikolas happens to be pretty damned good. You know how on YouTube there are these mashup videos, things like, “Lord of the Rings but Every Orc Sounds Like Rip Taylor”? (Which, by the way, is not a real thing. Yet. And don’t anyone dare steal my idea.) Watching Mikolas pitch is like a mashup of, “Bob Tewksbury but His Pitches are Mike Mussina’s.” I’m not saying Mikolas is going to win a Cy Young award or anything — mostly because he and Carlos will probably take votes away from each other — but even just a handful of starts in I think it’s fairly easy to see why the Cardinals tried to get Mikolas for more than the two years he ultimately agreed to.
And then came the bottom of the seventh, when Paul DeJong stepped to the plate and, with one mighty swing on one mighty bad curveball, gave the Cards all the breathing room they would need for the rest of the game. A few more runs in the eighth turned the eventual outcome into a bit of a laugher, but it was DeJong’s three-run shot that really shifted the feel of the game.
It was DeJong’s seventh long ball of the season, which is second-most among all big league shortstops, just one shy of Manny Machado’s eight. Having a shortstop with the kind of power DeJong possesses is not really a thing we Cardinal fans have had much experience with over the years; aside from Jhonny Peralta’s first year with the club in 2014, when he hit 21 homers (in a very different offensive environment, remember), we just haven’t had shortstops put up big offensive numbers here in St. Louis. So what we’re seeing from DeJong is, for our franchise specifically, somewhat unprecedented.
There’s also something else about DeJong that is somewhat unprecedented, or at least exceedingly rare. He’s putting up serious offensive numbers, to the tune of a 142 wRC+ this season, while also featuring almost unimaginably bad plate discipline numbers. So let’s talk about that.
Last season, DeJong posted a 122 wRC+ in 443 plate appearances. That’s not a full season, but it’s also not exactly a tiny sample. He hit 25 home runs at the big league level, and another thirteen in less than 200 trips to the plate at Triple A Memphis. Basically, you’re talking about a guy who put 35 balls over the wall in a full season. Who also plays shortstop, and would appear to be competent there. Not great, but competent.
The fly in the ointment was this: Paul DeJong, in addition to all that really good stuff, struck out 28% of the time, and drew walks in just 4.7% of his plate appearances. That’s a very high strikeout rate, and a very low walk rate. For those keeping track at home, neither of those are good things. In fact, those numbers, or specifically the ratio between those numbers, was so bad that there were plenty of people around the game this past offseason who believed DeJong would end up basically unplayable due to his plate approach being so disastrous.
Coming into the season, then, the big question was this: could Pauly D get his plate approach to a better place? He’s probably never going to be a Matt Carpenter or Tommy Pham, guys who command the strike with an imperiousness that can win at-bats before they ever take a swing, but maybe he could get better. Maybe he could bring those hugely divergent numbers closer together, and make himself a better hitter in the process.
Now for the bad news: DeJong’s strikeout rate this season, in 83 plate appearances, has ballooned to 37.3%. That really is borderline unplayable, one would think, even in this high-strikeout era. Of course, the fact he’s cranked seven homers and is running a .312 ISO covers for a whole heap of sins, but still.
So that’s the bad news. You want the good news now? His walk rate has improved from 4.7% to 6.0%. No, that’s still not a lot, but it’s a ~25% increase over last season! Hooray for tiny miracles?
Okay, so the walk rate uptick isn’t really substantial to qualify as out-and-out ‘good news’, particularly when paired with the even-worse strikeout woes. However, if we look under the hood, so to speak, there actually are some meaningful changes about which to be optimistic. I’m using the pitch info plate discipline numbers from FanGraphs here, by the way.
Last year, DeJong showed an extremely aggressive approach at the plate. You probably knew that already; one does not accrue a strikeout to walk ratio like his by being patient, generally speaking. He swung at a full third of the pitches he saw outside the strike zone (33.8%, to be exact), while swinging at almost 70% of the strikes thrown his way. Now, you don’t necessarily mind a high Z-swing (that is, swing rate at strikes), rate, because so long as you’re swinging at pitches in the zone you’re probably doing okay. That’s not to say every strike is a pitch a hitter should be swinging at; there are plenty of unhittable strikes out there. But for the most part, a hitter attacking pitches inside the zone is not a problem. A hitter going after pitches outside the zone, on the other hand, usually is more of a problem. There are two reasons why it’s an issue: one, because pitches outside the zone are usually not great pitches to hit, and two, because whereas letting a strike go results in a positive outcome for the pitcher, letting a ball go by is automatically a positive outcome for the hitter.
As for contact, DeJong wasn’t terrible, but not great either. His O-contact% was 56.4%, meaning he made contact with over half the pitches outside the zone at which he swung. Parsing out what that means is complicated; a hitter making lots of contact on balls out of the zone could be good, in that he’s not just flailing and missing constantly on bad pitches, but it can also be bad, in that he’s probably making some weak outs on pitches he shouldn’t be swinging at in the first place. So that’s kind of a mixed bag, really. As for Z-contact% (contact on pitches in the zone), that’s a little less equivocal. Higher is generally better, as you don’t want to swing and miss at strikes, period. DeJong’s Z-contact% was 82.4%, which is fine. It would be nice to see that number a little higher, but it’s not problematic. For reference, Dexter Fowler has a career Z-contact% of 85.2%. Mike Trout is at 87.2%. Kris Bryant’s career mark is 82.7%, though he has improved that every year. In other words, DeJong’s number last year was fine.
