St. Louis Cardinals: Please leave Paul DeJong alone
Paul DeJong has been a godsend for the 2017 St. Louis Cardinals, but he’s struggled recently due to some changes in his approach. What’s different and how can it be fixed?
It was nearly midnight in Ljubljana, Slovenia and I was just about ready to go to bed. The St. Louis Cardinals were in the midst of a terrible four-week stretch that would see them go 5-18, while I was abroad. Colorado was soundly beating them 8-3 on this night.
Against all my best judgement, I decided to stay up and watch the 9th inning of that game for one reason. Paul DeJong would be making his Major League debut and I wanted to be able to say that I watched it.
I’ll bet you all remember what came next, but I remember yelling loudly and feeling personally rewarded when DeJong launched a 1-0 Greg Holland fastball high into the Colorado afternoon sky for his first “Show” homer.
I remember exactly where I was when Oscar Taveras hit his first homer, when Carlos Martinez threw his first pitch, and when Trevor Rosenthal recorded his first strikeout in Milwaukee. Watching DeJong hit his first home run felt like another moment to add into my ever-growing repository of “First Flashes by Potentially Great Cardinals.”
Since then, Paul DeJong has turned into the greatest thing since sliced bread for a St. Louis Cardinals team desperately needing a player like him to emerge. He currently leads the team in home runs, slugging %, and ISO, not to mention that he has played the majority of games the last two months, filling a previously deep void as the #3 hitter in the St. Louis lineup.
But as I’ve watched and marveled at the Cardinals’ shortstop during his short tenure thus far, one thing has kept jumping out at me.
Paul DeJong was born to hit fastballs.
This first jumped out at me during one specific at bat in July. DeJong was in the midst of a mini-slump. From July 8th until July 16th, Delong struggled through a hitless one-week stretch with a K rate of 46% and an alarming pull rate of 81.4%.
Usually, when a player comes up to the big leagues, it takes about 2 weeks for pitchers to figure out how to attack said player. The week I just mentioned was two weeks into DeJong’s second stint with the Cardinals, having just been recalled from Memphis. The proverbial book on how to pitch him was out for everyone to read.
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DeJong was seeing more off-speed stuff than he initially had during his first stint with St. Louis in late May, and it was causing him to pull off the baseball, hence the elevated pull rate.
Pulling off the baseball means a hitter lets his front hip fly open when swinging, which lengthens the bat path and makes it virtually impossible to hit anything that isn’t a foot and a half inside.
In layman’s terms, DeJong couldn’t hit any outside pitches and that’s all he was getting.
During the 6th inning of a July 17th game vs the Mets and Zack Wheeler, DeJong busted out of his mini-slump in homer-iffic fashion. I distinctly remember watching him work the count to 3-2 and then saying the exact words, “don’t throw him a fastball.”
Coming from someone who isn’t a stranger to a hitting slump, the first cure is to hunt fastballs. Looking for fastballs completely simplifies your approach at the plate and keeps you from thinking. It allows you to specifically time one pitch and be ready to attack it, and Paul DeJong was clearly locked into this approach during his 6th inning encounter with Wheeler.
Wheeler threw a 3-2 fastball, fouled straight back by Delong. He was right on it, but just a hair underneath the pitch. It was a fantastic swing by a struggling player, and even though I had a feeling DeJong would strike out on the next pitch, the at-bat felt like a victory just because of that 3-2 swing.
As fate would have it, Wheeler threw DeJong another 3-2 fastball and Pauly Walnuts hammered it over the right center fence for a two run home run.
Of the two home runs that I’ve mentioned, neither really has anything in common with the other, except for the fact that both went over a fence and counted as positive scoring for the Cardinals. However, the thing I want to single out in each situation is the count.
1-0 and 3-2 are both favorable fastball counts for a hitter, and DeJong mashes in those counts because he can zero in and hunt a fastball. Of his twenty-two home runs during the 2017 season, twelve have come either in a 1-0 or 3-2 count. In these two counts, he slashes .292/.358/.690 with a 155 WRC+ and a monstrous .398 ISO.
DeJong even confirmed his approach in an interview with Fangraphs writer David Laurila saying, “I’m looking for a fastball to hit, early in the count – I’m aggressive…those are the balls I hit for extra bases.”
DeJong’s aggressive tendency bears out in numbers along with words. His swing% of 53.1% places him 20th among all players in baseball with more than 350 AB’s and his walk rate of 3.2% is the 5th worst in baseball among players with more than 350 AB’s.
Now, we all know that DeJong doesn’t walk, strikes out in bunches, and swings aggressively. But, the question about that is not whether it’s working for him, it’s whether or not it’s a sustainable approach.
In order to have the profile of an above average Major League hitter, while sporting a walk rate below 5% and a strikeout rate above 25%, means that one has to produce consistent quality contact.
DeJong’s significantly above average BABIP of .355 suggests a significant rate of luck this season. His soft contact rate of 20% bears out that sentiment, placing him in the bottom fourth of the Major Leagues in producing soft contact.
From the time of his second recall from Memphis until August 24th, DeJong was slugging .614, sporting a hard contact rate of 43% and a WRC+ of 155. This period, I believe, is peak Paul DeJong; low walk rate, high strikeout rate, but doing damage when he made contact.
Interestingly, from August 25th through last night, DeJong’s overall offensive numbers have gone down as his K rate has gone down. Through August 24th, DeJong’s K rate was 29.8%, since then it has dropped to 21.6%.
In theory, fewer strikeouts would be a good thing however, as DeJong’s strikeout rate has dropped, his soft contact rate has risen from 16.7% to 27.3% and his hard contact rate has declined from 43% to 33.3%, leading to a WRC+ drop from 155 to 84.
Paul DeJong’s offensive approach is specific and, when done right, highly successful. In a perfect world, he would be able to walk more and strikeout less while maintaining his high rate of hard contact. But we don’t live in a perfect world, and if DeJong has to sport a higher K rate in order to consistently be able to drive the baseball and do damage, that is imperative to his overall success.
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So, to whoever is telling Paul DeJong to cut down on his swing in order to avoid striking out so much, please leave him alone. Let the strikeouts happen and reap the benefits of your starting shortstop being able to more consistently barrel baseballs.