Good afternoon. Here’s the next installment of my series on Cardinal Fan Anxieties for 2022. Today I’ll take a look at the new Matt Carpenter … that would be Paul DeJong.
Why is DeJong the next Carpenter? Well … with Carpenter gone, DeJong clearly has moved into the top spot as the object of obsession among Cardinals.
In something of a tradition, Cardinal fans usually hate on one player far more than any other, and with Carpenter out of the way DeJong is the No. 1 source of fury and loathing.
With some, the fixation is bizarre … and humorous. In a recent chat at STLtoday, baseball writer Derrick Goold was accused of writing a company-line propaganda piece on DeJong to curry favor with team management – which was 100 percent false, of course. But as was the case with Carpenter, a percentage of Cardinal fans become instantly irrational at any non-hostile, non-loony mention of DeJong.
What was Goold’s crime? He wrote an insightful, informative and completely objective story on how DeJong is in Florida, working with a hitting coach from outside the organization to cultivate a better swing and mental outlook with the goal of improving his offensive performance. Oh the horror. Has Goold been sentenced to prison yet? What’s taking so long?
Let’s get started …
THE PREMISE: According to social-media attack dogs, those who reside in online forums, and the folks that wanted to see Bill DeWitt Jr. spend $300 million on free-agent shortstop Corey Seager, DeJong is (A) the worst shortstop in baseball who (B) must be released or traded or perhaps sent away to spend the rest of his life working in the salt mines.
Perhaps a slight exaggeration but … let’s frame it this way: the BFIB want an upgrade at the shortstop position.
REALITY CHECK: Here are three true statements, all based on stats and facts: (1) DeJong’s offense has gradually declined since the end of his 2017 rookie season, and he tumbled to career lows in 2021; (2) DeJong is well above average defensively at shortstop, and proved that again last year; and (3) DeJong provides value despite his increasing struggles at the plate.
In order, here are the specifics:
– Using park-and-league adjusted runs created (wRC+), DeJong was 23 percent above the league average offensively in 2017. His offense came in two percent above average across the next two seasons, 2018 and 2019. But DeJong has cratered over the last two years, performing at 14 percent below league average offensively in 576 plate appearances since the start of the 2020 season. In 2021 DeWitt bottomed out with a .197 average, .284 onbase percentage, and .390 slug. Among MLB shortstops that have at least 570 plate appearances over the last two seasons, DeJong ranks last in batting average (.213), 19th in OBP (.296), 17th in slugging (.375) and 19th in OPS (.671.) He did have 19 homers last year but that did not offset the starkness of his overall decline.
– About his defense: DeJong was credited with six defensive runs saved last season, which was tied for 10th among MLB shortstops. That’s impressive considering that DeJong ranked 22nd among shortstops with 873 innings last year. Since the start of the 2018 season DeJong is sixth among MLB shortstops with 36 defensive runs saved. Cardinals starting pitchers have the second-highest ground-ball rate in the majors since the start of ‘18, and DeJong’s defense is important and should not be overlooked. DeJong and Edmundo Sosa combined for 14 defensive runs saved last season.
– Since joining the Cardinals early in 2017 after his promotion from Triple A Memphis, DeJong ranks 11th among MLB shortstops with 12.8 WAR. (That’s using the FanGraphs version of Wins Above Replacement.) DeJong had 1.6 WAR last season despite his ailments at the plate.
IS THERE HOPE FOR PAULY OFFENSIVELY? If you sort through all of the negative trends at Statcast – and there are quite a few – you can spot some positives including a 10.6% barrel rate in 2021 that was the best of his career. That put him in the 70th percentile, and that’s good. But DeJong lags in a number of areas including average exit velocity and hard-hit rate. That said, his exit velocity and hard-hit rate are the same as always – close to what we saw during some of his best times as a hitter. To sum up his strengths and weaknesses as a hitter, I’ll make it simple: he’s still effective against four–seam fastballs and sinkers, mediocre at best vs. sliders, and flat-out awful against curveballs and changeups. I think there’s always some hope for a guy who can barrel high-velo type pitches, and last season had a .452 slug against four-seamers and a .569 slug vs sinkers. One other thing: DeJong had a .216 average on balls in play last season – a sign of bad batted-ball luck.
WHAT CAN DEJONG DO? Better anticipation when at the plate. As DeJong phrased it to Goold when describing one flaw: “too reactive instead of proactive.” That puts him in a bad spot and gets him off balance against breaking pitches and offspeed stuff. That could explain DeJong’s high ground-ball rate and his weakness against certain pitches on two-strike counts. Last season when hitting with two strikes DeJong batted .085 against sliders, .100 vs. changeups, and .158 on curves. He’s also too eager to pull the ball instead of hitting it up the middle or going to the opposite field, and pitchers have exploited that. DeJong is a smart guy. But is he a smart hitter? And there is a difference.
