We can only assume that hidden deep in the lairs of Busch Stadium is a machine that produces solidly above-average baseball players like clockwork.
One of the latest members of this lineage is, as the headline would indicate, Paul DeJong. Entering play Monday night*, he leads all National League shortstops in FanGraphs’ calculation of WAR. While his superb 150 wRC+ and .406 wOBA aren’t quite matched by his .372 expected wOBA (xwOBA) based off Statcast batted ball data, the latter mark is still tops among all NL shortstops (minimum 50 plate appearances) as of this writing.
*Update: DeJong just homered before I could even finish typing that last sentence.
In 1886.2 big league innings at short–granted, a relatively small sample size from which to draw broad-sweeping conclusions–virtually every advanced fielding metric (DRS, UZR, RPM, etc.) on the books pegs DeJong as an above-average defensive shortstop as well. His performance in the field alone at such a premium position on the defensive spectrum is capable of buoying more tepid spells at the plate–as was the case when he posted 3.3 fWAR in just 490 plate appearances last season despite a mediocre 102 wRC+.
However, DeJong is hardly a glove-only or, arguably, even a glove-first player. He has been mashing out of the gate in 2019, and has the exit velocities numbers to show for it.
DeJong’s aforementioned home run in Milwaukee marks his eighth “barrel,” the crown jewel of Statcast’s batted ball tracking system, this year. To be classified as a barrel, a ball must come off the bat with an exit velocity of at least 98 mph and a launch angle generally ranging from 20-35 degrees into the air. In other words, a barrel is any ball that gets absolutely crushed, going for a 2.684 slugging percentage across MLB this season.
The only players with more barrels thus far: Pete Alonso, Khris Davis, Anthony Rendon, Gary Sanchez, Mike Trout, Adalberto Mondesi, and Cody Bellinger. That group has combined for an utterly absurd .485 wOBA and .480 xwOBA in 2019.
Overall, 51.4% of balls put into play by DeJong have been scorched at least 95 mph, well surpassing his previous 40.3% career high set last year. And including Monday night’s loss to the Brewers, his 16% barrel rate is up from 9.2% and 9.1% in 2017 and 2018, respectively.
Pitchers have already begun to react accordingly. Just 47.1% of pitches thrown to DeJong are in the strike zone per Baseball Info Solutions compared to 49.6% in 2018. However, DeJong has countered with modest improvements in his plate discipline, lowering his swing rate on pitches outside the zone from 33.8% in 2017 to 30.1% in 2018 to 28.7% now. All the while, his swing rate on strikes has risen by 6.8% percent over the past year. If we oversimplify plate discipline into a binary evaluation where swinging at strikes and laying off balls is “correct,” then DeJong has been correct 70% of the time when reading pitches. For the sake of context, his “correct rates” in 2017 and 2018 were 67.9% and 66.0%, respectively, while 67.4% is the average MLB figure in 2019.
We are only several weeks into the season and DeJong has already cobbled together a win above replacement for the Cardinals. Between his defense, power, and plate discipline numbers trending in the right direction, the path to another three-win season for DeJong is well-paved, with a 4+ WAR campaign not all that difficult to envision should he push ahead towards 600 plate appearances.
There is an irony to the fact that–knock on wood–the solution to the Cardinals’ revolving door at shortstop this decade was originally anticipated to be a solid utility infielder rather than an outright regular fixture in the starting lineup. Now, of course, DeJong is under team control through 2025 and well-positioned to continue the run of success that has defined the early phase of his career.