The implausible rise of St. Louis Cardinals’ shortstop Paul DeJong

PHOENIX, ARIZONA - SEPTEMBER 23: Paul DeJong #12 of the St. Louis Cardinals turns a double play on a ground ball hit by Abraham Almonte #48 of the Arizona Diamondbacks as Nick Ahmed #13 slides into second base during the sixth inning at Chase Field on September 23, 2019 in Phoenix, Arizona. (Photo by Norm Hall/Getty Images)
PHOENIX, ARIZONA - SEPTEMBER 23: Paul DeJong #12 of the St. Louis Cardinals turns a double play on a ground ball hit by Abraham Almonte #48 of the Arizona Diamondbacks as Nick Ahmed #13 slides into second base during the sixth inning at Chase Field on September 23, 2019 in Phoenix, Arizona. (Photo by Norm Hall/Getty Images) /

St. Louis Cardinals’ infielder Paul DeJong has become a stunning glove success after moving from third base. Where did this success come from?

The St. Louis Cardinals’ Paul DeJong is the major league’s most unlikely slick-fielding shortstop, with yet another metric, Statcast’s Outs Above Average (OAA), confirming his above-average glove work in 2019.

Not bad for a converted third baseman who played just one game at shortstop from the 2013 college season to the tail-end of the 2016 minor-league season, and then only moved to shortstop because, as Baseball America reported, “the Cardinals didn’t really have another option” at the position.

At Illinois State, DeJong played second base, third base, catcher, right field, designated hitter — and once at shortstop. He didn’t become a full-time minor-league shortstop till 2017, when he played the position for a little more than a month at Memphis before his call-up on May 28. That year, he started 85 Cardinals games at shortstop and 19 at second base.

Two years later, DeJong had established himself as one of the premier shortstops in all of baseball. Which is the reverse of the way it usually works. Often, a hot prospect begins as a shortstop before being shuttled to another position in the minors. Here are just a few of the stars originally drafted as shortstops:

• Third basemen Mike Schmidt, George Brett, Wade Boggs. Schmidt played primarily at short and second his first two years in the minors. Brett played 47 out of 67 games at shortstop in rookie league ball. A high school shortstop, Boggs would have played shortstop for the University of South Carolina had he not signed with the Red Sox, where he was immediately shunted to third.

• Outfielders Tim Raines, Mookie Betts. While selected as a shortstop, Raines spent most of four minor-league seasons at second before breaking in as an outfielder with the Expos in 1981. Betts, likewise, moved to second base in the minors and then to the outfield in the majors.

• Pitcher Trevor Hoffman. The Hall of Fame reliever briefly followed the same path as his nine-years-older brother, Glenn Hoffman, a Boston Red Sox shortstop in the 1980s. His first two years in the Reds organization, Trevor played 122 games at short and 41 at third base, but didn’t hit. He was converted to a pitcher as a 23-year-old in 1991.

Cal Ripken Jr. is one of the few who, like DeJong, inverted the usual formula, becoming a successful big-league shortstop after playing 278 minor league games at third and 174 at short. He flipped that combination his first two seasons with the Orioles, starting 99 games at short and 69 at third before becoming a full-time shortstop in 1983.

The Dodgers’ Bill Russell made a more unlikely switcheroo in going from the outfield to shortstop in 1972. Russell had been a part-time right fielder and center fielder for three years before settling in at short, where he played at a high level for the next 11 years.

While others have moved to shortstop after playing a different big-league position, most were shortstops by training. Manny Machado, for instance, started 202 of his 206 minor-league games at short before playing third for the Orioles from 2012 to 2016 due to the presence of J.J. Hardy, a three-time Gold Glove-winner, in the No. 6 position. The Cubs’ Javier Báez was a minor-league shortstop who played a lot of second base his first two full seasons before taking over short from Addison Russell.

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DeJong’s rapid rise from AA third baseman to big-league shortstop is all the more remarkable when you consider that in April of 2017, less than two months before his Cardinals debut, ranked him as just the 11th-best Redbirds prospect. Like two of his shortstop predecessors, Pete Kozma and Aledmys Díaz, DeJong arrived in the majors with no advance billing and quickly exceeded expectations.

Maybe that’s why some are skeptical of DeJong to this day. Kozma, 24, hit .333 with a .952 OPS in 26 late-season games in 2012, then batted .217 with a wretched .548 OPS as the team’s starting shortstop in 2013.

Díaz, 25, hit .300 with an .879 OPS in 2016, but poor fielding and a .682 OPS made him expendable after 2017. But DeJong has been no one-year (or half-year) wonder. He’s had three quality seasons with drops in batting average but improvement in the field.

Still, some scribes and bloggers once insisted the Cards acquire a real shortstop, like Zack Cozart or even the Angels’ Andrelton Simmons, to replace DeJong, who would presumably have moved to third or filled a utility-infielder role.

Even now, with DeJong’s defensive chops established, skeptics see black clouds on the horizon. PD strikes out a lot — 149 times a year ago — and last year’s .233 batting average would have been worse if he hadn’t hit .342 with a 1.010 OPS in April and March.

The skeptics could be right about DeJong’s downside, but sometimes they go too far. In a late October review-of-the season story, Jeff Gordon of the St. Louis-Post Dispatch gave DeJong a C-minus grade for 2019, saying the shortstop’s “4.1 WAR rating flattered him” and he “hit 30 homers, but so did 57 other big leaguers.” Gordon rated DeJong, with his first-rate shortstop defense and .762 OPS, lower than Tyler O’Neill, an offense-first corner outfielder with a wimpier (.723) OPS, and Yairo Munoz, a utility infielder with a so-so glove and a pathetic .653 OPS.

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No one knows if DeJong will improve or diminish as a hitter — or a fielder, for that matter. But the former Illinois State Redbird has come a long way in a short time for the St. Louis Redbirds, and he’s still just 26. Let’s appreciate what he’s accomplished.