The Cardinals Run Out of Patience With Paul DeJong

© Jeff Curry-USA TODAY Sports

It wasn’t long ago that the Cardinals viewed Paul DeJong as a foundational player. Coming off a 25-homer 2017 season in which he was the runner-up in the NL Rookie of the Year voting, they signed him to a six-year, $26 million extension — a record at the time for a player with less than a year of service time. But since his 30-homer All-Star showing in 2019, he’s battled injuries, illness, and himself with diminishing returns. On Tuesday, the Cardinals addressed his increasing struggles by optioning the 28-year-old shortstop to Triple-A Memphis.

DeJong is hitting just .130/.209/.208 for a 30 wRC+, ranking among the bottom four in the majors in all four of those categories among players with at least 80 plate appearances (he has 86). His dismal showing has followed two disappointing seasons with very different shapes, a 2021 campaign in which he hit for power with little else (.197/284/.390/, 86 wRC+, 19 HR) and a ’20 season in which he showed little pop (.250/322/.349, 87 wRC+, 3 HR).

Despite missing nearly three weeks (but just 11 games) when the Cardinals had a COVID-19 outbreak in August 2020, DeJong actually rebounded and hit quite well until mid-September of that season, but he closed in a 6-for-46 funk that dragged his numbers down, and went just 2-for-10 in the Wild Card Series against the Padres as the Cardinals were eliminated. He missed a month in May and June of last season due to a non-displaced rib fracture, then tweaked his back later in the year, and started just 19 of the team’s final 47 games as fill-in Edmundo Sosa outplayed him. Sosa, who hit .271/.346/.389 (104 wRC+) last year, got the call in the Wild Card Game, which the Cardinals lost to the Dodgers.

DeJong conceded last September that the mental aspects of his struggles weighed on him. Via The Athletic’s Katie Woo:

“I think I’ve gone way too far in analyzing myself. That’s just part of my nature sometimes, very observant, very analytical. It’s very easy to nitpick and lose the flow and the natural athletic ability.”

…“I would have a good at-bat and I would realize what I was doing, but then I would turn it into something else in my next at-bat because I was doing something different mentally, like trying to re-create some physical result that I did before,” he explained.

Performance-wise, there are multiple ways of looking at his issues, but without dwelling upon them in great detail at the moment, I think this breakdown of DeJong versus various pitch types (using Statcast classifications) tells a story that’s brutally blunt:

Paul DeJong vs. Pitch Types
Pitch Type Yrs % PA Avg xBA SLG xSLG wOBA xwOBA
Fastballs 2017-19 60.1% 930 .266 .270 .499 .520 .357 .370
Breaking 2017-19 29.0% 475 .243 .221 .466 .403 .317 .291
Offspeed 2017-19 9.8% 170 .203 .181 .329 .302 .252 .235
Fastballs 2020-22 54.0% 356 .261 .241 .452 .470 .347 .347
Breaking 2020-22 33.8% 212 .147 .175 .277 .294 .216 .238
Offspeed 2020-22 12.2% 94 .107 .185 .179 .343 .183 .275
Fastballs 2022 46.0% 44 .154 .177 .282 .360 .248 .277
Breaking 2022 37.8% 28 .125 .141 .167 .184 .184 .195
Offspeed 2022 16.2% 14 .071 .138 .071 .160 .064 .128
SOURCE: Baseball Savant

In the best of times — his first three seasons in the majors — DeJong did most of his damage against fastballs and held his own against breaking balls, but struggled against offspeed stuff. As his problems mounted, he maintained his productivity against fastballs, but could no longer handle breaking or offspeed pitches, which of course came to occupy a larger share of the pitches he saw. This year, he hasn’t even been able to deliver at an acceptable level against fastballs, let alone other pitches, and he’s run out of rope.

In their telling of the story, the Cardinals have been patient with DeJong as he’s worked through his issues, but felt that “the at-bats looked the same and the adjustment wasn’t coming,” according to manager Oliver Marmol, who added regarding the demotion:

“It was a matter of time based on the amount of opportunities given. I think there’s an adjustment that needs to be made both physically and mentally. The ability to go down there and have a reset, he’s going to have to make actual physical change so that the result looks different. The ball will tell you what’s going on and it’s a lot of [popups]. He’s going to have to go down there and show that adjustments are being made and that production is there.”

Beyond his meager slash line, DeJong is striking out at a career-worst 29.1% clip. His 5.7% barrel rate is also a career worst, with his 86.8 mph average exit velocity just half a tick above last year’s career worst. His Statcast expected numbers (.158 xBA, .268 xSLG) are bench-worthy in their own right.

The Cardinals are off to a 16-13 start after losing to the Orioles on Tuesday night, so this isn’t a desperation move, but there is a bit of time sensitivity. DeJong is just 12 days shy of five full years of service time, the point at which he could refuse an optional assignment and become a free agent — though in doing so, he would nullify the remainder of his contract, which guarantees him $6 million this year and $9 million next year, followed by two years with club options ($12.5 million with a $2 million buyout for 2024, $15 million with a $1 million buyout for ’25). By accepting the assignment, DeJong will continue to receive his major league salary even while in the minors, though he won’t accrue service time.

