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Is This Time Different for Paul DeJong?

DeJong is back. Is he back as a different player?

MLB: St. Louis Cardinals at Seattle Mariners Joe Nicholson-USA TODAY Sports

Paul DeJong is back.

He returned in dramatic fashion on Sunday afternoon, batting 7th and playing shortstop to give Tommy Edman a needed day off. He went three for four with a homer and no Ks.

His fast start in his return from the minors is reminiscent of 2022 when, following a nearly three-month-long demotion due to poor performance, DeJong cranked homers in consecutive days and went on a two-week bender (.646 slugging% and a 182 wRC+) before falling back into his old habits.

It’s those old habits that I want to take a look at today.

Obviously, it’s still very early in the season. DeJong barely had any time this spring and hit the IL on Opening Day to both rehab his back and get in some Spring Training before roster mechanics forced the club to activate him. He ended up with just 40 PAs at Memphis.

That’s not nearly enough time to accurately evaluate any change in DeJong’s performance or potential. We know that he has changed his swing, simplified his approach at the plate, and had a big day ahead of his promotion. Will it last?

I fully commend DeJong for trying something new and for his willingness to put in the work to change. I believe he (or someone like him) has a necessary role to play on this club.

However, I remain skeptical that the changes he says he’s made will have any significant impact on his performance at the Major League level over the long haul.

Here’s a simple rule that I’ve followed in player analysis: players don’t change later in their careers. At least not very often. They all try a lot of things. They will change a bat. Remove a leg kick. Open their stance. Do more work off the tee. Try to go the other way. Try to pull the ball more. Move up in the box, back in the box, sideways in the box, and erase the box with their foot before standing on the plate. We have even seen batters try to switch sides.

Generally speaking, a player that has been what he’s been for a few thousand plate appearances is far more likely to remain what he’s been than become something else.

And Paul Dejong has been what he’s been for a while now. He has 1967 plate appearances of 92 wRC+ since his rookie season. He has 813 plate appearances of 77 wRC+ this decade.

Despite the All-Star appearance, and the 30-homer season. Despite all those accolades that the broadcasters like to remind us of, DeJong has not been a “good” Major League hitter since his first few months in the Majors.

In 2017 DeJong hit .285/.325/.532 with 25 homers in 443 PAs and a 123 wRC+. That’s pretty good for a 23-year-old shortstop. Exciting. Very exciting for an organization that hasn’t had a power hitter at the position since … well, ever.

Practically giddy over what they hoped they had developed, the Cardinals inked DeJong to a regrettable arbitration buy-out deal. They locked up their guy, hoping and believing that he would at least be an above-average hitter and they had faith they could teach him how to play the position defensively.

The warning signs were there from the beginning. His rookie-season production over a relatively small sample size hid disturbing flaws. He had an unsustainable .349 BABIP, a well-below average 4.7% walk rate, and a 28% strikeout rate in ’17. Those realities hid trouble coming.

And it pretty much came immediately.

In ’18 and ’19, DeJong showed some signs of maturity all while seeing his overall offensive production drop. He cut down on his K’s in ’18 and ’19. He would learn to walk more – topping out at 9.8% in ‘20. His power never returned to his rookie form and his poor contact ability tanked his BABIP. The result was a league-average player with improving defense. But his offense was 20 percentage points below where he started.

From there, DeJong’s average exit velocity began to dip. His flyball rate soared and he began to center his offensive approach around the one thing he could do well: drive the ball out of ballparks.

I don’t know if that was a strategic decision. Or if it was just the natural evolution of DeJong’s swing.

I do know that it wasn’t just a funk. And it would backfire on him. Pitchers stopped throwing him (and other hitters like him) fastballs. His breaking and offspeed rates soared. He saw fewer and fewer pitches in the zone. He was never very good at recognizing and driving non-fastballs. Seeing fewer of them in the zone and doing less with the ones he saw by focusing on fly balls caused his production to collapse.

From ’20-’22, DeJong’s whiffs rose. His walks stayed fairly consistent, helped by the rising number of balls out of the strike zone, but his batting average, barrel rate, and expected stats all took a nosedive.

That’s a recipe for the debacle we saw in ’21 and ’22 when the only thing that kept DeJong alive was very good defense, the memory of better days, and the contract he signed back when.

As we look forward to his ’23 season, even in this very early season sample size, we can draw some notable parallels with his lamentable ’22 season.

You already know that DeJong scuffled to begin last season. He was sent out as Brendan Donovan’s play began to demand a starter’s workload. Tommy Edman was shifted over to re-learn short and excelled there defensively.

While in AAA, DeJong was up and down, displaying the same kinds of traits he has had for years in the majors with the added production bump from facing exclusively minor league arms.

Then, when Sosa was moved, DeJong returned to the majors to give it another go. He busted out quickly and then tanked again.

We can divide DeJong’s 2022 season into five very unequal sections:

April 7 – May 8: .130/.209/.208, with a 29.1% K rate, 8.1% BB rate, and a 24 wRC+

May 9 – July 29 in AAA: .249/.313/.552, with a 22.6% K rate, 8.7% BB rate, and a 118 wRC+

July 30 – August 14: .292/.375/.646, with a 30% K rate, 10.7% BB rate and a 182 wRC+

August 15 – end of season: .106/.200/.153, with a 38.9% K rate, 8.4% BB rate, and a 9 wRC+

What worked for DeJong during his long period in Memphis? It’s hard for me to say that anything “worked”. Yes, he has a 118 wRC+. Yes, he put more balls into play and his slash line was reminiscent of his more average MLB seasons. His K and BB rates fit those as well.

