Each time Cardinals shortstop Paul DeJong does something big in a game, I shake my head and laugh at myself for thinking he was 100 percent done. And I know that many of you gave up on him, too. And there were many reasons to feel that way. Let’s be honest about this, right?
Wednesday night, with the Cardinals needing a win to take their three-game series from the Brewers, DeJong connected on a cutter delivered by Brewers starter Corbin Burnes and smashed it to the berm beyond the center field wall for a two-run homer that expanded the Cardinal lead from 1-0 to 3-0.
DeJong’s sixth inning blow struck against Burnes’ most devastating pitch gave the Cardinals some extra security, essentially put the Brewers away, and clinched a series triumph.
DeJong struck out on a Burnes cutter in the fourth inning with the bases loaded and no outs. This put his rabid haters into their usual state of arousal from the fake tough-guy spots on the internet.
DeJong has been whiffing too much lately – which has become an obsession with the hostels – and he owns a 27.4 percent strikeout rate in 73 plate appearances this season.
But if there’s an acceptable tradeoff, so bleeping what? You can put up with strikeouts as long as the player is doing valuable things for his team.
Here’s where DeJong ranks among Cardinals that have a minimum 70 plate appearances this year:
Home run ratio: DeJong has homered every 14.6 at-bats, second to Nolan Gorman’s AB/HR ratio of 12.7. Dejong has more home runs (5) than Willson Contreras, Tyler O’Neill, Dylan Carlson and Lars Nootbaar.
Batting average: DeJong’s .288 mark is second to Paul Goldschmidt (.306.)
Onbase percentage: DeJong’s .356 OBP is fourth-best among Cardinals, putting him behind Lars Nootbaar, Goldschmidt and Gorman.
Slugging percentage: DeJong’s .561 slug is second to Gorman’s .583.
OPS: DeJong’s .917 OPS ranks third, with only Gorman (.961) and Goldschmidt (.918) ahead of him.
Adjusted OPS: DeJong’s 150 OPS+ is 50 percent above league average offensively. That puts him third among Cardinals, following Gorman (162 OPS+) and Goldschmidt (153 OPS+.)
wRC+: In this park-and-league adjusted metric, 100 is league average. DeJong has 151 wRC+, trailing only Gorman (160) and Goldy (155.)
Runners in scoring position: DeJong has a 1.055 OPS in these situations, ranking third to Nootbaar (1.321) and Gorman (1.193.)
Playing Defense: Despite playing only 158.2 innings at shortstop so far this season, DeJong is a plus-two defensive runs saved. That ranks 12th among major-league shortstops – which is impressive because 32 shortstops have logged more innings than DeJong. By the way, Tommy Edman is a minus one in defensive runs saved at shortstop this season.
Since the start of the 2019 season, DeJong ranks third among MLB shortstops with 37 defensive runs saved. For several reasons, DeJong’s defensive ability is especially valuable to the 2023 Cardinals.
Here’s why: with DeJong handling the shortstop position and playing above-average defense there, that provides the flexibility to move Tommy Edman around. He’s started games at shortstop, second base and right field. And with Nolan Gorman rating as an-above average second baseman this season (per Fielding Bible), this frees Edman to play right field if he’s needed there. Given the outfield injuries and disappointing offensive performances – except for Nootbaar – it’s a bonus to have Edman available to help.
I really don’t think we’ve grasped DeJong’s true importance to this team.
I don’t think we’ve fully appreciated what he’s doing for the Cardinals.
DeJong is a very good defensive shortstop. He’s also one of best-hitting shortstops in the majors in 2023. Yes. He really is. Facts: Among MLB shortstops that have at least 70 plate appearances at the position this season, DeJong ranks 2nd in slugging, 3rd in OPS, 7th in batting average and 9th ninth OBP.
So what’s the problem?
Please. Among big-league shortstops DeJong’s strikeout rate is roughly the same as Trea Turner’s, lower than Brandon Crawford’s and not much higher than that of Willy Adames, Francisco Lindor and Carlos Correa.
Most of us expected little or nothing from DeJong this season – myself included. Instead, he’s emerged as one of the more productive Cardinals on the team. And his defense has given the Cardinals a chance to move other pieced around. And that’s an opinion supported by all of the statistics that matter offensively and defensively. Sure, DeJong must prove that he can keep doing this. That’s the challenge of baseball, especially for hitters that have been down for a few years.
And I won’t lie to you; I’m somewhat skeptical about DeJong’s chances of maintaining his fantastic restart. While he’s batting .400 with a .733 slugging percentage against four-seam fastballs, he’s had struggles against breaking balls and offspeed stuff. Keep an eye on that.
To this point DeJong’s hitting revival is no fluke. In 2021 DeJong had a hard-hit rate of 35.3 percent. Last season it was 37.6%. This season, his hard-hit rate is 52.2 percent, second only to Goldschmidt (54.6%) among Cardinals.
Last summer DeJong had a hot month and faded away. Yes, I’m well aware of that. But that version of DeJong didn’t hit the ball hard, and it was a key factor in why he weakened.
DeJong spent this past offseason working hard on changing his batting stance, swing, and approach … and the modifications have made a massive difference.
The 2023 version of DeJong is hitting rockets, demonstrating better plate discipline, punishing more pitches in the strike zone, doing a much better job against fastballs, and not pulling pitches as much as he’s done in the past.
He’s hitting more baseballs to the middle section of the field, and that’s part of his rehabilitation as a hitter. Last season DeJong put 20 percent of his batted balls in the middle. This season nearly 33 percent of his batted balls have gone middle, and have produced a .533 batting average.
With the substantial hard-hit increase, DeJong has a .413 average on balls in play. Last season, with a much lower hard-hit rate, his batting average on balls in play was a sickly .252.
DeJong’s improvements aren’t accidental. They’re mostly the result of the changes he made last offseason. He’s found what he’s been looking for.
Here’s what I think: why not respect and enjoy what he’s doing? If it doesn’t last, fine. At least he helped the Cardinals get out of their horrendous start to the season. During the team’s current 8-2 run, DeJong has slugged .546, posted an .870 OPS driven home five runs and socked three homers and a double.
During the here and the now it seems like a sad waste of brain power and energy to nitpick or otherwise downgrade a veteran Cardinal who worked his arse off to do his part to make his team better. I can’t even comprehend what it must have been like for DeJong to fail repeatedly over multiple years and try to maintain his confidence with so many of us doubting him. But he had the strength of character to get through it. This is a helluva story.
Thanks for reading …
Bernie invites you to listen to his sports-talk show on 590 The Fan, KFNS-AM. It airs Monday through Thursday from 3-6 p.m. and Friday from 4-6 p.m. You can listen by streaming online or by downloading the show podcast at 590thefan.com or the 590 app.
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All stats used in my baseball columns are sourced from FanGraphs, Baseball Reference, Baseball Savant, Bill James Online and Baseball Prospectus.
For the last 35 years Bernie Miklasz has entertained, enlightened, and connected with generations of St. Louis sports fans.
While best known for his voice as the lead sports columnist at the Post-Dispatch for 26 years, Bernie has also written for The Athletic, Dallas Morning News and Baltimore News American. Bernie has hosted radio shows in St. Louis, Dallas, Baltimore and Washington D.C.
Bernie, his wife Kirsten and their cats reside in the Skinker-DeBaliviere neighborhood of St. Louis.