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Paul DeJong’s 2018: In the field

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DeJong went from good to great with the glove in 2018. Chalk some of it up to experience, but a change in positioning helped quite a bit.

MLB: St. Louis Cardinals at Detroit Tigers Joe Puetz-USA TODAY Sports

Last week we took a look at Paul DeJong’s offensive performance in 2018, a year where he was hampered by a long DL stint and a lingering hand injury.

Still, despite all of that, his numbers weren’t bad.

This week, we’ll be focusing on DeJong’s defense—an area perceived by many to have the most question marks after his 2017 debut.

Background

It’s not as if the questions weren’t valid; DeJong didn’t begin playing shortstop until he was drafted by the Cardinals in 2015. He had 11 starts at the position over his first two years in the system before playing there almost exclusively in the 2016 Arizona Fall League.

DeJong made 44 starts for the Memphis Redbirds in 2017 before his callup and spent 37 of those at shortstop. After that relatively small bit of exposure to the position in his career, he was asked to man short for what turned into more than half the season.

Fortunately, this isn’t a case of, “He was bad, now he’s good.”

DeJong was a plus defender in his rookie campaign. He was even better in 2018.

Growth

Let’s compare some of his defensive metrics over his two seasons. If you’re looking for a quick refresher, I summarized some of the primary defensive metrics here last season, and FanGraphs’ glossary always does an excellent job.

Paul DeJong, Defensive Metrics, 2017-2018

YEAR INNINGS PLAYS DRS UZR UZR/150
YEAR INNINGS PLAYS DRS UZR UZR/150
2017 747.1 170 0 2.1 3.3
2018 1005.1 200 14 7.1 9.3

There’s some major improvement there. Defensive metrics are notoriously volatile in small sample sizes, but getting into the one-year to three-year marks tend to remove any instability.

By all marks but DRS, DeJong was already a plus defender in 2017. In 2018, he was outstanding.

Compared to all qualified Cardinal shortstops since 2001, DeJong’s 2018 season ranks third in DRS, UZR and UZR/150. It ranks fourth in Def.

The comparison gets much better when looking at DeJong next to his peers last season. Here are his ranks compared to all other qualified shortstops in 2018:

Paul DeJong, Defensive Ranks - Shortstops, 2018

- DRS UZR UZR/150 DEF
- DRS UZR UZR/150 DEF
NL 2 1 1 1
MLB 4 5 4 5

Aside from falling behind Nick Ahmed in DRS, DeJong was easily the best shortstop in the Senior Circuit. He fell behind three or four shortstops in the MLB rankings, given the AL’s superstar collection at the position.

The numbers are just as impressive when comparing DeJong to all qualified position players last season:

Paul DeJong, Defensive Ranks - Position Players, 2018

- DRS UZR UZR/150 DEF
- DRS UZR UZR/150 DEF
NL 6 7 5 3
MLB T-10 17 13 8

I list all the metrics just to show that DeJong doesn’t fall outside the top 10 in the NL or the top 20 in the Majors.

Really, though, the most important rank is Def.

FanGraphs’ Defense (Def) metric is a component of WAR in which positional adjustments are applied to these metrics. DRS and UZR both show a player’s runs above average compared to the average player at their position, which doesn’t account for variation in difficulty when comparing, say, a first baseman to a center fielder.

Def attempts to level that playing field by adjusting each position by a certain number of runs, scaled for difficulty. Shortstop is, without a doubt, the position viewed the most difficult, with a +7.5 adjustment. The next highest are center, third and second, with +2.5.

All that to say that Def is supposed to be the closest metric for comparison across position players in those numbers above, and it’s also DeJong’s highest ranking in both categories. He was a top-5 defender in the National League last year, and a top-10 defender in all of baseball.

How’d he do it?

There are pretty big differences between DeJong’s two seasons, even if they were both still considered good. He went from above average to great. He became a top defender.

Some of that could, and probably should, be chalked up to experience. As we noted, he was pretty raw at shortstop when he first took over in 2017. A year can make quite a difference.

There’s also the volatility of defensive metrics. He might’ve been better than 2017 indicated. Or the intangibles, like having Jose Oquendo back on the major league coaching staff.

Despite all that, I felt like my eye was telling me there was an obvious improvement in DeJong’s glove last season.

Experience played a role, but it seems positioning did, as well.