Overall, DeJong saw 49.2% of pitches inside the zone, which is roughly in line with what a lot of rookies see. The most respected hitters in the game see low-40s percentages a lot of the time, as pitchers try to work carefully, but again, we’re not dealing with an outlier of some sort.
Now, let’s look at the 2018 stats for Pauly D, and see what we can ascertain about changes he’s made to his approach. Let’s see, we went bad news-good news last time; we’ll go good news-bade news this time, okay?
First off, the zone rate for DeJong this year has decreased, going from 49.2% to 46.2%. That’s not a huge change, obviously, but pitchers throwing a hitter fewer strikes is a mark of increased respect, increased caution, and obviously should give a hitter more chances to draw a walk or get into an advantageous count. So any and all shift toward a lower number there is generally good. Even better, DeJong has decreased his chase rate markedly, going from 33.8% to 25.6% O-swing. That’s a really big decrease. Kris Bryant’s O-swing% this year is 25%, just as a point of reference. So more pitches outside the zone, plus DeJong letting more of those balls go by, should add up eventually to more walks, one would think.
That’s the good news. We’ll get to the bad news in a second, but we have a less identifiably positive or negative number first. In addition to dropping his O-swing%, DeJong has substantially decreased his Z-swing% as well. In 2017 he swung at almost 70% of the strikes he saw; this season that has dropped all the way to 57.6%. Now, as I said before, it’s tougher to make strong statements about how often hitters should swing at strikes, just because not all strikes are equally hittable. But 57.6%, to me, feels almost too low. Tommy Pham, for comparison, is swinging at 59.7% of the strikes he sees this year, and Tommy is one of the most patient hitters in baseball.
In fact, if we look at Pham’s overall swing%, he’s at 39.3% for his career. Pham utterly refuses to swing at balls, for the most part, and doesn’t swing at a huge percent of the strikes he sees, preferring to wait for something he feels he can handle. It’s not a positive or negative necessarily, just the way Pham approaches hitting. It obviously works for him, but I’m not going to make a blanket statement everyone should do the same things he does.
This season, Paul DeJong has an overall swing rate of 40.4%. That’s down from 51.4% in 2017, meaning he’s swinging at roughly 20% fewer pitches than he did last year, and in 2018 has been very nearly as patient a hitter as Tommy Pham. Bet you never would have guessed that, huh?
Okay, now for the bad news: the contact rates. Paul DeJong has seen his contact percentages this year go in the toilet in a big way. Now, as I said, there’s an argument to be made over whether you really want a hitter making a lot of contact on pitches outside the zone, but even so, it’s probably generally better to get a piece of the pitch, rather than swing and miss entirely. DeJong’s O-contact% in 2017: 56.4%. DeJong’s 2018 O-contact%: 40%. That is an enormous dropoff, and probably the single biggest reason we’ve seen his strikeout rate shoot up even higher, when he actually seems to have a better feel for the zone this year than last.
Probably the biggest negative of all is DeJong’s in-zone contact rate; his Z-contact% has fallen from 82.4% last year to just 73.6% in 2018. That’s right; Paul DeJong is swinging and missing over a quarter of the time on pitches inside the zone. That’s a sub-Javy Baez contact level, and the one really huge unequivocal black mark on what DeJong is doing this year. Swinging and missing more balls is probably bad, but also has some potentially positive outcomes attached. Swinging and missing at more strikes is much harder to spin as a good thing in any way.
So what do we take from all this? Well, it’s definitely a mixed bag, but looking at the total picture, I think we’ve seen real improvement from DeJong this year in terms of his approach at the plate. Pitchers are throwing him fewer strikes, as they’ve learned to respect his ability to do damage in the zone, and Paul is swinging at less of the junk outside the zone they’re trying to get him out with. If I’m being honest, I might actually argue he could be more aggressive inside the zone, rather than watching some hittable strikes go by, but I’m not going to kill him for that. He’s definitely become more patient; becoming more disciplined and knowing when to attack is still a work in progress.
The problem, of course, is just how much he’s swinging and missing this year. His overall contact rate has dropped from 73.7% in 2017 to just 62.8% this season, which as I said is worse than a player like Javier Baez, himself a paragon of swing and miss problems doing huge damage to a guy’s offensive value. It’s why DeJong has seen his strikeout rate explode to near 40% despite his approach, I would argue, being much better.
And so, for now, I think we have to conclude the jury is still out on the Paul DeJong Plate Discipline Experiment. If he continues to hit for the kind of power he has this season, it’s possible it simply won’t matter if his plate discipline continues to be problematic. But if we’re trying to track and discern what kind of progress DeJong is making toward becoming a better hitter, a more complete hitter, a hitter capable of not only putting a ball in the seats but doing damage via a well-rounded offensive game, then the early returns are, honestly, mostly positive, but with a couple big issues that are still holding him back.
I plan on returning to this topic a couple more times throughout the season, just to see what kind of progress and changes have taken place. For now, though, we still have this fascinatingly incomplete talent standing at shortstop, potentially doing one or two things so well it doesn’t matter what else he does poorly.