You know what’s really nice? When you decide on a topic for a column, and later that night said topic goes out and has himself a big night at the plate. Then again, if the night was too big, it almost feels like you’re just writing about the last thing you saw, like a goldfish telling his friends about the castle he just saw right. over. there!, but that’s okay. At least you’re being timely still.
The thing is, though, is that the things I wanted to highlight about Paul DeJong in this particular column were actually slightly more true before his big game last night, in that paradoxical way that happens when you want to talk about how a player is so good in so many ways he can be productive even when he’s not succeeding in every way. When the player then goes out and succeeds in every way, it’s easy to lose the point about him not having to, you know?
Hmm. That’s really confusing. Let me explain.
Paul DeJong was perhaps the most exciting, encouraging thing to come out of the really frustrating 2017 season. There were other positives, from Jose Martinez emerging as an offensive force to Tommy Pham’s incredible season, but the occurrence with the greatest impact potential long term for the Cardinals was the arrival of a potential solution at the shortstop position. Short has long been a tough nut for the Cardinals to crack, with one great year from Jhonny Peralta and a partially great season from Aledmys Diaz being the best production the Cards saw from the position since, what, the David Eckstein years? The franchise that helped make Ozzie Smith a legend has had only intermittent luck in filling the Wizard’s old position over the years.
It appeared, though, that might be changing with the arrival of DeJong last season. Drafted as a third baseman out of college, Pauly D moved through the farm system in a hurry, and along the way was actually moved up the defensive spectrum in the Arizona Fall League in 2016, at least partially thanks to the advice of Aaron Rowand, who was coaching there at the time. He didn’t necessarily look like a shortstop, but in his first full season at the position DeJong played a perfectly acceptable, roughly average level of defense at short. He played just under 750 innings of shortstop in 2017, and all three major defensive metrics pegged him in the neighbourhood of average there. Plus/minus had him at plus one run, defensive runs saved put Pauly at exactly neutral, and UZR/150 probably liked him the best, with a +3.3 rating over the course of a full season. In other words, all the numbers pointed toward DeJong being able to handle shortstop just fine, but in no way did he really look like a plus defender there. Still, average defense at short with a 110-120 wRC+ bat is a hell of a valuable player.
A funny thing has happened this year, though. It has been, overall, a very up and down season for DeJong. He began the year hitting for plenty of power still, but his strikeouts were completely out of control for the first little bit of the season. He got that under control, eventually, and actually began to push toward something resembling good plate discipline for a time. The power was a touch down while he was doing the good discipline thing, but that seemed to be a relatively minor concern while he was putting together one of the best stretches of his admittedly short career.
Then came the hit by pitch, the broken hand, the missed time, and the rehab. DeJong lost a solid chunk of his season after being hit on the hand and suffering a fracture, and even after he came back he didn’t look like the same hitter. In fact, he’s never really quite looked like the same hitter following the hand injury, right up until basically the present moment, showing much less consistent power and seeming to fight his swing mechanics a bit more this season than last.
All of it has added up to a 102 wRC+ (including last night), that’s heavy on power, light on the on-base, and perfectly acceptable for a player who can hold down short. It’s certainly not as good as the 120 guy DeJong looked like he might be in 2017, but even just a league average bat is fine from a shortstop. If a guy possesses average defense and a league average bat at short, which is one of the two toughest defensive positions on the field, even his utter averageness actually translates to a really solid asset.
But a funny thing happened while Paul DeJong was struggling to get his offense going in the right direction again, the way it was headed in 2017.
It just might be, if we believe the numbers, that Paul DeJong is not just an average sort of shortstop. In fact, in 2018 at least, Paul DeJong has been an absolute dynamo in the field.
DeJong has played 917 innings at shortstop this season. By UZR/150, he’s been over twice as good a fielder as he was last season, at a +8.1. Interestingly, though, UZR has been the low system on Pauly’s D this year, as plus/minus and DRS both peg him at a fairly amazing +14 runs above average at the position. Maybe you like UZR, maybe you like DRS. Either way, Paul DeJong’s performance at shortstop this season would seem to suggest he might not be just an acceptable or average defender. He may be an elite one.
Now, obviously, 917 innings isn’t a tiny sample, but it’s also nowhere near enough innings to draw a bunch of hard conclusions about DeJong’s true talent level just yet. We have almost 1665 innings of defense to look at, and by DRS DeJong has been worth 14 runs above an average shortstop. The problem is, he was one kind of defender for 40% of that time, and a completely different defender for the other 60. We need more data to help smooth out the picture.
Really, though, I’ll return to my earlier point and say this: Paul DeJong doesn’t have to be an elite defender at shortstop to have value. Even having a somewhat difficult offensive season, he’s a league-average hitter, not for a shortstop, but for all positions together. (Also, in case anyone is curious, DeJong’s xwOBA this year is .347, compared to his actual wOBA of .319, indicating he’s been the victim of some poor fortune.) Again, just an average hitter and average defender at the toughest position on the field is a very good player.
But there’s also reason to believe Paul DeJong isn’t just an average hitter, or just an average defender. He doesn’t have to excel at any one thing in order to have value, because he does so many different things well, but saying that still feels like selling him short. There’s a chance, perhaps a pretty solid chance, that Paul DeJong really is something like a 115 wRC+ hitter, and a +10-15 defender at shortstop. Oh, and while DeJong isn’t exactly a burner, he’s a decent runner, and smart on the bases, adding an additional 2.9 runs of value on the basepaths this season. That may not sound like a huge total, but it’s a meaningful number all the same.
In other words, Paul DeJong doesn’t have to lean on one tool, because he has lots of them. And the fact he has so many makes him a potentially very special player for the Cardinals over the long haul, not just as their best homegrown shortstop since Brendan Ryan, but the sort of player who could aspire to the sorts of heights we really haven’t seen here since the heady days of Edgar Renteria at his very best.
Before the season began, I was somewhat skeptical when the Cardinals inked DeJong to a very early contract extension, thinking they should have waited for more data. Somewhat paradoxically, I’m not sure DeJong’s asking price now would be that much higher now, even though it looks to me like he’s almost certainly a much better player than most, maybe all, of us truly realised.
Paul DeJong was the biggest pleasant surprise coming out of the 2017 season. He probably won’t be the biggest positive surprise this year, simply because Harrison Bader exists and made three highlight reel catches as I was typing this sentence. But there’s an argument to be made that DeJong has actually been the biggest positive of the season for the second year in a row. Tommy Pham’s breakout sputtered, Jose Martinez plays defense like a baby giraffe with an inner ear infection, and Tyler Lyons went from handsome breakout setup reliever to handsome big fish in a little Triple A pond. But Paul DeJong has solidified himself as a major league shortstop. And he didn’t do it by doing the same things well he did last year, or even improving on his strengths.
He did it by improving on his weaknesses. And it’s not hard to look forward and see a day when maybe Paul DeJong won’t have any more weaknesses to improve upon.