DeJong eager for more normal season
JUPITER, Fla. -- By all accounts, this should be a relatively simple Spring Training for Paul DeJong. His starting spot at shortstop is not remotely in question. And that job, theoretically, should get easier with the likes of Nolan Arenado sharing the left side of the infield with him.
But, as the world collectively learned over the past year, even what’s mundane on the surface is never as simple as it seems.
True, DeJong is operating through 2021 Spring Training without much in the way of surface-level pressure, but he faces an integral year in his career at the age of 27. He’s coming off a challenging season, physically and mentally, after a bout with COVID-19 as part of the club’s August outbreak and lackluster production at the plate exacerbated by the year’s repeated stopping and starting.
“It's hard to measure,” DeJong said recently of how his fight with the virus impacted his season. “I think just as a group, we were just battling every day playing doubleheaders, doing whatever we could just to get ready to play that day. I think we learned a lot about what it takes to play this game and working together as a group.
“It was just more of a struggle to sit on the sidelines watching our team, and not being with them.”
DeJong, an All-Star and Gold Glove finalist in 2019, could be a bat the Cardinals need to unlock to perform at their full potential.
So where does he stand?
All told, DeJong is at full go this Spring Training. When it comes to questions of his health, they lie more with endurance than actual nicks and bruises.
DeJong has played in 113 career regular-season games in September/October -- his most of any month -- yet several of his splits sit near career lows there. In his All-Star campaign, DeJong had a great first half and a solid August before slashing .175/.264/.392 in September. When you attach that to his next 45 games (the 2020 season), that makes for a .220/.299/.365 line over his last 72 contests.
“We asked a lot of Paulie in ’19,” manager Mike Shildt said. “I do think it's important to give him the rest that he needs. COVID last year may have impacted [things] … but I think it was more impactful probably was the fact that he played 11 doubleheaders in a relatively short timeframe.”
True, DeJong and the Cardinals were put in a tough position, forced to play those 11 twin bills in a month and a half. Few if any players would be expected to come out of that type of gauntlet with gaudy numbers.
“I don’t even know if a long timeframe is good for 11 doubleheaders,” Shildt quipped.
DeJong, for his part, resists against any excuses of weariness. In an ideal world, he wants to play all 162 games this season, saying he and Shildt will organize an appropriate system to maximize production and health and minimize fatigue.
“You know, it's easy to say, ‘Oh, yeah, we were tired [in the Wild Card Series] last year against the Padres,’” DeJong said. “Well, we still had chances to win.”
During DeJong’s last full season in 2019, he was an Outs Above Average savant, sitting in the top 3% of the league in that category. As far as his dip in 2020 is concerned, defensive metrics are already a tad wonky, and especially so in an abbreviated season that saw him miss 13 games.
Now, with a healthy offseason and Arenado in tow, it’s hoped DeJong can return to his 2019 form.
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Arenado’s range will allow DeJong to shade more up the middle, the shortstop said, hoping to cut off more balls from reaching center field and in turn making the exchange with newly anointed second baseman Tommy Edman more tenable.
But when the third baseman is aggressive, or charging in on a ball to the left, DeJong will be there to back him up.
“[Arenado is] not afraid to go get the ball and make that 360 play,” DeJong said. “Anything he can get coming in, he's going to go for, and I'm going to be right behind him.”
Even with all the factors under the surface, DeJong has plenty to feel reassured about. As one of the longer-tenured Cards, he's thought of very highly, faces little uncertainty with his role in 2021 and still has time to grow at 27 and under contract through ’25.
He knows what he needs to do, fueled by how challenging his -- and the club’s -- 2020 was.
Now all that’s left is to go out and do it.
“Moving forward,” he said, “we’re just going to love being out there as a group playing for the birds on the bat.”