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Is Paul DeJong an Average Hitter With a Glove, or Is He Something More?

MLB: Milwaukee Brewers at St. Louis Cardinals Jeff Curry-USA TODAY Sports

Since making his debut Paul DeJong’s hitting and fielding stats have gone in different directions. The shortstop exploded onto the scene in 2017 when he posted a 123 wRC+ with 25 home runs. However, he was simply an average defender that year as he finished with 0 DRS and 3.3 UZR/150. The following year, DeJong’s offensive output decreased as he finished with a 103 wRC+, but his defensive value increased as he recorded 12 DRS and a 9.3 UZR/150. This trend continued in 2019 as his wRC+ dropped to 100 and his DRS and UZR/150 rose to 26 and 9.6, respectively. His numbers then declined across the board in 2020, but that is likely due to COVID as the shortened season did not give his numbers time to stabilize. Additionally, he also tested positive for the virus and that likely played a role in his struggles as well.

It remains to be seen if Paul DeJong can return to being a productive hitter as well as a productive fielder. This would make him a much more valuable player, and he has already been a consistent 3 WAR or more player. In 2019, DeJong’s defense was strong enough that he posted 4.1 WAR despite a league average wRC+. Even in 2018, he still added 3.3 wins above replacement despite a strong, but not elite glove and a slightly above league average bat. This skill set already gives DeJong a high floor, but if he could increase his hitting production to a level in between his 2018 and 2019 seasons, then he would be a significantly more valuable player.

There are reasons to believe that this is possible, and these reasons begin with improved plate discipline. Disregarding the 2020 season, DeJong has increased his walk rate and decreased his strikeout rate every year since entering the league. These changes have also been significant as his walk rate rose from 4.7% to 9.3% and his strikeout rate dropped from 28.0% to 22.4%. Additionally, DeJong’s worst season from an exit velocity perspective (86.5 mph) was actually his first season in the league when he had his best offensive season to date. Since then his exit velocity has increased to 89.3 mph in 2018, 87.2 mph in 2019, and 89.2 mph in 2020. Last season that put him in the 57th percentile which is solid, albeit unspectacular.

Additionally, DeJong’s whiff rate had dropped every year until 2020 and his career low of 24.2% in 2019 was slightly below the league average whiff rate. His chase rate has also not risen above the league average chase rate since his rookie season.

These are a lot of numbers, but they paint the picture of DeJong as a hitter. He has above average power, average to slightly above average contact abilities, and an above average walk rate. This does not give him the profile of an elite hitter, but it surely seems that he should be capable of being an above average hitter. Therefore a wRC+ of 105-110 seems reasonable for DeJong, and if he could achieve this while maintaining his excellent defense, then he could be one of the most valuable players in St. Louis. This provides hope that the 27 year old could improve at the plate in the future, especially if he can prove that his down year in 2020 was a fluke.

Part of the problem for DeJong simply seems to be poor batted ball luck as his .259 BABIP in 2019 seems low. However, one negative sign to support this low BABIP is that his line drive rate decreased every year before 2020, reaching a career low 22.0% in 2019. This was 3.7% below the league average. However, despite this, and based on the other trends that were evident with DeJong, he does appear to have the potential for above average production at the plate. Perhaps, with a little more batted ball luck, he might show it in 2021.