Paul DeJong will represent the St. Louis Cardinals in next week’s All-Star Game. He’ll do so with solid, albeit unspectacular, offensive numbers. The 25-year-old shortstop is slashing .260/.344/.455, with 13 home runs and a 110 wRC+. Thanks in part to plus defense, he leads the Redbirds with 2.9 WAR.
Two years ago, in an interview that ran here at FanGraphs, DeJong discussed the mental side of hitting. This past weekend, the Illinois State University graduate — his degree is in biology — sat down for a far-wider-ranging conversation about his craft.
David Laurila: How would you describe your hitting approach?
Paul DeJong: “My general approach is to hit something hard through the middle. I’m usually looking for a fastball that I can hit gap-to-gap; not pull, not oppo, but kind of through the middle. That gives me the best chance of adjusting to different speeds and different locations. I’m able to open up, or if I’m late, I still have time to keep it fair.”
Laurila: Something I’ve been asking players about is the idea of an A-swing, and whether hitters have multiple swings.
DeJong: “Hitters absolutely have multiple swings. For instance, if you get fooled on a breaking ball, you’re kind of adjusting your body. But for me, it’s more about keeping my hands back. If you do that, you can drift forward with your body — you’ll be off balance out front — but if your hands are still back, you’re able to deliver the barrel, still put the ball in play hard.”
Laurila: What about on fastballs riding high in the zone?
DeJong: “That’s a different swing. What unlocks your different swing is your mental approach, your mindset. When you know that a guy is going to pitch you at the top of the zone … my approach is to try to hit a line drive. It doesn’t matter how high the ball is, you’re trying to get on top. Conversely, when you’ve got a sinkerballer, you almost want to swing underneath. It’s like your mind can change your swing, based on the pitcher.
“Since I’m a low-ball hitter, I try to look for the ball down. I’ll sometimes get in trouble when guys start elevating on me. It’s almost like I think I can hit it, but sometimes if you take that pitch, it will be a ball. I’ve had success on the high pitch when I’m anticipating it. That’s especially off starters, when I know going into the game, ‘Hey, this guy is going to throw a high four-seamer; get ready to hit on top.’ Then I’m able to unlock it. But there are times when you’re getting sliders, and other stuff down in the zone, and then they pop the fastball up high. That’s when you’re still swinging kind of down and underneath. You’re trying to take the same swing at that pitch, and you can’t do it.”
Laurila: It sounds you’re firmly in the multiple-swings category.
DeJong: “Absolutely. I think to be a .300 hitter, and hit for power regularly, you have to be able to adjust and have multiple swings.”
Laurila: To what extent are you able to recognize spin?
DeJong: “Pretty well, I would say. Especially lately. I feel like I’ve been getting a lot of spin, and I think overall my chase-out-of-the-zone numbers have gone down since I’ve been in the league. Getting more comfortable seeing all these different actions on pitches is kind of my new normal.”
Laurila: Does it take multiple reps to recognize a particular pitcher’s spin?
DeJong: “Sometimes, yeah. The more experience you get in the league, you understand just how nasty somebody has to be to make you miss. A lot of times a pitcher gets credit for being nasty, but sometimes the hitter is just in a bad state of mind, and he’s made to look foolish on a pitch that maybe a hitter who is locked in would have handled.”
Laurila: It’s been said that the best way to hit a breaking ball is to hit the fastball.
DeJong: “I don’t mind hitting breaking balls. There have been times where I’m on the fastball, a breaking ball kind of hangs up there, and I’m on time through the middle. I’m able to hit it hard. My next step as a hitter is to be able to look for a breaking ball and know the pitcher is going to come with one.”
Laurila: How can a hitter recognize a hittable breaking ball, versus one that’s difficult to square up?
DeJong: “It’s almost like the hanger … you’re getting ready for the fastball, you load up, and then you see it. It almost takes a second … it starts to go in a direction where it doesn’t look like it’s a fastball, and you recognize that. I think the biggest thing about hitting a breaking ball is not panicking. The breaking balls that people chase are the ones that come out hard, and then break at the last second. You don’t pick up the spin, per se.”
