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Saturday SOC: DeJong is a Good Player & Why Do I Even Have to Say That?

A stream-of-consciousness take on Paul DeJong, who is obviously a good player. Still, there’s a persistent narrative among some fans who are convinced he’s bad and I just don’t even know what to say about that.

New York Mets v St. Louis Cardinals Photo by Scott Kane/Getty Images

Cardinals shortstop Paul DeJong returned from the IL on Friday, just in time for an important June series against the rival Cubs. He went 0’fer in his return, which wasn’t too surprising after just a few unproductive rehab games with Memphis.

Immediately upon his activation, some on the post-apocalyptic hellscape that is Cardinals social media – Twitter and Facebook – put on their flip flops, grabbed a can of gasoline, and jauntily skipped out to the barn to dust off a well-worn wooden effigy.

Paul DeJong is back. Time to burn him down again.

Now if you’re sane and you stay away from those social media outlets you might not know that one of the favorite pastimes of Cardinals fans on Twitter is complaining about DeJong. DeJong ranks just below Mozeliak (Randy Arozarena! Adolis Garcia! PATRICK WISDOM!) and Matt Carpenter (why haven’t they DFA’d him yet!) on the Cardinal fan whipping boy scale.

What’s odd to me is that you can pretty easily recognize the reasons the other names draw ire. Mozeliak and co. have had notable lapses in player evaluation that have led to high-profile (but largely short-term) imbalances in trade value. Last fall, the decision to keep O’Neill and trade Arozarena for Liberatore didn’t look very good at all. Mo took the heat. (It’s balancing out a bit now, isn’t it? Liberatore is heading to the Olympics. O’Neill is a legitimate star. And you might not have noticed, but Arozarena has pretty much dropped down to meet his rather pedestrian projections.)

Carpenter was legitimately terrible for much of the year. And he’s been in a pretty steep decline. Even I, the pragmatist that I am, thought he might be replacement level or worse this season. He’s getting paid quite a bit because of his early extension. He’s hitting better now, which is awesome, but it’s not hard to see why fans were and are frustrated with him.

But Paul DeJong? Why so much angst?

And, yes, before you say it, I realize that basing an article around the loudest portion of Cardinals Twitter both ignores the quiet majority of fans who think DeJong is just fine, thank you very much, and amplifies the voices least in need of a megaphone.

But I’m legitimately confused as to why a not insignificant block of people honestly believe that DeJong is terrible and, I quote, “fans are right to want him gone?”

Gone? Like… gone gone? Really? Have those fans watched the shortstops that the Cardinals have run out on the field over the last, oh I don’t know, 25 years?

Don’t they realize that Paul DeJong – who is just 27 – has the most home runs of any shortstop in Cardinals history? By a lot?

Or that DeJong is already 7th in Cardinals history in fWAR from the shortstop position?

Or that he nearly matched David Eckstein’s career production with the Cardinals in just one season (2019)?

I don’t want to get too bogged down in stats. This is a stream-of-consciousness article and that doesn’t work if I get all analytical and stuff. Still, the numbers are worth glancing at.

In 2017, DeJong played in 108 games, producing a .359 wOBA – 123 wRC+ – and 3.1 fWAR. That is probably the best offensive season ever produced by a Cardinals rookie shortstop. It’s one of the best WAR per PA rates of any Cards SS’s, discounting Ozzie’s core years.

The next season, the BABIP dropped, which was expected. His walk rate rose and DeJong fell in right around league average – .321 wOBA and a 103 wRC+. With solid defense, that’s a 3.3 fWAR.

The next year brought more of the same. A .322 wOBA. 100 wRC+. His defense really took a step forward: +18.5 DEF. He translated that to 4.1 fWAR.

We should stop and appreciate DeJong’s 2019 season. It’s quite brilliant. That’s the third-best season by a Cardinals shortstop since Ozzie retired. It’s the fourth-best if I include the last six years of Ozzie’s career – 1990.

Yet, I see a surprising number of people who complain constantly about DeJong’s 2019 season. I guess it’s because he started out hot and then cooled to his normal production levels. Somehow that makes him … bad?

