Mike Shildt has earned wide praise from his players for knowing the pulse of the clubhouse as the manager, knowing when it’s appropriate to pull a guy aside for one of his staple chats of support, and when it’s best to hold off and let someone play through their struggles.
Paul DeJong was a recipient of the former earlier this week.
“He told me, ‘Hey, I'm not worried about you at all,’” DeJong recalled. “Just for him to say that to me meant a lot, and it just kind of reinforced [to] me moving forward that now I was able to play free, and that's when I'm at my best.”
It came for DeJong after he was fighting himself at the plate -- mainly physically, but also in part, mentally -- batting just .087 (2-for-23) through his first nine spring games.
So how did the shortstop respond? First, with a homer in a simulated game off Jack Flaherty on Tuesday. Then, his first hit in five Grapefruit League games against the Astros on Wednesday.
And it culminated with a two-run homer against the Marlins on Thursday in his first multihit performance this spring. With three hits in his last five at-bats before Friday’s Grapefruit League game against the Mets, he was given a day off.
“I don’t think anybody remembers any Spring Training batting championships being won,” Shildt said.
The Cardinals’ manager will say that his talk was happenstance, that he was seeing DeJong getting back to his classic self over the past week, back to some of the approaches at the plate that made him an All-Star in 2019, before a bout with COVID-19 derailed his 2020 season.
“I just got to enjoy playing this game and not be so hard on myself to try to produce,” DeJong said. “Now, overall, I'm learning more about myself every day, and I think that's a win.”
DeJong will have some opportunity to ease himself into that mindset this season. With Nolan Arenado in the fold, the Cardinals added another big bat to hit ahead of DeJong, taking some of the pressure off the shortstop to be the run producer on a nightly basis, though that is a goal he has for himself regardless.
St. Louis is rather solid at the top of its lineup, with Tommy Edman and Paul Goldschmidt set to be a potentially lethal 1-2 punch, and Arenado penciled in for the No. 3 spot. DeJong has lined up at cleanup in seven of his 11 starts this spring, including each of his last four. He’s coming off a poor offensive year with a career-low 84 OPS+ in 45 games.
But that came after a torrid spring: He slashed .467/.471/1.000 in 12 games before sports screeched to a halt last March; DeJong is at 11 games this Spring with just under two weeks to go until Opening Day.
“It's just one of those springs,” DeJong said. “I’ve had great springs before. I'm not going to try to take this too seriously, because I want to be ready for the season. I know that [is] when things count. I'm just taking these at-bats one by one, and I feel a little bit better lately.”
What has constituted DeJong’s renewed sense of comfort is this: His balance has been off with a wider stance that makes him feel less stable, he said. So he tightened that posture up, allowing his entrenched legs to do more work and driving his hands more level through the ball for harder contact.
“Little things like that can change your whole contact point and the way you hit the ball,” DeJong said. “I just want to feel strong, and when I feel that kind of feeling, that's what I'm searching for, as opposed to not trying to be too mechanical. … It's a better idea of what I was doing before and what I want to do now.”
“One of the first things this organization noticed about him, he's got easy power,” Shildt said. “When he's in a good place, which is a lot of [the] time, he’s just on balance, seeing the ball, letting his hands work and putting a good swing on it in the zone. The rest takes care of itself.”
The Cardinals have never lacked messaging with DeJong. They signed him to a six-year extension in 2018 Spring Training -- under contract through 2025 -- before he ever hit arbitration, locking him in to be their starting shortstop for the long term. The struggles DeJong went through during the aberration of last season were just that, the club believes -- an aberration.
Shildt’s recent talk with his shortstop was nothing earth-shattering, not what’s going to make or break DeJong’s 2021 season, the manager said. It was just getting “Paulie” back to being Paulie.
“I just saw that he was doing work that was positive and the at-bats were getting there, the timing was getting there,” Shildt said. “So it's easy to be able to stay with the guy and believe in a guy when that's happening, especially a guy as talented as Paul.”