As Goold noted, Cardinals hitting coach Jeff Albert and DeJong’s offseason instructor Lorenzo Garmendia have emphasized the same thing: a more consistent routine. DeJong messes himself up by constantly changing his hitting mechanics, and he has a damaging habit of overthinking things.
As DeJong told Goold: “One of Jeff Albert’s big things — especially with me — we talked a lot about my inconsistency with my routine, and that he thinks I need a consistent routine to be a consistent hitter. Lorenzo has really helped me with his program to have a good routine. I can execute it every day. (Before) it was: ‘What am I feeling today?’ ”
THE OPTIONS: The Cardinals are highly unlikely to go outside the organization to bring in a shortstop of impact. They have three guys that can be part of a rotation in DeJong, Sosa and Tommy Edman. Another middle infielder, prospect Brendan Donovan, is tracking his way to the majors. Sosa had a fine 2021 season that was augmented by a .326 average on batted balls in play. In 2021 Sosa hit for a much higher average (.271) and turned in a much higher OBP (.346) than DeJong but didn’t hit for more power than DeJong. And both are strong offensively. Both bat right-handed – and both hit better against RH pitching than left-handed pitching. If we’re talking platoon here, Edman would be the smartest choice against LH pitchers.
WHAT ABOUT A TRADE? I don’t enjoy playing Fantasy GM, so I apologize for declining to concoct a bunch of make-believe trade scenarios. The Cardinals owe DeJong $15 million over this season and next, plus team options for 2024 and 2025. (They can buy DeJong out of the ‘24 option for the cost of $2 million.) If a team has a clear need for a shortstop that can provide very good defense and some pop, DeJong’s contract isn’t onerous. If you include the buyout, a team that wants to acquire DeJong would be paying an average of $8.5 million per year. I believe he’d benefit from a fresh start elsewhere, if indeed that’s a realistic possibility. Busch Stadium unplugs his power in an alarming way. More on that in a minute …
THE CONCLUSION: The front office is determined to give DeJong the opportunity to rebound offensively, and he’ll receive plenty of playing time. Part of management’s justification is the injury excuse; last season DeJong was out from May 13 through June 10 with a rib injury, and his hitting improved, but only somewhat, after returning. DeJong batted .177 with a .648 OPS before the injury and .207 with a .688 after his IL stay. But if DeJong continues to be a drag on the offense – well, then what? How long will manager Oli Marmol stay with DeJong? Mike Shildt had Sosa buried on the bench for the first two months of 2021, but leaned on Sosa extensively after Sosa batted .293 with a .769 OPS during DeJong’s time on the IL. Maybe this will work out. I don’t rule out a DeJong revival; as recently as 2019 he hit 30 homers and slugged .444 and he’s still only 28 years old. Can he get back there again?
SOMETHING YOU MUST KNOW: In 210 plate appearances on the road last season, DeJong slugged .488, had a .775 OPS and homered every 12.1 at-bats. In 192 plate appearances at Busch Stadium last season DeJong slugged .301, had a .582 OPS and homered every 37.2 at-bats.
In his MLB career, DeJong has slugged 49 points higher on the road (.467) than at home (.418.) And his home-run rate is twice as good away from Busch Stadium. He’s homered every 30 at-bats at home compared to a homer every 15.6 at-bats on the road.
Maybe Pauly should be the road-trip shortstop in 2022.
MY UNPOPULAR OPINION: Unless you’ve been sniffing household cleaning products and have convinced yourself that Carlos Correa will be a Cardinal a few weeks from now, DeJong will be prominent in the playlist rotation in 2022. But here’s what we need to remember: if the lineup performs up to capabilities, it isn’t a problem to have a shortstop who is above average defensively and below average offensively … especially if he’s only slightly below average offensively. After the All-Star break last season the Cardinals ranked 5th in the majors in batting average, slugging, OPS and wRC+ and were eighth in OBP. And we must always remember that this pitching staff is heavily dependent on infielders making plays and saving runs. DeJong isn’t ideal. But a minority of the BFIB are blowing their fuse boxes over DeJong, and the fervor is excessive. But I do agree with on this much: if DeJong does worse offensively in 2022, then this can evolve into a more prominent problem. Part of that has to do with the overall state of the STL offense next season.
PROBABILITY: The fans that flatly reject the idea of DeJong as the starting shortstop in 2022 have a 49 percent chance of being right. That percentage can rise or fall — depending on how he hits. And I’ll offer this olive branch: if DeJong ain’t hitting and he’s taking away at-bats from more capable hitters at DH, then I’ll stand with you and howl. But my frustration would be more about the manager and/or front office that declines to put its best lineup to work.
Thanks for reading …
Bernie invites you to listen to his opinionated sports-talk show on 590-AM The Fan, KFNS. 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 “Bernie Show” podcast at 590thefan.com — the 590 app works great and is available in your preferred app store.
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All stats used here are sourced from FanGraphs, Baseball Reference, Stathead, Bill James Online, Fielding Bible, Baseball Savant and Brooks Baseball Net unless otherwise noted.
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.