Here’s another installment in my series of assessments of intriguing and important Cardinals in the runup to the 2021 season.

Today:shortstop Paul DeJong

There’s no way for me to confirm this, but I sense that Paul DeJong isn’t as appreciated as he should be by the Best Fans In Baseball. 

Let’s call it the “DeJong Disconnect.”

Just for kicks I took a look at some online forums and comments sections and saw DeJong portrayed as an “ordinary” or “serviceable” shortstop who lacks range. This is inaccurate bordering on absurd.  

There seems to be a general view that DeJong is a decent hitter, maybe a pretty good hitter — but should be better. Look, there’s some truth to that. I think PDJ could be a more effective hitter too. If you want to see more consistency and sustained power from DeJong, I’m with you. 

But I politely submit this question: if you have a Top 10 or 11 MLB shortstop who provides above-average defense and hits for power … well, what’s the problem? This looks like a case of being disappointed in a guy for what we think he should be … instead of valuing him for what he is

Since his promotion to the big club early in 2017, let’s look at where DeJong ranks among MLB shortstops in multiple categories.  And the offensive numbers are based on a minimum of 1,500 plate appearances at shortstop from 2017-2020. 

The DeJong File since 2017

  • 11th among 26 shortstops in the FanGraphs version of WAR, 11.1 
  • Tied for 6th in homers, 77
  • 7th in RBI
  • 10th in slugging percentage (.455)
  • 10th in OPS, .774
  • 11th in park-adjusted runs created
  • 14th in onbase percentage, .319
  • No. 3 in Defensive Runs Saved, with 38. Only Andrelton Simmons and Nick Ahmed have more DRS. But from 2018 through 2020, only Ahmed had more DRS than DeJong among shortstops. 

DeJong put this profile together despite having his 2018 season interrupted and damaged by a broken hand — and being weakened by Covid-19 last season. 

More on DeJong’s defense: The Fielding Bible has a plus-minus system that tracks plays made based on a fielder’s range. It tracks the plays he should have made as well as plays he should have made but didn’t. 

As a shortstop DeJong is +20 to his right in his career, +27 to his left, +3 straight on, +3 on balls in the air. So if we just combine DeJong’s left-right range, he’s a plus 47. 

Recapping … and appreciating: second in the 2017 National League Rookie of the Year voting … an NL All-Star in 2019 … third at his position in Defensive Runs Saved over four seasons …+47 on balls hit to his left or right … a Gold Glove finalist in 2019 … tied for 6th in homers and 10th in slugging and 10th in OPS among shortstops … 11th in fWAR among shortstops. 

Superb value for the dollar: And over that time, DeJong hasn’t made more than $1.667 million in salary during a season. In fact, starting with 2021, he’ll average $6.4 million in salary per season through 2023. After that, the Cardinals have more expensive options on DeJong, or can buy him out. But that’s irrelevant right now. 

DeJong has provided, at his worst, an average performance offensively — and an elite performance defensively. And he’s been paid salaries that represent excellent value for the Cardinals. 

So again, what’s the problem?  DeJong isn’t Francisco Lindor, Fernando Tatis Jr. or Trevor Story. He isn’t Trea Turner, Marcus Semien or Xander Bogaerts. He doesn’t have the long-term upside of a Gleyber Torres, Bo Bichette or Adalberto Mondesi. 

But if we use fWAR among shortstops since 2017 as a gauge, DeJong is virtually even with Cory Seager and Didi Gregorious and only 1.1 fWAR behind Javier Baez. Staying with fWAR, DeJong since ‘17 is ahead of a bunch of shortstops including Carlos Correa, Jorge Polanco, Tim Anderson, Brandon Crawford and Dansby Swanson. And PDJ is doing this at a bargain-salary rate. 

It’s just that we think he should be better, right? 

We don’t see all of those acrobatic, showman-turn “web gems” from DeJong, so he can’t be anything more than a functional shortstop. 

We’d like to see more homers and fewer strikeouts and a reduction of cold streaks at the plate. 

And that part is fair. DeJong has a pattern of getting off to hot starts, then cooling rapidly. For his career, DeJong has a .492 slugging percentage and .861 OPS over the first two months of the season. And over the final four months, he’s posted a .444 slug and .747 OPS. 

The disparity is actually more pronounced than that; based on park-adjusted runs created (wRC+) DeJong has been 30 percent above league average offensively during the first two months and just below average (3%) over the final four months. 

So yeah, sure, we’d like to see more balance and fewer fluctuations over a six-month season. But even if his overall offense is a tad below average, DeJong is a plus defender with a sturdy slugging percentage. And DeJong’s cool-down trend could be alleviated, at least somewhat, if manager Mike Shildt gives his shortstop more rest. 

But I agree with those who want to see DeJong reverse a larger trend, and pull his numbers up instead of having them drift downward. Here’s what I mean by that, and I’ll use OPS+ as a measure.

Remember, 100 is considered average: 

2017: OPS+ 121

2018: OPS+ 101

2019: OPS+ 99

2020: OPS+ 84 

I toss out last year’s down-year offensive performance; DeJong never regained full vigor after his bout with the virus. But I think this is fair: PDJ is 27, a veteran of four MLB seasons, and if he’s capable of raising his offensive numbers, now is the time. 

The reality of 2021: With an outfield that has many questions about its offensive capability, the Cardinals need DeJong to be at his career-best level at the plate this coming season.

If Shildt puts him second in the lineup, DeJong would have to get on base and set up run-producing opportunities for Paul Goldschmidt and Nolan Arenado. If DeJong bats fifth, he’d have the chance to cash in two hitters-runners (Goldy, NA) who get on base at a healthy rate. 

About the lineup, a quick aside: Though DeJong has improved his walk rate over the last two seasons –he’s just under 10% — I’m not fired up about him batting No. 2. It’s all about his .318 OBP over the past three seasons. But that’s just me fussing; if DeJong hits and flourishes, Shildt can put him anywhere. I like him batting 5th in part because of his career numbers there; 417 plate appearances, 22 homers, .477 slug, .794 OPS and nine percent above the league average in park adjusted runs created.

Another view of Dejong: Anthony Castrovince of MLB.com named DeJong as the shortstop on the “All Underrated Team” going into 2021. 

“We are in a golden age of shortstop stars,” Castrovince wrote, “so there’s no shame in not cracking the Top 10. (Heck, Marcus Semien didn’t crack it just one year after finishing third in the American League MVP Award voting). But DeJong is worth highlighting here. He’s run into some bad luck since his runner-up finish in the National League Rookie of the Year Award voting in 2017 — first with a power-sapping broken hand in ’18 and then with a Covid-19 battle in ’20. He’s also been miscast at times as a middle-of-the-order hitter in a Cardinals lineup that lacked length. But if we strike the Covid-affected 2020 season from the record, we see a guy who put up excellent defensive metrics in ’19 with league-average offense and an improved walk rate. DeJong should benefit from the Nolan Arenado addition, and both the ZiPS and Steamer projections see him as a Top-12 shortstop in WAR in ’21.”

Thanks for reading … 

–Bernie 

Check out Bernie’s 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 live online and download the Bernie Show podcast at 590thefan.com  … the 590 app works great and is available in your preferred app store.