Sure, there are some people out there who won’t be happy unless the Cardinals had someone better than Xander Bogaerts playing the position. I’ve seen a large number of people on Cardinals Twitter saying we should move DeJong while we can and go sign a real shortstop – like Bogaerts or Trea Turner. Maybe they could settle for Trevor Story?

The reality is that we can still count the number of shortstops in MLB history who consistently produced elite levels of hitting, power, and defense on one hand. Maybe we need a few extra fingers to go along with that one hand now, but the list is extremely short.

In a moment of honesty, outside of the toxic hyperbole of the interwebs, I bet a lot of these Paul DeJong critics would be pretty happy if the Cardinals just had a shortstop who could go out there and provide league average or better offense, with some pop and a good walk rate, while playing consistently good to great defense. Maybe some All-Star level upside would be great, too, if that player really put things together.

Sounds good, right?

Who wouldn’t take that?

That’s Paul DeJong. That’s exactly who he is.

Yes, I know that he had COVID last year and that sapped his power. It did the same thing to Yadi. And it destroyed Lane Thomas and Rangel Ravelo. COVID was a terrible thing for power hitters. Now DeJong has slumped a little to start the season and then hit the IL. His peripherals are good but the BABIP gods have been unkind (more on that below).

Add it up and since the end of 2019 (which feels like an eternity but was not that long ago in baseball days) things have gone just about as badly as possible for DeJong. Yet, because he does so many things well, DeJong still has a 1.1 cumulative fWAR in 2020-21 in just 312 PAs.

We can have fun with that number. If you project it out to 713 plate appearances, that turns into 2.5 fWAR.

Why 713 plate appearances? Because that’s the number of PAs David Eckstein had with the Cardinals in 2005. His fWAR that season was 2.5.

Edgar Renteria only topped 2.5 fWAR twice with the Cardinals.

In other words, the absolute worst version of Paul DeJong that we’ve seen the last few seasons, small sample sizes that they are, is still as good as some of the fan-favorite shortstops of the post-Ozzie era. We’re not even talking about Brendan Ryan, Royce Clayton, Cesar Izturis, Rafael Furcal, Pete Kozma, or Ryan Theriot.

Seriously, folks, the Cardinals started Ryan Theriot at shortstop and we’re complaining because Paul DeJong isn’t Trea Turner.

What about this season? Is the not-so-terrible terrible version of Paul DeJong going to continue? I don’t think so. There’s still a lot to like in his stat line. Before the injury, his average exit velocity was down a little from his career but his barrel rate was up. So that sorta evens out. His walk rate has gone up again – something that’s happened every season of his career. His K rate is a solid-for-him 22.7%. His ISO is .194 – maybe a hair low but nothing to sweat. And his HR/FB% is right on target. Defense looks solid enough, too. He is plus in both DRS and UZR in a small sample.

What’s the problem? His BABIP is .176. That’s .124 points below normalization.

This is an oversimplification but DeJong has been his normal self, except he’s had some terrible luck on batted balls and that’s plunged his BA/OBP/SLUG into “burning effigy” territory.

Meanwhile, his expected wOBA is .355 – which is way up there in 2017 territory. Some better turns of luck and he’s burning his way through National League pitching.

ZiPS doesn’t check Twitter. The computers don’t know that we’re not supposed to like DeJong. So, they go ahead and give him a 105 wRC+ and .320 wOBA going forward. More of that “league average hitter with above-average defense” stuff that plays so well at short. They give him 2.1 fWAR in half a season of games remaining. If he beats that playing time pace but everything else stays the same, then he’ll finish up with another 3.0 fWAR season.

Terrible. Just so bad. Man… fans are right to want that guy gone. Can’t get rid of him soon enough.

Listen, I know how this works. Fans will be fans will be fans. And who am I to tell you how to enjoy the game? But if a player like Paul DeJong makes you miserable and angry, you might want to think about tempering your fandom with just a little bit of reality. Not a lot. But a little. You’ll feel a lot better about life.

Or maybe everyone’s just cranky. Man, that game yesterday afternoon… Losing to the Cubs is the worst. Maybe DeJong will get hot so at least we’ll have one less thing to be upset about.

Enjoy your weekend. If the Cardinals let you. And if they don’t, enjoy it anyway. Life’s too short to let a game get you down.