Update: In case you missed the news, the Cardinals optioned Paul DeJong to Memphis on Tuesday afternoon. I wrote this post before that news broke but it’s still highly relevant and gives some insight into why the Cardinals made this move. If the signs of decline in DeJong’s game are obvious to someone like me, they were obvious to the Cards too. I adjusted the language a little and changed the end to reflect the updated news, but most of it is written with the assumption that DeJong was still on the roster. On with the post…
I don’t enjoy writing articles like this.
I love the Cardinals. I’ve followed almost every Cards player who has reached the majors over the last decade from the lower levels of the minor leagues. I love watching these players. I love seeing them grow and succeed, make it to the show, and then succeed there, too. I love the search for the statistical evidence behind those successes. I love putting words to all of that.
But I don’t limit myself to successes. I am willing to couple those “good news” posts with less-than-positive statistical facts, discouraging but undeniable historical trends, and as-precise-as-I-can-be analytical critique where it is warranted.
In other words, I prefer to search for, find and write about what’s good about these players I love. Sometimes that search and find process leads me to have to write about the bad, too, even if it’s not nearly as much fun.
I’ve spent the last week or so doing that search and find process on Paul DeJong. I’m going to give you the stats that stuck out to me. I’ll warn you in advance: they are not pretty. I’m not going to be able to draw many optimistic or encouraging conclusions at the end of this post. I do hope that I’m wrong about what I’m seeing because I really like Paul DeJong and I really want(ed) him to succeed.
(And he did succeed. For quite a while. We can’t forget that. He shouldn’t have been a major league shortstop based on what we saw in his minor league career, and, instead, he topped out as an All-Star at that position. That’s absolutely a success story.)
Still, this is the Paul DeJong post I didn’t want to write.
What’s Going on with DeJong?
DeJong is off to a rocky start in 2021. His slash line on the season is .130/.209/.208. Offense is down throughout the league and for a variety of reasons. Still, that slash line relative to the rest of the baseball produces just a .198 wOBA and a 30 wRC+. That wRC+ would be the 4th worst among qualified batters in baseball if he had enough PAs. (He is 4 PAs short of the list.)
His “x” stats are a little kinder. “X” or “expected” stats use batted ball data – like exit velocity and launch angle – to project a player’s stats. It ignores what did happen to tell us what should have happened. His expected (x) Statcast slash line (xBA/xwOBA/xSLUG) is .158/.226/.268. He ranks in the 1st percentile in xwOBA and xBA, and in the 2nd percentile in xSLUG.
What does that mean? It means that DeJong has actually been one of the five worst players in the majors. And we can’t even pretend that he’s been anything more than that.
These kinds of bottom-of-the-league rankings are new for DeJong. Still, it’s been a long time since DeJong produced at an offensive level that could be classified as “good”. His production has been trending down since his peak as an age-23 rookie. Here are his PAs, wOBA, and wRC+ by season since 2017:
2017: 443, .359, 123
2018: 490, .321, 103
2019: 664, .322, 101
2020: 174, .296, 87
2021: 402, .293, 86
2022: 86, .198, 30
The number to look at here is the last one: wRC+. 100 is the major league average. The more above 100 you go, the more above average you are. The opposite is true for below 100.
DeJong has only had one “good” offensive season in his career. That came right out of the gate in 2017. The rookie version of DeJong had no batting eye at all (4.7% BB rate, 28% K rate), but he had a quick bat with plenty of loft. He translated that to a .247 ISO and a .532 slug%. His batting average was surprisingly strong – .285 – but was built on a higher-than-normal BABIP of .349. Essentially, he was a power-only bat but that power looked elite for a middle infielder, and it translated to a “good” 123 wRC+.
Over the next two seasons, the flaws that were hidden by his rookie season power became more pronounced. The BABIP luck went away. As did the unsustainably high level of homers per flyball hit. That took a chunk out of his ISO – leaving him right around .200. And his batting average – leaving him as a .237 hitter. He did learn to walk, though. And he cut into his K’s.
He also developed defensively as a shortstop. That combination of “some” power and “some” walks plus quality defense at a premium position earned him an All-Star appearance in ’19. Overall, he was an average offensive player. But that’s valuable at a position like short.
