Since Ozzie Smith retired after the 1996 season, it seems the Redbirds haven’t really been able to settle on a true “Franchise Shortstop.” While this hasn’t been a crippling pattern — given their two World Series titles in that time — Cardinals fans have seemed eager to finally have an anchor at what is arguably the most important position on the field, after pitchers and catchers. Ozzie was never a great hitter, but he was a fantastic fielder and a now-iconic face of the franchise. Most importantly, Ozzie was an anchor at the shortstop position year in, and year out.
From the start of 1997 until Paul DeJong made his debut in 2017, Cardinals shortstops ranked 11th in the Major Leagues in WAR, which is pretty good, but not the full story. Over that same 21-year period, the Cardinals started twelve different players at shortstop over 100 times, and another nine for a few more games. Included on that list are players who made sizable impressions on the franchise like Edgar Renteria (903 games), World Series hero David Eckstein (398), as well as seasoned veterans Rafael Furcal (171) and Jhonny Peralta (394). However, also on the list of players with 100 starts at shortstop are guys who made little impact (and sometimes negative impact) like Brendan Ryan (415), Tyler Greene (227), Royce Clayton (244), Greg Garcia (162), and — perhaps worst of all — Pete Kozma, who started 275 games.
These 21 men combined to be aggresively average over those 21 years. On the offensive side, they compiled a wRC+ of just 89 (10th), a .707 OPS (13th), and a -10.40 WPA, which is remarkably still 7th in the MLB. They were slightly above average on the basepaths, as they accumulated 26.3 BsR (15th), and 8.6 weighted-Stolen Bases (9th). Finally, defense wasn’t compensating for what their offense wasn’t giving to the team — finishing 16th in Defensive Outs Above Average, 14th in DRS, and a pitiful 24th in UZR. Overall, they weren’t bad, but no one was begging to trade shortstops with the Cardinals.
Then the 2017 season came around, and fans in St. Louis were ready to watch the second season of Aledmys Diaz’s reign as starting shortstop. It only lasted until late-May when Paul DeJong was called up due to an injury to Kolten Wong. By the end of June, DeJong had posted a .505 SLG and 11 XBH over 27 games, forcing the hand of John Mozeliak to keep him in the majors. DeJong continued to improve his offensive numbers throughout the year and finished slashing .285/.325/.532 with 25 home runs and a 122 wRC+ in 108 games.
That winter, Mozeliak pulled the trigger by trading Diaz (and committing to DeJong) to the Blue Jays in return for JB Woodman, a prospect who hasn’t played in a single game this year after an underwhelming season in high-A Palm Beach in 2018. DeJong meanwhile, has experienced both huge success in some aspects, while seeing considerable growing pains in others.
Defensively, DeJong has gone far above all expectations. As a prospect, he was given a 40 grade for both his fielding and throwing with little room to grow, as his “potential grades” were 45 and 40, respectively — meaning he wasn’t supposed to be anything more than an average shortstop at best. That’s exactly what was indicitive of DeJong’s first season in the majors, as he tallied -1 DRS, 12 errors (four fielding, eight throwing), and just a 3.3 UZR/150. However, DeJong seems to have worked tirelessly at improving his defense since 2017, as he has even emerged as an elite defensive shortstop to this point in 2019.
At this point in mid-August, DeJong leads all Major League shortstops in defensive Outs Above Average with 14.4. His UZR/150 has shot up to 9.4 — good for 4th in the Majors. Most significantly, what about that 40-grade arm of his? Well, he’s only given away one throwing error all season.
On the bases, DeJong has proven to be exactly what the last 21 starting shortstops have been: serviceable. Again, DeJong was never expected to be much of a threat on the bases with just a 40-rating for his running ability as a prospect. However, one significant detail to notice is DeJong’s spring speed. While it is down this year from previous years, he’s still ranked above 65.5% of the Majors in baserunning ability, according to StatCast.
DeJong has proven himself to be not only serviceable on defense, but that he could be nearing “elite” status with sustained success at this current level. His baserunning is good enough. The only question is can his bat get the job done?
Simply put: absolutely.
While he’s been in and out of significant slumps over his time in the majors, one thing has been key: his underlying numbers seem to keep improving.
The biggest issue many fans and analysts had with DeJong when he first came up was his plate discipline. He struck out a ton, and never walked — highlighted by his 2017 K% of 28.0% and BB% of 4.7%. However, over the last two seasons, DeJong has vastly improved both of those numbers, as he now stands at a 21.0% K-rate and an 8.7% BB-rate for 2019. He’s cut-down on his whiff-rate against nearly every pitch type, as well. Since 2017, his whiff% against fastballs has dropped 1.6%, change-up whiff% has dropped 3.3%, and his breaking-ball whiff% has dropped a massive 6.4%. He’s not only more disciplined, he’s making contact far more often.
His improved contact-rate and plate discipline can also be seen by his overall numbers. He’s swinging at 4% fewer pitches out of the zone, but making contact with 1.8% more of his swings out of the zone. He’s being more selective inside the zone as well, having dropped 2.4% off of his Z-Swing% and still making contact on 3.9% more of those swings. All-in-all, DeJong has developed a much more selective eye at the plate as he swings at just 47.7% of pitches (51.6% in 2017), while making contact at a 77.5% clip (74.2% in 2017). While those improvements of less than 5.0% don’t seem like much, it quickly adds up when facing nearly 2000 pitches per season.
Another significant point of improvement in DeJong’s hitting is his ability to make solid contact. During his rookie year, DeJong hit 36.4% of his batted balls over 95 MPH (hard hit), while 21.4% of his batted balls were classified as “soft”, according to FanGraphs. Last year, he was able to shave off some of those “soft-hit” balls and replace them with medium-range exit velocities, then has continued that trend by turning them into hard-hit missiles. In 2019, he has increased his hard-hit% to an impressive 43.2%, while keeping his soft-hit% down to just 18.6%.
So how does this correlate to DeJong’s success and improvement? Because, as you would expect, the better his hard-hit%, the better he hits. Below is a graph displaying his hard-hit% to his wRC+.
As you can see, there’s almost a perfect correlation between the two. Further, there seems to be another direct correlation between his contact rate (which we’ve seen grows with his continually improving plate discipline) and his hard-hit rate.
These are remarkably positive signs that DeJong can continue to improve as a hitter as he starts to enter his prime years.
Paul DeJong may just be the shortstop we’ve been searching for in Cardinals Nation for over 20 years. His defense has not stopped improving since his debut. His offense, despite his slumps, shows numerous signs of vast improvement as he continues to grow. Only time will really tell if he becomes the player we hope, but more signs seem to be showing DeJong as the shortstop of the future in St. Louis.
Featured Image: usatoday.com