Paul DeJong and Cardinals Agree to Very Early Extension

Over the past several years, we’ve seen a trend away from signing young stars to long-term extensions. As Bryce Harper and Manny Machado head to free agency in their mid-20s, Mookie Betts, Kris Bryant, and Francisco Lindor all appear on their way to the same. With stars saying no, teams have been forced to get creative, signing good players to extensions and taking more risk by signing players with very little service time in the majors. The Cardinals’ deal for their shortstop covering six years for $26 million along with two team options fits the bill on both accounts. Paul DeJong is a good player, but he has hardly proven himself with under a year in the majors.

The Cardinals have made a habit of such extensions, reaching agreements with Matt Carpenter, Allen Craig, Stephen Piscotty, and Kolten Wong in the recent past. Carpenter would have been a free agent this year without such a deal, and Wong is a solid player with the potential to provide considerably more value. Even when the contracts haven’t worked out, the Cardinals haven’t been troubled by them: they were able to deal Allen Craig, for example, before health derailed his career. The jury is still out on Stephen Piscotty, but the club netted two decent prospects when dealing him over the winter.

This deal, both in dollars and the proven quality of the player, mirrors the one for Tim Anderson and the White Sox a year ago.

Consider the following stat lines.

Paul DeJong and Tim Anderson
Tim Anderson 2016 23 431 3.0% 27.1% .375 97 2.5
Paul DeJong 2017 23 443 4.7% 28.0% .349 122 3.0

We have two young shortstops who strike out a lot and walk very little. DeJong has shown more power, while Anderson is the better baserunner and presumably better defender. (The sample size for the fielding metrics is too small to draw any conclusions from the numbers.) It remains way too early to pass judgment on the Anderson deal, as the potential benefit for the White Sox doesn’t really begin for another five years, but the first year did not go well. Anderson still struck out a ton, managed to walk even less, and his BABIP dropped by 50 points. He did put up good numbers on the basepaths, but his poor defensive numbers meant a basically replacement-level 0.2 WAR. Even with slightly above-average defense, he would still be a roughly average player. Paul DeJong carries some of those same risks.

Before getting to some of the risks, let’s acknowledge some of DeJong’s advantages. While the decline in Anderson’s offensive numbers made him a replacement player last season, DeJong does have considerably farther to fall. DeJong’s value is not as reliant on defense. If Dejong’s BABIP fell 50 points and his defense was below average by seven runs instead of average, he would simply be an average player. His floor might be a little higher than Anderson’s.

As for the risks, DeJong’s hitting profile screams for some regression. DeJong’s .349 BABIP is one we would expect to come down, though the Statcast data indicates even greater concern is warranted for DeJong’s power numbers. According to Baseball Savant, Paul DeJong’s wOBA was .365, which is good. His xwOBA, based on launch angle and exit velocity of his batted balls along with walks and strikeouts, was just .320 — or, basically average. That 45-point negative differential was 15th biggest out of 183 batters with at least 400 at-bats last year. On balls in play, the xwOBA and wOBA were roughly even. Statcast casts doubt on DeJong’s home-run prowess.

Last season, 74 players (including Paul DeJong) hit at least 25 home runs. The average xwOBA on a home run last year was 1.302. Paul DeJong’s xwOBA was just 1.133, ranking 70th out of 74 batters with at least 25 dingers last year. Even looking at the 242 players with at least 10 homers, DeJong rank of 205 is still near the bottom. The Cardinals do not play their games in a park favorable to right-handed hitters, so there is little explanation for why DeJong would be able to generate so many homers with a relatively low xwOBA. As a result, there isn’t much reason to think he will be able to do it again, though anyone expecting 34 homers per 600 plate appearances was already expecting too much.

As his walk and strikeout rates indicate, Paul DeJong is a free-swinger. He swings at pitches outside the strike zone 34% of the time, which is in the bottom-third of baseball. Unusually, DeJong rated in the top 15% of hitters when it come to pitches seen in the strike zone.┬áThat’s unusual because, generally, the more a hitter swings outside the strike zone, the fewer pitches in the strike zone that player will see. The graph below shows all players with at least 400 plate appearances and good power numbers (i.e. an ISO above .200) and their respective chase and zone percentages.