Positioning

The Statcast leaderboard at Baseball Savant includes positioning data by situation, spanning batter’s handedness, runners on and if the shift’s been employed.

DeJong made some pretty clear changes to his positioning last season:

Not only is he hugging the bag more closely, he’s playing farther back from the plate in every situation.

Theoretically, this type of change makes sense for someone like DeJong. He was originally a third baseman and his arm strength reflects that. Playing further back in the hole gives him more time to track the ball, as long as he’s comfortable making a deeper throw.

Additionally, playing closer to the bag affords him a better chance of stopping anything up the middle. DeJong’s foot speed was tracked at 28.2 ft/sec by Statcast last season, one of the faster measures in a position that ranks the fastest in baseball, on average. He very well could’ve been playing closer to the bag to boost his ability to go left and trusting his speed and ability to range to his right, combined with the increased depth.

Though it may not look like a drastic difference in the above graphs, the changes were pretty large compared to the rest of the league.

Especially against lefties, DeJong was one of the closest to the plate and farthest from the bag in 2017. He now sits closer to the middle of the pack in both depth and angle, and is one of the closest to the bag with runners on against a right-handed hitter. Not playing closer to third, anticipating a righty to pull the ball, points to the fact that DeJong trusts his range to his arm side and would rather be closer to the bag for a double play situation.

Results

The metrics we’ve already shown detail DeJong’s marked improvement. But let’s look at how he converted his chances to field the ball based on play ratings from Inside Edge.

Inside Edge Fielding drops plays into six categories, based on the chance of an average fielder making the play. Here are DeJong’s numbers from the past two seasons, including the boundaries of each category:

Paul DeJong, Inside Edge Fielding, 2017-2018

TEAM IMPOSSIBLE (0%) REMOTE (1-10%) UNLIKELY (10-40%) EVEN (40-60%) LIKELY (60-90%) ROUTINE (90-100%)
TEAM IMPOSSIBLE (0%) REMOTE (1-10%) UNLIKELY (10-40%) EVEN (40-60%) LIKELY (60-90%) ROUTINE (90-100%)
2017 0% (5) 0% (12) 27.3% (11) 50% (4) 35.7% (14) 96% (249)
2018 0% (9) 0% (24) 0% (8) 30.8% (13) 65.4% (26) 96.9% (322)

Interestingly enough, DeJong had fewer of his total fielding opportunities within the 40-100% range in 2018 than he did in 2017. By default, then, a higher percentage of his chances ranged from Impossible to Unlikely.

It’s a bit tricky for us, without deeper access to the intricacies of the data, to make concrete assumptions here. Inside Edge Fielding has a video scout accompanying the data tracking at games who can make subjective calls on certain things that a camera tracking objective positioning data might not pick up. Their site reports that they track data like glove position, off-balance or underhanded throws, max effort throws and diving plays. They even explicitly state that play ratings are done subjectively.

I list all of that to say that DeJong’s new positioning might’ve made some plays that were previously a much lower percentage fall more in his Even, Likely and Routine categories. Conversely, some batted balls deeper in the hole might’ve then been more out of reach than they were previously.

Regardless of how it’s measured, DeJong was unequivocally better at converting plays in the 60-100% range in 2018.

Shortstop is already a hard position. Being able to consistently convert the Likely and Routine plays makes a huge difference in the rankings.

Just to highlight the subjectivity of Inside Edge Fielding and show DeJong’s improved range, here are the spray charts from his past two seasons. One is both made and missed plays, while the other two break out those categories:

It’s important to look at all of the graphs because, obviously, some of those data points are going to fall into the Impossible category.

But upon initial glances, DeJong showed just as much—if not more—range to his right and made quite a few more plays closer to second base. He was also able to field some balls that were much deeper. The change in positioning worked.

Admittedly, he did miss a pretty big cluster of batted balls that were closer to third base compared to 2017. That’s part of the sacrifice he made in moving closer to the middle of the infield.

What’s exciting, though, is that DeJong is showing a natural ability with the glove, a consistently strong arm, above average foot speed and a willingness to adjust. As his familiarity with the position grows, it only makes sense that his intuition will strengthen.

If his range follows the trend of the previous two years, there will be a lot less red on those spray charts than before, and a lot more green.

Also, maybe a bit of gold sitting on his shelf.