But he was still almost flyball-exclusive as a hitter. In AAA, his combined fly ball and infield fly ball rate was 65%. His homerun per flyball rate was 23.9% – a high rate built on offense-oriented minor league ballparks and developing pitchers with sketchy command. His highest HR/FB% in the majors – 19.8% – came during his rookie year. The closest he’s gotten since was 16% in 2021. That season he managed a .194 IS0 but a wRC+ of just 85.

It seemed very likely that once DeJong started facing the world’s best pitching again, his K rate would climb back up to 30%. His contact levels would drop again. His power would fall back to norms. His walk rate would likely stay the same, if only because he wasn’t seeing balls in the zone. The combination would be another collapse.

After a fun week of reminiscence, that’s exactly what happened. His 24 and 9 wRC+ pre-demotion and post-return surge are extremely discouraging.

During the offseason, I argued that DeJong would likely be traded. It seemed best for the club to work out a change-of-scenery type deal that would allow him to compete at SS and try to get himself right. The Cardinals would likely have to take a loss on the deal, but I didn’t see any way that they would bring him back.

Then I started working through the budget. And listening carefully. It became pretty clear that the club had soured on moving him. I do think other teams had some interest; he could have been moved. But the math wasn’t going to work. The Cardinals would have to pay someone else between $6-9.17M to take DeJong off their hands while also paying another player to come and fill the backup middle infield role. Depending on the quality of that player, the Cardinals would have at best broken even and likely would have had to add payroll to make the trade and cover their butts positionally.

So, Dejong returned. And the Cardinals talked a lot about how he had to “compete” for his spot on the roster out of Spring Training. He wasn’t “guaranteed” anything.

They also did nothing to create a competition for him besides a too-young-to-even-consider Masyn Winn, journeyman not-a-short-stop Taylor Motter, and Evan-Mendoza-replacement Jose Fermin. Throw Kramer Robertson in there, too, if you want.

Long story short, the Cardinals decided early in the offseason that they wanted DeJong to make the team. That certainly didn’t base that decision on performance. Maybe they had a plan to fix him? Maybe they still loved hope as a strategy? Maybe they just really like a very likable player that they’ve worked with for a decade and wanted to give him another chance?

It’s probably a combination of all three.

Give DeJong some credit. All indications are that he worked in the offseason to improve, simplify his batting approach, and try to get himself back to his “former” production levels.

But which “former” are we talking about? I would argue that outside of his often-cited, never duplicated rookie season, his “former” production levels aren’t all that exciting.

But we passed “exciting” up a long time ago. If we’re being very honest, an 85-100 wRC+ player with some power and quality defense is about as good as we were going to get for a backup SS position. That’s the role DeJong is being asked to fill, even if he’s being paid starter’s money. Could DeJong do that again?

Let’s look at his AAA season to see if we can find a glimmer of hope in his tiny sample size of 40 plate appearances.

’23 AAA: .353/.450/.618, with a 12.5% BB rate, a 30% K rate, and a 174 wRC+.

DeJong’s LD% in AAA this season was over 40%. His flyball rate was 36.4%. His HR/FB rate was 25%. His pull percentage was the highest of his career at any level at 63.6%.

Part of me wants to see progress in there. He hit more line drives than usual. He hit fewer fly balls. He still hit a high percentage of his fly balls out of the park. I don’t think it’s a bad thing for him to pull the ball more. He will see more balls land in good places if he can turn on them than if he tries to drive them with pop the other direction.

But he also had a 30% K rate. That’s worrisome. Even over a small number of PAs. If he simplified his approach to get the barrel to the ball quicker, then why did he whiff so often on minor league pitches early this season? What will happen when he starts seeing even more breaking and offspeed pitches than in the past? And those pitches will be on the black in challenge counts and with incredible break and spin.

DeJong’s presence on the roster seems to illicit only extreme positions. Some fans want him DFA’ed and forgotten forever. Others want to believe he can get back to his All-Star self. There is data in those 40 PAs to fuel both sides.

Tired of DeJong? That K rate is your soapbox. We’ve seen BABIP-fueled power surges from him before. And doing it against AAA pitchers is meaningless. Once he cools off, he’ll settle right back in as the same hitter he was before and that’s not a major league player, regardless of his defense.

Willing to give DeJong another chance? The change in his batted ball data is your muse. Use it to create a different version of DeJong whose simplified approach to getting the bat to the ball could lead him to more balls in play in good places and a more sustainable offensive model.

Me? I know you’ll demand an opinion of me, so I’ll offer this: the club needs DeJong to be playable. I still believe in Tommy Edman’s defense. He’s hitting better now. But his weakness is against right-handed pitching. In his career, DeJong has shown reverse splits. He’s considerably better against righties than lefties. The club needs a backup shortstop who can spell Edman against some righties without sacrificing much defense for a contact-oriented pitching staff.

That’s Paul DeJong. I am sure that little splits-oriented nuance is part of the reason the club decided fairly early in the offseason to bring him back. Tommy Edman has a 94 career wRC+ against right-handed pitchers as a lefty batter. Could Paul DeJong provide a 94 wRC+ or better against primarily right-handed pitchers while giving Edman time off to stay fresh defensively? All while providing solid-to-good defense himself?

That’s not asking that much of him. That’s not $9M former All-Star shortstop levels of production. But it would make this club better. Or at least not worse. I think a simplified offensive approach with a few more liners and probably the same percentage of Ks should help him do that.