THE CARDINALS ARE BACK, BABY!
The St. Louis Cardinals have now won 7 of their last 8 games on the back of an offense that is looking much more like we all thought it would at the beginning of the season. And that’s partially because Paul DeJong and Andrew Knizner have gotten hot and given the Cardinals a jolt of offense from the bottom of the lineup. Just what we were all expecting, right?
Other players have certainly played a huge part in the turnaround too (hello, Nolan Arenado), but it’s DeJong and Knizner that I want to focus on. That’s in part because their production is so unexpected, in part because it’s fun to watch them rake, and in part because there are some interesting numbers to dive into.
Why you should believe in Paul DeJong
Let’s start with the basics. DeJong has a 155 wRC+ and 0.7 fWAR in just 17 games. Small sample size? Yes. But that also puts him 5th on the team in position player WAR. That seems pretty good.
That’s all well and good but this could just be a hot streak. After all, it’s only been 17 games so are there reasons to believe that he’s a different player than he’s been in the last few years?
The answer to that is a simple yes.
DeJong’s .398 wOBA is higher than his expected wOBA, but a .383 xwOBA doesn’t scream “lucky”. And that’s because DeJong has been hitting the ball hard. And he’s been hitting the ball hard a lot.
His average exit velocity of 89.7 mph would represent a career high if he was able to maintain it over the course of the season and his 52.4% hard hit rate is simply ridiculous. It’s no surprise that he’s almost matched his home run total from last year and his four homers this year have been anything but cheap shots.
POV: Paul DeJong launches one to the moon. #STLCards pic.twitter.com/WcOPacol8g— St. Louis Cardinals (@Cardinals) May 14, 2023
DeJong isn’t just crushing the ball, though. He’s also striking out less. Last year, the shortstop struck out in exactly one third of his plate appearances. This year, that rate has dropped to just 26.2%, which is right in line with his career average.
It’s a simple equation: more power + less strikeouts = a better Paul DeJong.
There’s another area of growth besides that, though. DeJong is doing much more damage at the top of the zone than he did last year.
Last year, DeJong had just 7 hard hit balls and 4 barrels in the top 3 regions of the strike zone (inside, middle, outside). This year he already has 5 hard hit balls and 2 barrels and the improvement can be seen in the two images below.
This is DeJong’s wOBA by zone in 2022:
And this is his wOBA by zone is 2023:
You’ll notice that there’s a lot more red overall but also that the top 3 regions of the zone are no longer a dead zone for DeJong. (Side note: You can mostly disregard the areas outside the strike zone when looking at wOBA becuase those are going to be dragged upward from walks).
So, not only has DeJong increased his power overall but he’s also increased his pop in an area of the zone where he didn’t do much of anything last year. That’s a good sign.
Pushing beyond the numbers, DeJong has made some tweaks this year in an effort to improve at the plate, most notably dropping his leg kick, which means his swing has gone from looking like this:
To looking like this:
For more on the changes that Paul DeJong has made, both mentally and physically, Derrick Goold has you covered at the Post Dispatch. Usually when a player makes a mechanical change and then improves, it’s not a huge leap to thing the two are connected. DeJong has been tweaking for a few years now but it seems that he may have found a swing that works for him.
Why you should be skeptical of Paul DeJong
There’s another side to the story. Do you know what happens to exit velocity when a hitter gets hot? It goes up. That’s the point of a hot streak. For whatever reason, hitters get hot sometimes and they simply see the ball well and barrel up everything and that means a higher exit velocity and a high hard hit rate.
That’s exactly what we’re seeing with DeJong. So, is he actually better or is he just hot? It’s tough to tell.
As I built the case against DeJong in my head, I went to Baseball Savant to check a few things that he wasn’t good at last year.
The first was hitting pitches up in the zone. This is what his whiff rates looked like by zone last year:
So, has he improved? Take a look below to find out.
He’s maybe improved in that middle zone but he really hasn’t gotten better at hitting pitches up in the zone. I pointed out above that he’s barreling up these pitchers harder and more than he did last year, but contact still seems to be an issue and it’s tough to have success at the major league level if you can’t reach one third of the zone.
There’s another issue too. DeJong’s strikeout rate may be down but his whiff rate hasn’t made up a ton of ground. It is down 1.3% from last year but it’s still at 33.9%, which is well above his 27.6% career average and even further above the MLB average of 24.7%.
