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Paul DeJong has Leveled Up

Uh oh! Happy learned how to walk

Photo by Dilip Vishwanat/Getty Images

Last year, Paul DeJong felt a lot like a create-a-player from a video game. Someone turned the power knob all the way up, spared a few points for ‘league average shortstop defense,’ and that was just all the points they had. DeJong was really interesting last year to me as a fan of baseball, but also as a thought experiment. While he improved somewhat at the end of the season, he spent a good chunk of last year running a strikeout rate around 30% and walking something like never. It felt like a great wager with the baseball gods- is it possible to be a good hitter if you strike out as much as anyone in baseball and walk as little as anyone in baseball? DeJong managed it last year, but he only got there by hitting a ton of home runs and running an insanely high BABIP. By xwOBA, he was essentially a league-average hitter, and it was all too easy to imagine pitchers taking advantage of his free-swinging ways and expanding the zone more and more until he simply couldn’t keep his production up.

The anxiety only increased this offseason, as DeJong and the Cardinals agreed on a six-year contract extension with options for two more. It’s one thing to be the shortstop flavor of the week (hi Aledmys!), but another thing entirely to be locked into another six years of a guy who maybe wasn’t even a good hitter. I won’t rehash the various takes here, but I think it’s fair to say that while the Cardinals were unlikely to lose hugely on the extension, there was legitimate concern over whether the league would adjust to DeJong and limit his upside. Situated as it was in an offseason where the Cardinals countered a Yu Darvish signing with Bud Norris (so far so good!) and whiffed on a trade for Giancarlo Stanton, it was easy to use DeJong’s extension as a piece of the same familiar refrain- the Cardinals won’t take risk, they’ll only nickel-and-dime their way into mediocre players.

The first fifteen games of this year felt like an acceleration of DeJong’s two-true-outcome approach to last year and didn’t exactly fill Cardinals fans with confidence. Through April 16, he had a .246/.295/.474 slash line. If you think that looks weird, the peripherals were downright bizarre. He ran a 41% strikeout rate that prompted multiple gamethread jokes of ‘strikeout or not’ on DeJong at-bats and still only walked 5% of the time. While power and BABIP propped his batting line up to a 112 wRC+, it felt like the other shoe was soon to drop. It’s just not possible to sustain productivity with peripheral stats like that. It wasn’t only the stats, either. DeJong’s plate approach changed tremendously. He came out of the gates swinging MUCH less this year, and in watching him it felt like he was looking at a fastball for a strike every at-bat. If you combine his low-contact ways with a free strike every at-bat, it felt like the devil magic might finally be wearing off.

Conveniently enough, DeJong has played thirty one games this year, so we can split the season into two equal-ish halves. In the second sixteen games, DeJong looks like a totally unrelated player. He’s slashing .250/.344/.500, with a 14.3% walk rate (!!) and a 22.9% strikeout rate. Combine that with the power he still possesses, and that works out to a 132 wRC+ despite a below-average .275 BABIP. If you want to know just how out of character that is for DeJong, well:

That’s a pretty neat trick. Why don’t more players just try to run a career-high walk rate and a career-low strikeout rate? There’s clearly something going on here.

The first thing that’s happened is that DeJong seems to have done a good job of adjusting to his new patient style. For the season, he’s making contact with 82.4% of the pitches he swings at in the strike zone, a little below league average and right in line with his rate from last year. Under the hood, though, he’s basically been two players. For the first fifteen games, he was right around 72% zone contact. That’s the territory of bad hitters and sluggers- and sometimes bad-hitting sluggers. If you want some name comparisons, think Joey Gallo or Chris Carter. DeJong doesn’t have that kind of raw power, so he can’t really afford to make contact that infrequently. What about the next sixteen games, you might ask? Somehow, he’s up to 89%. Now, 89% isn’t an elite Z-Contact%, but it’s pretty good. If you want comparables here, think Christian Yelich, Yadier Molina, or Howie Kendrick. Put simply, DeJong has started hitting the ball more often when he swings.

