When Paul DeJong awoke on May 7th, he was surely satisfied with the torrid beginning to his season. He was slashing .336/.405/.606, good for a 166 wRC+. His hitting heroics, baserunning, and defense had led to 2.4 fWAR, second best in baseball. Through that point, he was outperforming luminaries like Christian Yelich, Mike Trout, and Alex Bregman. Since May 7th, he’s slashing .181/.310/.305, a 72 wRC+ through Wednesday’s game. It was as if an occult hand had reached down from above that morning and plucked away all of his brilliant early season production. Let’s examine what’s going wrong, Thursday night’s homerun not withstanding.
Before going further, it’s important to note that there have been three phases to DeJong’s season. Phase one was the scalding beginning to the season. Phase two occurred from May 7th until May 23rd. The final phase, the current and nastiest of the three, has seen his production crater.
Paul DeJong’s Three Mini-Seasons
Pitchers wisely started avoiding him in phase two, resulting in a tremendous spike in walk rate. Since he wasn’t getting anything good to hit, his isolated power disappeared, and his BABIP slipped. However, the increase in walks left him productive to the tune of a 119 wRC+. In phase three, the walks disappeared, strikeouts skyrocketed, his power hasn’t returned, and he can’t buy his way on base.
From here, we’ll take a look at his batted ball profile to see the difference in those three phases.
DeJong, Batted Ball Profile
His phase two batted balls are interesting. Even though his batting average and power slipped, he was hitting more line drives and making more hard contact. The biggest differences are that his pull percentage increased at the expense of his opposite field percentage, and a lot of his medium contact became soft contact.
Everything goes south in phase three. His pull percentage is more extreme, his hard hit percentage is down, and his GB/FB ratio has doubled. Worse, his popups have tripled since phase one. Keep in mind his strikeout percentage from the previous table, which also increased 8.3% since phase one. Combined with the popups, 16.3% more of his plate appearances have become useless. Since our May 24th cutoff date, DeJong looks completely lost.
Some of his struggles in phase two occurred from bad batted ball luck, attested to by his .278 BABIP. Baseball Savant’s expected batting average spits out .267 for DeJong in phase two (actual avg: .239). That’s worth a few hits. It’s hard to argue against his process in the May 7-23 window given how much loud contact he was making. His xwOBA in phase one was .402, and it dipped only slightly to .382 in phase two. His career xwOBA entering the season was .333. If you liked the way DeJong hit in 2017 and 2018, you should have been thrilled with his process in phase two. The results simply didn’t happen. Unfortunately, his approach changed after that.
Earlier this week, Mike Shildt and John Mozeliak made some strong comments, with Mozeliak implying that hitters were pressing in search of five-run homeruns. Shildt had this to say:
“For a while, we were rightfully on board with the contact rate,” he said before the Cardinals played the Miami Marlins here. “But, candidly, for the last little bit, there’s been a little more ‘chase’ in our game. We haven’t been able to get better as the game goes, which is the thing that’s probably the most frustrating.
“‘Give away,’ is a strong term but we haven’t been able to take that tough at-bat consistently and we’ve been able to chase out of the (strike) zone, which creates softer contact and quicker innings. That’s the thing that needs to change.”
Here’s DeJong’s plate discipline profile in our three phases:
DeJong, Plate Discipline
In phase one, his swing rate outside of the zone was down from his career rates. Since he did more damage in phase one, pitchers avoided him in phase two and his O-swing% decreased even further. After he hit the ball hard without getting results in phase two, though, his swing rate outside the zone mushroomed in phase three. It’s worse than his 2017 debut that had everyone concerned about the sustainability of his bat. Yet his contact rates in phase three are right in line with his torrid phase one. He’s not swinging and missing. He’s swinging and making bad contact.
Shildt pointed to chasing outside the zone, leading to softer contact. Mozeliak implied that hitters were pressing in search of more power. Paul DeJong, with a higher O-swing% and soft contact percentage, and a severe decrease in isolated power, is the poster boy for those comments.
Now we know that he’s making weaker contact and swinging more outside the zone. Let’s see if the way he’s being pitched that’s forcing this difference? We’ll zero in on fastballs and sliders, which collectively account for over 75% of his batted ball events.
Paul DeJong vs. Fastballs and Sliders
|Dates||wOBA FB||xwOBA FB||wOBA SL||xwOBA SL|
|Dates||wOBA FB||xwOBA FB||wOBA SL||xwOBA SL|
Again, we see that his expected results- particularly against fastballs- were much more productive than reality in phase two, further proof of a good process. His slider results weren’t as good in phase two, but a .312 xwOBA is still perfectly fine against any one pitch. By phase three, neither the expected results nor the actual results are there. The additional popups rear their ugly head again, with all eight of them since May 24th coming on four seamers, cutters, or sinkers. Five of those eight popups have been middle-in on his hands, and two more have been up in the zone in the middle of the plate. Here’s how it looks:
Here’s how the location of fastballs have changed over the three phases. There’s a pretty clear trend drifting up and in. It’s particularly extreme up in the zone in phase three. He’s getting a steady diet of high queso right now.
This is the same triptych for sliders:
This fits the developing narrative. In phase two, pitchers started drifting away from him, out of the strike zone. It was surely a factor in his spike in walks. In phase three, we see a greater concentration challenging DeJong up and closer to the fists (the orange blob, middle/top left). He has yet to get a hit off of a slider in phase three.
It’s worth noting that more of his at-bats are ending on change-ups in phase three despite the fact that his total percentage of change-ups seen is fairly steady through the season. He’s had 13 batted ball events on change-ups in phase three. He had eleven in phases one and two combined. It has resulted in a .347 wOBA and a .293 xwOBA since May 24th. It’s possible he’s ambushing those pitches, trying to do damage with them to make up for production lost on the harder fastballs and sliders.
Most of this comes down to two solutions. First, he needs to revert back to his early-season plate discipline and stop swinging at pitches outside the strike zone. I’ll bore you with one more table here- his actual production on out of zone pitches:
DeJong, Out of Zone Production
There’s a lot of production he’s leaving on the table by chasing. In his ultra-selective phase two, he did the most damage outside of the strike zone. He wasn’t going out of the zone unless it was a pitch he could drive. In his current phase, he’s scuffling on those pitches. The second solution is that he needs to find an antidote for pitchers climbing the ladder. As fastballs and sliders have inched up and towards his hands, his production has fallen. His percent of poor contact (under, topped, and weak) on pitches up in the zone increased from 35.7% in phase one to a reasonable 40% in phase two, but it’s up to 60% in phase three. That has to be addressed or pitchers will keep exposing him up there.