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Thoughts on DeJong’s slump

Should we stop playing DeJong?

MLB: Los Angeles Dodgers at St. Louis Cardinals Zach Dalin-USA TODAY Sports

Paul DeJong is a confusing player. Through 119 PAs, he has a 121 wRC+ and none of it has been lucky. His xwOBA is better than his actual wOBA, his BABIP is still below his career level, his strikeouts and walks are in line with his career. Everything appears to be on the up-and-up. In his previous 813 PAs, DeJong was a 77 wRC+ hitter. He probably “deserved” to be better, but not by much and not even close to a 121 wRC+ or his career level of 98.

Paul DeJong is a simple player. After a hot start to his career, pitchers figured DeJong out and he became an average hitter, good defender. Injuries and/or decline caused DeJong to become a bad hitter. He is still a not very good hitter who was just on a hot streak. Just because that hot streak was sustainable does not mean he is actually a better hitter.

Paul DeJong hasn’t gotten a hit since he got hit by a pitch. He is 0 for his last 23 with just one walk. I have no idea if these two things are related, but it would be a mighty big coincidence if they aren’t at least a little related. Few players need the two off-days more than him, though if he’s actually playing injured, off-days won’t help.

What makes how to treat the DeJong situation difficult is that he doesn’t actually need to be good on offense. From 2020-2021, DeJong had an 86 wRC+ and was worth 1.8 fWAR in 576 PAs. He was pretty damn close to being a dead average player despite being a pretty bad hitter. He was a 101 wRC+ hitter in 2019 and was worth 3.7 fWAR. He won’t get enough PAs, and that was his career best defensive season, but still: he’s a 3 WAR player if he’s an average hitter.

More confusing DeJong information. His xwOBA, as I said was above his actual wOBA. At .353, it would be by far his career high. But uh, well he’s doing this by hitting the least amount of line drives he’s ever had, the most amount of groundballs, a career high number of infield fly balls, and running a career high HR/FB%. And yet his quality of contact suggests he is getting the results he should be getting. What?

He does have the highest hard hit% of his career, which is a tiny bit confusing since his LD% is just 14.7% (career: 20.2%). Of his hard hits, Statcast classifies 12% of them as barrels, which would be a career high. But he did have 10.6% and 9.8% the last two years, both better than his career mark of 9.1%. However, it may very well be as simple as: DeJong is both hitting the ball hard a lot, more than he ever has, and within the sample of those hard hit balls, also hitting the highest percentage of 98+ mph balls off the bat.

Has that changed in his cold streak? It’d be amazing if it didn’t. But he’s been a little unlucky. He hasn’t actually struck out that much comparatively speaking - his 27.3 K% is pretty close to his 26.9 K% for the season. In fact, making contact may be his problem. During his slump he has swung at 29.3% of pitches out of the zone - lower than his season number actually - but making contact on 66% of those pitches. Making contact on pitches out of the zone isn’t necessarily a good thing. His season number is just 49.4%.

He’s also swinging way more at pitches in the zone and making contact off more of those pitches as well. In fact, it’s a little weird his K rate during his slump is basically identical to his K rate during the season given he is making much more contact off pitches both in and out of the zone. So DeJong is swinging at less pitches out of the zone and swinging at more pitches in the zone during his slump. This is good news actually. His swinging strike% is 11.5% which is lower than his season mark of 14.2% and career 12.7%.

His hard hit% did decline during his slump, but he still had three hard hits and a barrel, plus three other balls hit 90+ mph. He got no hits for those six batted balls. The majority of his balls in play are weakly hit, make no mistake. But if you threw a homer (the barrel) and a couple singles in this stretch, well let’s not pretend that isn’t changing the perception of DeJong.

I don’t know how to word this exactly, but the slump specifically is not cause for concern. His history is why you should be concerned. But the slump hasn’t been because of a worse approach or declining contact skills, it’s some bad luck and not as much hard contact. But less hard contact was inevitable anyway because he had a 48% hard contact% before the slump. His career high before that was 40.6%. Unless your expectation was he was going to be the best hitter he’s ever been, he wasn’t going to sustain that.

Even when DeJong was a 123 wRC+ hitter, he wasn’t really a 123 wRC+ hitter. He had a .335 xwOBA, 24 points worse than his actual wOBA. The question isn’t can DeJong be a 121 wRC+ hitter. It’s can he be a 100 wRC+ hitter? People are not going to like DeJong, the 100 wRC+ hitter, because he’s a low average, low OBP player, but that version of DeJong is valuable.

Here’s something kind of funny. Before the season, ZiPS predicted a 2.6 WAR season from DeJong in 480 PAs. With his start and rest of season projection, DeJong is predicted to finish with 2.5 WAR in 410 PAs. It’s fascinating to me that the projection system has the same information as we do, and spits out such an optimistic projection.

I still don’t know what to make of Paul DeJong. There’s not a real statistical case that he’s going to turn back into a pumpkin, oddly enough. You’d think there would be, but there’s not. The Statcast numbers are on his side and the projection is on his side. I’m not sure where I land, but I do think he should continue getting starts for the time being. The Cardinals have four middle infielders, and the outfield is struggling with injuries, and he’s a better bet than Juan Yepez and Oscar Mercado. Or at least has higher upside.

OF Situation

I’m a little confused as to the demands that Jordan Walker be called up if I’m being perfectly honest. He’s being treated as an MLB player who got demoted when he struggled, when I think of him as a AAA player who needs to dominate that league first personally. He hit a homer yesterday, but he still has a below average hitting line. He’s not even close to dominating the league.

The Cardinals are also lucky, or at least have a well constructed team, because they have compiled such middle infield depth that they have four players who deserve to start, at least for now. They’re also lucky two of them are capable outfielders at a time when two starting outfielders are injured. Do I think Tommy Edman and Brendan Donovan are better starting outfielders - hitting and defense combined - than Jordan Walker right now? Yes I do.

If Nootbaar can return on Friday, the reason I didn’t think the Cardinals should start Walker in the MLB in the first place still applies - there are three players starting in the outfield who are (likely) and currently better than Walker. Right now. Maybe not offensively, although they certainly have a case - Donovan definitely does - but the whole package.

Carlson is expected to go on a rehab assignment soon and that’s another reason to not call up Walker. When they call him up, I imagine they don’t want to do it for a week or so. They want to know he’s up for good. A Carlson/Nootbaar/Donovan/Burleson/maybe Edman rotation in the OF will happen soon enough.

I honestly just don’t get the rush. Didn’t get it in spring training, still don’t get it. The Cardinals, even with their injuries, can afford to wait for him to knock down the door. I just don’t see a reason why things would be different this time with Walker, and that would seem to be the bare minimum with a call-up. Despite the homer yesterday, he still has less power than he should. When his ISO rises above .200, then it’s a discussion for me.