I’ll be honest with you- it’s not really all that intuitive to me how DeJong could just get better at hitting pitches in the strike zone. That seems like a skill that everyone would improve at if they could. I looked at the fastballs he swung at in the strike zone to make sense of that. Last year, DeJong swung at 72% of the fastballs he saw in the strike zone and made contact on 82% of those swings. This year, with his new patient approach, he’s swinging at about 56% of the fastballs in the zone. In the first 15 games of the season, he was making contact with 60% of those swings. That’s… more or less impossible. Major league baseball players don’t really miss 40% of fastballs they swing at in the strike zone. Joey Gallo, a human monument to swinging and missing, still only whiffs about 25% of the time in these situations. The next 16 games have been more or less the opposite, with DeJong up to an 89% contact rate with about the same number of swings. This seems like another magic trick. It’s easy to say ‘when you swing at the ball, hit it more,’ but for most people, at least, it’s hard to do in practice. That said, I think that DeJong’s improvement has actually come through better pitch selection. Baseball Savant lets you filter by pitches that are borderline strikes (the green square is the strike zone), like so:

Well, those borderline pitches seem like fastballs that you might be well-suited to swing at less. And DeJong has swung at them less this year- a lot less. Last year, he swung at 53% of fastballs in these zones. This year, it’s down to 33%, and a stingy 27% over the last sixteen games. Even in his recent good form, DeJong is still whiffing on about a third of these swings, albeit in a pretty small sample. He’s just taking a lot less swings in places where he is at a disadvantage. This more patient approach has had the added benefit of eliminating a lot of his swings at breaking balls that miss the zone, where he, like most major leaguers, is just awful (career .123 wOBA when he swings at offspeed pitches outside the strike zone). When you look at it this way, it looks like the new, more patient DeJong might be sustainable.

Let’s accept that this is the new DeJong. Yeah, DeJong is swinging at fewer pitches, and yeah, he’s gotten his early season swing-and-miss bug under control. His decision to become a much more selective hitter is really interesting, though. Sustainable or not, he rode an aggressive style and some serious power to literally millions of dollars of rewards last year- why change? I have a sneaking suspicion that I know why. The graph below shows every hitter with 500 plate appearances last year, with their Contact% and Swing% relative to league average (expressed in standard deviation):

The first thing I’d like you to notice is that I’m really bad at making charts. The second, though, is that I’ve put in two dots showing approximately where DeJong is relative to every other hitter. The red dot is 2017, and the green dot is 2018. I’ve also labeled three zones. Zone One is high-swing, low-contact hitters (I used -.5 standard deviations as a low-contact cutoff). This is the world of Javy Baez or 2017 Paul DeJong. Zone Two is medium-swing, low-contact hitters. Two names I plucked at random are Gary Sanchez and Trevor Story. Zone Three is choosy but low-contact hitters- Jose Bautista, Paul Goldschmidt, and 2018 Paul DeJong. Let me show you why you want to be in Zone Three, not Zone One. As a quick note, the average wRC+ of this sample is 110, as batters who get 500 at-bats tend to be better than average.

Hitting by Zones

Zone K% BB% OPS wRC+
Zone K% BB% OPS wRC+
1 23 6.7 0.781 103
2 25.8 9.9 0.817 112
3 27.7 12.8 0.848 121

Basically, Zone Three hitters just do more damage. They add more in walks than they give up in strikeouts, and they are swinging at better pitches on average so they do more damage. To me, this says that if you have a violent swing, it probably suits you to swing less. This isn’t rocket science- I’m pretty sure every coach Javy Baez has ever had has told him this. That said, it takes serious intent to change the way you swing. If you start out swinging a lot and succeed, it might be pretty hard to convince yourself to change up your style. If there’s one player I would expect to do this, though, it’s DeJong. In both college and the minors, he drew rave reviews for his strong mental game and ability to adapt. They didn’t call him The Professor in college because of his love for this cocktail.

To return to my briefly-used hook from the start of the article, DeJong sure seemed like a low-level video game character when he burst onto the scene in 2017. With experience (and money) in the bank, though, it sure seems like he’s leveled up. This time, he’s gained a level of control of the strike zone. What’s next for him? After witnessing this massive overhaul of his game, I’m starting to believe that there is more evolution to come.