JUPITER, Fla. -- There was a time early in Paul DeJong’s Major League Baseball career that the game seemed to come easy for him, and the less that he thought about baseball, the better he actually performed.
However, when those heady times of 2017, ’18 and ’19 inexplicably turned sour in recent seasons, DeJong struggled to get out of his own head and ultimately out of his own way. Strangely, the analytical side of the Cardinals shortstop took over his inner athlete and somehow it robbed him of the poise that used to ooze from him early in his career.
“I was an All-Star and I have that 30-home run power, and now it’s just a matter of being consistent and getting prepared to do that again,” DeJong said, referring to his career-best season of 2019, before his production dipped in ‘20 and ‘21. “I may have not known what got me there before. And then when things went bad, I started searching and changing things up. Next thing you know, I’m a completely different player out there. For me, it was more about learning about myself, what makes me good and how do I consistently bring that.”
Maybe no Cardinal is more under pressure this Spring Training than the 28-year-old DeJong, who is expected to shed his hitting slump from the past two seasons and hold off Edmundo Sosa in the position battle at shortstop. DeJong will start on Friday when the Cardinals host the Astros in the first of their 15 Spring Training games.
Cardinals front-office brass and new manager Oliver Marmol have already seen signs of DeJong being more dialed into his work, and now they hope to see the production show up in games so that DeJong is once again a feared hitter in the St. Louis lineup. Marmol, who has promised to be bluntly honest with players, has been extremely forthright when discussing what is expected of his shortstop this season.
“This is a very important spring for him,” said Marmol, who will manage his first game on Friday after serving as the Cardinals bench coach last season. “He came in with a different mentality because he knows what’s at stake. He’s looking to take that [shortstop] job.
“His mentality is very competitive,” Marmol added. “You can tell with his demeanor, with how he’s carrying himself in the clubhouse and the cage. You can tell there’s a different look in his eyes with his focus and it’s good to see.”
Harrison Bader is also happy to see the shortstop embracing increased expectations. The Cardinals’ Gold Glove center fielder and DeJong have always been there for one another as confidants, amateur swing coaches and friends. Both are sometimes too hard on themselves, and Bader did all he could to help DeJong through a 2021 where he hit career lows in several key statistical categories.
“In terms of our own games and what we expect from ourselves, we definitely take it personal,” Bader said of his friendship with DeJong. “Baseball is the only thing I have pride about, and Paul really has pride about it, too. As with anything in life, you can be your biggest cheerleader and worst critic. How you talk to yourself, treat yourself and what you see when you look in the mirror all play into how you perform. I hope he knows he’s surrounded by guys who really love him. We want him to do well, because when he does well, we all do well.”
To do everything in his power to do well this season, DeJong spent a chunk of his offseason working with Lorenzo Garmendia, a swing guru recommended by Bader. Garmendia has worked with high-profile clients such as Mookie Betts, J.D. Martinez and shortstops Carlos Correa, Francisco Lindor and Willy Adames and had success. DeJong thinks he has a better game plan at the plate following some technical adjustments and video work.
The result, DeJong said, is he is a more confident and focused player, and one who is determined to not overthink things. That combination of factors, DeJong hopes, will make him a more instinctual player and more like the one who hit 25, 19 and 30 home runs in his first three MLB seasons, respectively.
“When I got called up, it felt like a different world up here,” DeJong said. “We had a different manager and it felt like I could glide through and do my own thing. Now that I’ve gotten some more service time, I’m a leader, I’m pushing the envelope more and my attitude changed.
“This game is so hard that it demands all your attention and focus,” he added. “That’s why sometimes dumb people are so good at this game because all their thoughts are all on this game. I’m trying to take a break from everything off the field and literally just play baseball.”