Then the shortened 2020 season happened. DeJong had COVID and his complete loss of power tanked his production. That was easy to explain away. The next year, 2021, his power returned but his contact ability continued to erode. He had just a .216 BABIP (way too low to blame on poor luck) and was a little worse in both wOBA and wRC+ than his COVID season – both well below average. That was pretty shocking, to be honest, but maybe his May rib injury lingered all season and hurt his ability to swing comfortably?
That was a common refrain from the front office over the winter, who routinely expressed confidence that a fully healthy DeJong would remain an asset in the lineup.
But here we are back to those 2022 stats listed above. DeJong doesn’t have COVID. He’s fully healthy. Yet, his offense has tanked. His K rate has climbed again. His BABIP has fallen well below .200. His power, the one thing he did well, has abandoned him completely.
What has caused this precipitous but relatively consistent statistical decline in offensive performance? Over at Baseball Savant, there were two sets of stats that I think help explain what has happened with DeJong, particularly over the last four seasons – 2019-2022.
Hard hit % by percentile per year:
2017: 75 (40.1%)
2018: 64 (39.9%)
2019: 23 (33.9%)
2020: 57 (40.6%)
2021: 25 (35.3%)
2022: 30 (35.8%)
The first of these statistical sets is hard hit % by league percentile. Comparing these numbers by themselves doesn’t really capture the differences involved. How much difference is there between his 39.9% hard hit rate in ’18 and his 35.3% in ‘21? It’s just 4 measly percentage points!
Well, the difference is between DeJong being in the top third of the league in hard-hit rate and the bottom third.
If you don’t walk a lot and don’t make much contact. But the contact you do make is in the air and pretty hard relative to the rest of the league, then you have a good chance at a high rate of home runs. Especially with a “juiced” baseball. (This is DeJong, the “average” major league hitter.)
If you don’t walk a lot and don’t make much contact. But the contact you do make is in the air and pretty weak relative to the rest of the league, then you have a good chance at a total collapse in offensive production. Especially with a “dead” baseball. (This is DeJong, one of the worst hitters in the major leagues.)
Simply put, DeJong’s production has been trending downward because he has lost the ability to hit the ball hard on the rare occasions when he actually makes contact.
What’s Caused His Inability to Make Consistent Hard Contact?
Here’s where I turn to my second set of statistics. The game has changed dramatically since Paul DeJong debuted as a rookie and started pounding balls into the St. Louis skyline. The rules have changed. The ball has changed. Defensive positioning has changed.
But the change that’s impacted players like DeJong the most is the types of pitches thrown. The following is a graph not of DeJong’s pitches by type but average pitch type per league per season:
During DeJong’s rookie season pitchers were throwing fastballs over 55% of the time. The average velocity on those fastballs was 92.8. Look at how much those rates have changed over 6 seasons. MLB fastball rates have trended down and now they are below 50%. Those fewer fastballs are on average harder than ever before.
Just as DeJong is pretty much a one-skill hitter, so is he pretty much a one-pitch hitter. And I bet you can guess what that pitch is. Here’s DeJong’s wOBA by season per pitch type (season – fastball, breaking, offspeed) starting in 2019:
2019 - .379, .286, .226
2020 - .356, .247, .123
2021 - .363, .211, .233
2022 - .248, .185, .064
Pretty clear trends. DeJong can hit fastballs but he’s seeing fewer and fewer of them. He can’t hit breaking and offspeed pitches and he’s seeing more and more of them.
It’s interesting how such a relatively small change in one stat – how many fastballs a player sees – can affect a relatively small change in a second stat – how frequently a player hits the ball hard – and the combo can produce a huge change in overall production.
Of course, there’s more going on here than just hard hit rate and pitch types. Paul DeJong still doesn’t walk enough. He still can’t make consistent contact. He’s still primarilly a flyball hitter. Fewer fastballs to hit and fewer of those hit fastballs leaving the park have turned him from a one-skill hitter into a no-skill hitter. He can still do what brought him success — hit fly balls that have chance at leaving the park. But that simplistic offensive approach flat doesn’t work in today’s game, especially when you play half your games in a ballpark like Busch Stadium, which kills right-handed power.
What About Defense – Doesn’t that Matter?