No power-hitting player who swung outside the zone as often as DeJong last year saw nearly as many pitches in the strike zone. This next season, DeJong is likely to see fewer pitches to hit. How he responds will shape his season — and potentially future — as a hitter. There were some good signs from DeJong, as his plate discipline got better as the season wore on. DeJong played in 108 games last season and the graph below shows a 54-game rolling average so that the numbers at the end represent the latter half of his rookie season.

That graph indicates some pretty good trends in terms of walks and strikeout, as well as swinging outside the zone. Here’s the same numbers broken down by halves of DeJong’s season.

Paul DeJong Plate Discipline Improvements in 2017
Games O-Swing% SwngStrk% K% BB%
1-54 36.0% 14.5% 30.3% 3.8%
55-108 29.8% 12.2% 26.0% 5.5%

Those latter numbers aren’t good, per se, but they do point to some improvement. Looking at the strikeout and walk rates in the latter half of DeJong’s season and comparing them to players from 2017, they most resemble the hitting lines of Corey Dickerson and Tommy Joseph. Interestingly, those two players represent potential outcomes for DeJong. Both possess good power with ISOs around .200, but their BABIPs tell the story of their seasons. Joseph put up a .280 BABIP and a resulting 85 wRC+. Dickerson netted a .338 BABIP and a 115 wRC+ last year.

DeJong’s projections essentially split the difference between the two players, showing similar strikeout, walk, and power numbers, and a .312 BABIP, making DeJong an average hitter. Because Dickerson and Joseph play on the opposite end of the defensive spectrum than DeJong, the Cardinals shortstop derives more value out of an average batting line. Our projections give DeJong below-average defense and make him a roughly average player.

If DeJong’s plate discipline improves just a little bit, he maintains the power from last season, or he proves to be average defensively, then he will be something better than average. If all three occur, then he’s a star. The Cardinals did not seem to extract too much of a discount for DeJong’s arbitration years. Ian Desmond made around $21 million for his three arbitration years. Xander Bogaerts is going to make a little more than that. Even if DeJong is a super-2 — he has 124 days of service time now — it’s not necessarily a huge win for St. Louis: Didi Gregorius, for example, is looking at roughly $28 million for his four arbitration seasons. If the Cardinals are going to do well with this deal, they are going to need DeJong to perform well enough to make the two option years — at a cost doubling the guaranteed seasons — easy pickups for St. Louis.

Paul DeJong is potentially delaying free agency by two seasons and giving up his age-30 and age-31 campaigns at a discount. In exchange, he receives $26 million guaranteed. He would have received close to the league-minimum salary until 2021 without this deal. It provides long-term security, but could potentially cost him millions down the line heading to free agency ahead of his age-32 season. There isn’t a right or wrong answer regarding whether he should accept this bargain. Teams are taking on slightly more risk than they have in the past by agreeing to deals earlier with non-star players, but for them the risk is still relatively minimal with a large reward down the line if the player excels. Due to how early the extension was reached, we won’t know the outcome for many years.

Craig Edwards can be found on twitter @craigjedwards.

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4 years ago

If you’re a ballplayer with marginal defense and bad plate discipline who just came off the season that DeJong did, and you have a chance to essentially bank the next 6 yrs of income, I think you do it. He could blow out his knee or simply regress, and be relegated to a bench role near the league minimum. This deal secures his financial future for life, and leaves some upside if he turns out to be a star.

4 years ago
Reply to  Stovokor

Fully agreed. If DeJong was paying attention at all to what happened to Alemdys Diaz in 2017, then he’d be foolish to turn down the security of an extension.

4 years ago
Reply to  Craftcj

At least DeJong is still much better defensively that Diaz has ever been, though. Once he stopped hitting, Diaz’s absolutely terrible defense made him impossible to play on a regular basis. Well, at least the Blue Jays could play him at DH if necessary.

4 years ago
Reply to  Stovokor

Reminds me of the Lucroy extension from the Brewers possible bargain piece for them.