St. Louis Cardinals: Paul DeJong needs to forget his 2020
By Matt Graves
2020 was a tough year for a lot of St. Louis Cardinals’ batters, but a quietly disappointing year for Paul DeJong needs to be an outlier.
One great trait of the St. Louis Cardinals in the 2010s was the ability to turn late-round draft picks into average or above-average MLB players more than any other team. Regardless of what recent homegrown talent has gone on to do in other uniforms, it is something that the team should be proud of.
Any player drafted that makes it to the major leagues is a success story. Matt Carpenter (13th round), Matt Adams (23rd round), Seth Maness (11th round), and even higher round guys like Tommy Edman (6th round) and Paul DeJong (4th round) were all guys not necessarily expected to make the bigs at any point. For guys like these, they were never in the top 100 prospects of baseball but clawed their way into the MLB and found a way to stay.
I am prefacing this article with all this because there weren’t many national pundits that thought Paul DeJong would amount to what he has become at the MLB level. Drafted as a catcher, DeJong moved to third, then learned shortstop before breaking into the league. Of course, DeJong entered the MLB without the curse of expectation. A rookie year with a lot of strikeouts, an OPS above .850, and 25 homers in 2017 changed things quickly.
Though he took a step back in his sophomore year, his third year in 2019 saw a ton of great signs. DeJong not only hit 30 bombs, he rated as one of the best defensive shortstops in baseball rivaling even Javy Baez.
Behind the scenes, things were good and bad in 2019. Despite his big power numbers, wear and tear brought down DeJong’s other stats ending him below average on the season by wRC+. However, DeJong had shown a three-year trend where his strikeout rate fell and his walks rose. Normally, that means that more and more success is to come.
However, 2020 was a huge step back across the board for DeJong.
Defensively, DeJong reverted back to 0 DRS after posting years of +12 and +26. At the plate, his OPS didn’t crack .700 and none of DeJong’s expected stats helped his case. While his walks continued to rise higher, DeJong’s strikeout rate buoyed to the highest mark of his career. In a 162-game season, this would be petrifying. In a year where DeJong played in just 45 games after contracting COVID-19, he gets a pass—for now.
I know it’s all high and mighty of me to declare from my high horse that DeJong gets a pass for 2020, but I think he would agree. While it seems DeJong had a more mild case of COVID-19 than some of his teammates, it is impossible to know what kind of effect it had on the rest of his season.
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Even if COVID didn’t derail DeJong’s season, the rapid-fire schedule the team had to face could’ve worn down players like DeJong more than any of them would say. Beyond that, if the schedule and COVID didn’t derail DeJong, the sample size is still just too small. 45 games and fewer than 200 plate appearances aren’t enough to cause panic about a player who has shown a lot of progress in the previous three seasons with nearly 1600 plate appearances.
This notion doesn’t only apply to DeJong too. Around the Cardinals and the rest of the Major Leagues, small sample sizes are changing the way players are viewed, both with and without merit.
The Cardinals do need DeJong to ensure that 2020 was an outlier, though. DeJong has been championed (at least by me in my head) as a fantastic option for cleanup when he is hot. The problem has just been consistency. DeJong got the team’s vote of confidence in 2018 when they signed him to a six-year, $26M extension potentially keeping him in St. Louis until 2025.
DeJong could do a lot of good for this team’s offense if he can turn into a consistent 4-5 hitter. We have seen it before and 2021 is a big year for DeJong with a ton of free agent shortstops coming available after next season.