Defense does matter. Especially at a position like shortstop and on a team like the Cardinals who have built their entire pitching staff around the assumption that their infield defense would be elite. Theoretically, a player doesn’t have to be above average offensively to be a solid overall contributor at short if their defense is good enough. Just last season DeJong translated a well-below average wRC+ (86) into a 1.4 fWAR in just 402 plate appearances. That’s below the pace a contending team would want from a starting player (he was tracking to a 2.0 fWAR over 600 PAs) but it’s arguably playable.
The problem is that it’s hard to envision DeJong improving on that defensive performance. Here are his defensive stats over the last three seasons, with 2022 listed first and going back from there:
OAA: -1, +4, -3
DRS: +4, +6, 0
UZR: +1.7, +4.6, +1.0
As you can see, DeJong is playing very good defense. At least according to DRS and UZR, who think he’s on pace to be an elite defender this year. We’ve seen these kind of extreme stats over small samples before, though. It’s a mistake to assume they’ll continue especially when they defy a player’s well-established history.
Meanwhile, OAA — Outs Above Average — is a bit more of a bear regarding DeJong’s glove prowess. It’s also the metric that’s gaining more and more authority among in-the-know baseball analysts. We shouldn’t trust just one defensive stat. But we should probably trust OAA more than the others.
DeJong is a good defensive shortstop. But his defensive prowess has probably peaked. It was barely enough to hold him as a “playable” starter last season and now he’s taken another step back at the plate. His glovework simply doesn’t matter enough to lock him into the lineup. It might not be enough to keep him on the roster if he can’t see some dramatic improvement offensively and soon.
Is DeJong Done?
Based on his history, I would expect DeJong to improve on his bottom-of-the-league offensive performance so far. The question is how much can he improve?
I’m very doubtful that he can make the adjustments necessary to hit non-fastballs better. I have no optimism that his fastball rate will increase since this is a growing league-wide trend. His defense is good but it’s not enough to significantly elevate his overall production.
Even as a shortstop, DeJong has to hit if he wants to remain a viable major leaguer.
I don’t think he’s a true talent 30 wRC+ hitter. But he might now be a 75-85 wRC+ hitter – about one step back from his 2020-2021 production level – and that probably leaves him right at replacement level.
That brings me to yesterday’s news.
The Cardinals have watched the same trends that I was watching and reached the same conclusions. DeJong went down to Memphis Tuesday to work things out.
Will this move help him? Maybe. I don’t have specific pitch-type trends for the minors but I would guess that he’ll see more fastballs at Memphis than he did in the majors. It’s a very safe assumption to say that the breaking and offspeed pitches he sees will be much lower quality. (If someone has these percentages, please post them in the comments.)
I expect he’ll hit some at Memphis. But I don’t know what that will tell us about his ability to return to the majors as a productive major leaguer. At this point, his sample size of poor production against MLB pitchers is large enough that a few weeks of fly balls that leave the park against AAA arms will mean almost nothing. Even bad MLB hitters routinely crushed minor leaguers.
A few good weeks at AAA might improve his confidence, but DeJong’s struggles don’t seem to be an issue of confidence.
Meanwhile, Donovan is going to get a look at shortstop. Edman is working out at the position again. Edmundo Sosa – who nearly stole his job last season – will be back in StL soon with an inexplicable ability to get hit by pitches and a very good glove at short.
Gorman, likewise, is looming with his massive power stroke, left-handed bat, improved defense at second base, and pristine prospect pedigree. The Cardinals are steadfast in delaying his debut, for reasons that escape me. (Worse, they tied up their last spot on the 40-man roster with … Kramer Robertson?). But once he arrives, he’ll be locked into an everyday role. That creates quite a crunch on the other side of the diamond.
DeJong might hit AAA fastballs in Memphis and still not have a position to come back to in three weeks.
Frankly, DeJong’s career – with the Cardinals at least – is hanging on by a pretty thin thread. I’m just not convinced he still has the skills necessary to bounce back to his 2019 levels. I’m also not sure that his overall offensive profile is a fit with this game, which seems hellbent on killing home runs.
I wish I had more optimism for you. And for Paul DeJong, who was an exciting player for a few seasons and a true success story for the Cardinals development department (especially defensively). As I said, this is the Paul DeJong article I didn’t want to write. Let’s hope I’m wrong.