Make no mistake about it — DeJong still has contact issues. He dropped the leg kick in an effort to steady his view of the pitcher but that hasn’t led to much more contact. At least not yet.
It’s nice to see the uptick in power but if this truly is just a hot streak, is he going to be a solid hitter when he isn’t hitting half of his batted balls over 95 mph? We can only find out.
Why you should believe in Andrew Knizner
Knizner’s numbers still don’t look great overall (85 wRC+, 0.1 fWAR), but he’s really heated up in May with a 145 wRC+. And it shouldn’t surprise you to learn that he’s also hitting the ball harder than he ever has, especially in the last few years.
Andrew Knizner’s Exit Velocities
|Year||Avg Exit Velocity|
|Year||Avg Exit Velocity|
That power has given him 3 home runs in just 20 games this year after hitting only 7 home runs in his first 186 career games. And not only has Knizner’s power increased but there’s a case to be made that he’s actually been unlucky at the plate this year and could have seen even more balls leave the yard.
Knizner actually has 5.2 expected home runs, according to Baseball Savant, with 8 batted balls that would have left the yard in at least one stadium. And if all those batted balls had come at Great American Ballpark in Cincinnati, then Knizner would have 8 homers on the season. But, alas, he plays the majority of his games of Busch Stadium.
The catcher also has a 42.2% hard hit rate, which is almost 7% above his career total. Make no mistake about it - Knizner is hitting the ball consistently hard this year.
His recent success also lines up with the decision to make him the starting catcher. Although his time as the starter may have ended on Monday night with Contreras catching Jack Flaherty, it’s still possible that Knizner will see more time than he has in the past, at least in the near future.
That kind of consistency can help a player as it’s tough to come of the bench at infrequent intervals and never gain any rhythm. As a career backup, this kind of starting time has been somewhat rare but he’s certainly made the most of it this year.
Why you should be skeptical of Andrew Knizner
For starters there’s history as Knizner has been worth -1.7 fWAR in his career and has never ended a season with positive WAR, or even 0 WAR.
Besides that, there are some major red flags in Knizner’s profile. To begin with, he has just a 3.1% walk rate to go with a 27.7% strikeout rate. That’s not a good ratio. And that’s mostly because pitchers have no fear in attacking the zone when Knizner is batting.
55.9% of the pitches he’s seen this year have been in the zone, which is 7.4% more than the average hitter, and he even has a whopping 11.3% meatball rate, which is nearly 4% higher than average. He’s also seeing over 3% fewer pitches on the edge of the zone than the average hitter, which means that pitchers really aren’t scared to attack the zone and even miss over the plate against him.
Yet, with pitchers going right at him, Knizner has put up just an 85 wRC+. That’s gotten better in May but he also hasn’t drawn a single walk in the month so far. That’s a really tough profile for sustained success, especially since Knizner has never shown much with the bat prior to this season. That puts some pressure on him to maintain that newfound exit velocity.
It’s possible that pitchers will start to back off a little if Knizner keeps hitting the way he has been but I imagine he has a ways to go before pitchers change their approach.
Also, despite seeing a lot of hittable pitches, Knizner still has a higher than average whiff rate and below average zone contact rate. That’s just not great overall. Now, keep in mind that these numbers are factoring in his full season and not just the month of May and Knizner has indeed lowered his strikeout rate to 22.9% in May. That’s at least a good sign, but it could simply be a sign of a hit streak and not a breakout.
The argument for both players is similar - they are hitting the ball consistently hard. There’s a little more nuance with DeJong as he’s tweaked his mechanics and is getting some hits on pitches up in the zone but Knizner has also found some additional playing time and some outspoken trust that may have helped him find a rhythm.
However, the argument against both of these players is simple. Past performance matters. So does the fact that DeJong still has some contact issues and that pitchers feel no fear in attacking Knizner over the heart of the plate.
So, I want to hear your verdict. Hot streak or the start of a breakout? I am under no illusions that most of you will likely lean more towards “hot streak” in this debate, and that’s the way I lean as well, but it has been fun to see these players producing and hitting the ball hard.
So vote in the polls and then converse in the comments below. Thanks for reading!
Paul DeJong - Breakout or Hot Streak?
This poll is closed
Andrew Knizner - Breakout or Hot Streak?
This poll is closed