One of the pleasant surprises amid the frustration of the 2017 season for the St. Louis Cardinals was the emergence of rookie infielder Paul DeJong. He didn’t begin the season in St. Louis, but once he got his opportunity, he stuck as the everyday shortstop and even led the team in home runs.
DeJong replaced Aledmys Diaz, who burst onto the scene in 2016 much like DeJong did last year. In 2016, Diaz replaced veteran shortstop Jhonny Peralta and hit .300 with a .369 on base percentage to go along with 17 home runs and 65 runs batted in. Last season, Diaz struggled. His OBP dipped to .290 and his ability to drive the ball to all fields for extra-base hits all but vanished. As a result, Diaz spent much of the summer in the minor leagues. It was a classic case of the sophomore slump.
Diaz’s rough second season opened the door for another rookie, DeJong, to shine in 2017. In 108 games, DeJong hit .285 with 25 home runs and 65 RBI. He hit 13 home runs with the AAA Memphis Redbirds before the big-league promotion, bringing his calendar-year total to 38 long balls. His first major league at bat resulted in a pinch-hit home run in Colorado in May.
For DeJong, power was everything last season. His OBP sat at a less-than-desirable .325 for a middle-of-the order hitter, but his ability to hit the ball over the fence temporarily alleviated concerns about his ability to get on base.
In St. Louis last season, DeJong drew just 21 walks and struck out 124 times. That means he struck out at least once every game, and hit more home runs than he drew walks. To put his walk rate into perspective, teammate Matt Carpenter drew 109 walks last season in 37 more games.
With a successful rookie season under his belt and an offseason to ponder improvements in his game, DeJong likely is working on plate discipline this offseason. The Cardinals may need him to be a middle-order bat in the lineup, and if he can hit 38 home runs again this season, then great.
However, DeJong would become a more feared and complete hitter if he could cut down on the strikeouts and work counts to find more pitches to his liking. Many of his home runs last season came early in counts when he would jump on a first or second pitch fastball. Only five of his 25 home runs with the Cardinals last season came when he was behind in the count.
If DeJong works more counts and gets into more favorable hitting situations, not only will his walk rate rise and his strikeout numbers decrease, but his overall prowess as a hitter will improve. He’ll get better pitches to hit late in counts, which means not only more home runs, but more hard-hit balls and extra-base hits as well.
DeJong doesn’t have to be a one-dimensional, fly ball, home run hitter. He has the power to drive the ball over the fence, but can use that ability to drive the ball for more than just home run output.
DeJong figures to be a big part of the Cardinals’ offense in 2018. He got off to a great start to his career in 2017, but an improved approach at the plate could carry the young shortstop to new dimensions of success in St. Louis.