Laurila: Have you faced pitchers whose sliders have little horizontal or vertical movement? It’s mostly just gyro spin.
DeJong: “The guy we faced the other day; [Daniel] Mengden from the A’s. He backed up two sliders to me that I got myself out on. It started in a spot where I thought it was going to be a good one, then it just kind of rotated and stayed inside, and I got jammed on it. Sometimes a breaking ball that stays in that up-and-in corner can get a lot of hitters out.”
Laurila: Did the reports show his breaking ball typically does that, or did he simply mis-throw a couple of pitches?
DeJong: “He just backed up a few, honestly. In my first at-bat he threw a couple of good ones; I saw them, and they were breaking more side-to-side. The other two I saw pop out of the hand — I saw the spin — but they just kept spinning and stayed in the same spot. And there are some guys who do have that back-up; it’s almost like cutter spin on a slider. They don’t have a ton of movement on their breaking balls.”
DeJong: “His slider is more top-down. It’s almost like you’re dealing with side-to-side now. You don’t want to chase inside off him. You’re kind of looking in a different part of the zone, and trusting that his slider is going to go down. You’re going to try to see the one that comes out straight — the fastball — and adjust to the one that starts breaking down.”
Laurila: A pitcher opined to me that on a high-velocity slider, a hitter doesn’t actually recognize spin until after he’s committed to his swing. Does that make sense?
DeJong: “If a guy is throwing 96-98 [mph], you’re getting ready earlier, mentally, and committing to your swing a little sooner. So I agree that you can see the spin too late and not be able to stop on a good hard breaking ball. That’s versus if he’s throwing a 75-mph curveball off of 98. I trust myself to be able to see that — the way it’s different out of the hand — but an 87-mph cutter-slider, off a 98-mph fastball … sometimes you’re committed too early to pick up that spin.
“When I’m at my best, I’m hitting line drives from left-center to right center. If I can adjust to who is out there, I trust that my hands are fast enough on a 98 mph fastball. I don’t have to try to pull the ball. So it’s really about staying stubborn and confident, and sitting back and waiting to see the ball before I have to commit.
“When guys commit early, it’s often because they’re trying to create the result before they even see the ball. Before they see the pitch, they’re out there like, ‘OK, I’m going to pull this ball right here.’ Then the pitcher throws a changeup and you’re way out in front, and swing over it. Well, did you not see it, or were you already committed?”
Laurila: Do you consider yourself a handsy hitter?
DeJong: “Absolutely. I think hands are very important when it comes to hitting. I almost take the lower half out of it. To me, the lower half is kind of like the timing, and the grounding, mechanism more so than a way to hit the ball.
“If you watch on video, my hands are usually in my launch, locked position, and my legs at the highest point, when the pitcher is at delivery. When he gets his arms to here, that’s when I’m completely ready.”
Laurila: Have you used tools like HitTrax to help hone your swing?
DeJong: “I’ve used HitTrax in the cage, but what I see the most out of it is launch angle, and I don’t use launch angle as a process. I use it as a result. In the cage, hitting the ball to the back wall, and not hitting the ceiling, is always a good miss.
“I feel like in the game we always get underneath more, and I’m a low-ball hitter, so I don’t feel like I need to try to lift the ball. If I am trying to lift the ball, then I’m thinking results — I’m trying to hit a home run, trying to do this or that — and that gets me out of my thing. When I’m focusing on hitting hard line drives, then my miss becomes a fly-ball homer. That’s what my approach needs to be.”
Earlier “Talks Hitting” interviews can found within these links: Nolan Arenado, Cavan Biggio, Matt Chapman, Rick Eckstein, Drew Ferguson, Joey Gallo, Mitch Haniger, Michael Lorenzen, Daniel Murphy, Jesse Winker.
David Laurila grew up in Michigan's Upper Peninsula and now writes about baseball from his home in Cambridge, Mass. He authored the Prospectus Q&A series at Baseball Prospectus from December 2006-May 2011 before being claimed off waivers by FanGraphs. He can be followed on Twitter @DavidLaurilaQA.