With Sosa — who himself is off to a very slow start (.160/.250/.160 in 28 PA) — on a rehab assignment as he works his way back from the COVID-19 injured list, the Cardinals recalled Kramer Robertson from Memphis to take DeJong’s roster spot. The 27-year-old Robertson, whose mother Kim Mulkey is an Olympic gold medalist and Basketball Hall of Famer who currently coaches the women’s team at Louisiana State, starred at LSU himself but at this stage is viewed as an organizational player rather than a prospect. Now in his third go-round at Memphis, he’s hitting .225/.380/.400 through 100 PA. He and utilityman Brendan Donovan will cover shortstop until Sosa returns and provides a more stable defensive presence.

Cardinals fans are already clamoring for the team to promote Nolan Gorman, a 22-year-old infielder who entered the season ranked 55th on our Top 100 Prospects list. Gorman is currently hitting .307/.360/.693 (171 wRC+) with 12 homers in 111 PA at Memphis, but he’s also striking out 34.2% of the time. As Eric Longenhagen noted in his prospect report — where Gorman had a 65 present value and 70 future value on his raw power, but just 40/45 on his hit tool — he chased sliders at a 40% rate during last year’s second-half stint at Memphis even while trimming his strikeout rate to 19.2%. In updated notes he provided to me, Longenhagen added both that Gorman is still swinging over sliders below the strike zone, and that he’s developed a new vulnerability by struggling to make contact with pitches in the upper third. While he’s pounding pitches on the inner third, big league hurlers probably won’t be afraid to attack him in the areas where he can’t hurt them.

What’s more, this situation has multiple moving parts. Drafted as a third baseman out of a Phoenix high school in 2018 (he was the 19th overall pick), Gorman is now blocked by Nolan Arenado and Paul Goldschmidt at the infield corners. He took up second base last year, “where he isn’t very good,” wrote Longenhagen. “[H]is range, hands, and actions around the bag are all below average. He can make routine plays, though, and the Cardinals would be justified in running him out there situationally, even knowing that he’s a 30-grade defender at the position.”

If Gorman, whom Longenhagen still describes as “barely playable” at the keystone, mans second, that would push Gold Glove winner Tommy Edman to shortstop, where he played 229 games in the minors from 2016-19 but has just 17 games of experience in the majors. “He’s going to get some work at shortstop pregame,” said president of baseball operations John Mozeliak, “But we’re not going to take someone that’s having the type of season he is and just like a light switch, move him over.”

The lefty-swinging Gorman could also get playing time as the designated hitter, paired with Albert Pujols (who’s 7-for-16 against lefties with an .875 SLG but just 2-for-25 against righties), but the team just recalled 24-year-old righty-swinging slugger Juan Yepez on May 4, and while he doesn’t have Gorman’s ceiling (he’s currently 18th on their list as a 40 FV prospect, and has plate-coverage issues of his own), he’s hitting .474/.500/.789 through his first 20 PA.

Beyond the possibility of a shakier middle infield offset by a potentially upgraded offense, Gorman isn’t on the 40-man roster yet. Neither was Robertson, but the organization had a spot open after outrighting pitcher Aaron Brooks off the 40 last week, and has less concern about losing the shortstop if and when it has to outright him as well. Once the team commits a 40-man spot to a top prospect such as Gorman, he’s on there for the long-term. Long story short, his day is coming, but the holes in his game are quite visible, and even given his burst of homers at Memphis, “[T]here’s nothing happening there that should alter anyone’s expectations or his [50] grade as a prospect,” concluded Longenhagen.

Slumps happen, and sometimes turn into spirals, particularly when conditions are as unfriendly to hitters as they currently are. DeJong has plenty of company “on the interstate,” to use Ken Singleton’s memorable term for hitters with a batting average below .200; Nelson Cruz, Marcus Semien, Justin Turner, and Joey Votto are just a few who fit that description. The Cardinals are in a position to address DeJong’s struggles while playing to the strength of their organizational depth, at a time when they’ve got their heads above water, and DeJong has the security of a guaranteed deal as he searches for solutions. Not every team or every player is so lucky.

Brooklyn-based Jay Jaffe is a senior writer for FanGraphs, the author of The Cooperstown Casebook (Thomas Dunne Books, 2017) and the creator of the JAWS (Jaffe WAR Score) metric for Hall of Fame analysis. He founded the Futility Infielder website (2001), was a columnist for Baseball Prospectus (2005-2012) and a contributing writer for Sports Illustrated (2012-2018). He has been a recurring guest on MLB Network and a member of the BBWAA since 2011. Follow him on Twitter @jay_jaffe.

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4 days ago

I fully expect to see Gorman called up the week of June 13th as that would allow Gorman to miss the super 2 cutoff since that week coincides with the latest super 2 cut off over the last 7 or so years. Presumably, based on how many rookies made the opening day roster it the cut off will actually be significantly earlier in the season this year.