Is Paul DeJong the best shortstop in baseball?
Earlier this year I was talking baseball with my brother when he mentioned that he saw a comment on an article calling Diamondbacks’ shortstop Nick Ahmed the best shortstop in baseball. Even my Dbacks fan brother thought it was a laughable concept because Ahmed’s is not a name that comes to mind when you start talking about who the best shortstops in baseball might be. It’s so far out of left field, that I at least glance at the stats to see if I’m just missing something, but beyond a pair of NL Gold Glove Awards, it’s hard to see.
Three years ago the mere consideration that Paul DeJong may one day be the best shortstop in baseball seemed ridiculous. The Illinois State University product was the starting third baseman at Double-A Springfield. Conventional baseball wisdom would suggest that shortstops move to third base, because if they were good enough to play shortstop, they’d already be playing there, right? Well, here we are three years later.
DeJong got his first taste at shortstop in pro baseball in July 2016 with four starts for Springfield. In August he started seven more games there. In the Arizona Fall League, he’d start 16 more games. Then he started 37 games there for Memphis in 2017 by the time he got his first callup to St. Louis on June 6th. After playing a little second base while Kolten Wong was on the injured list, DeJong moved over to shortstop and would start 85 games there for St. Louis. More than double the number he’d played there in the minors.
During that rookie season DeJong spent 747.1 innings at shortstop and graded out with a 0 defensive runs saved (DRS) and a +2.1 ultimate zone rating (UZR). Solid numbers for a player who had only been playing shortstop for a little over a year. And it was a big step forward from Aledmys Diaz who had a -10 DRS and a -0.5 UZR in less than 600 innings there that year. But for the steadying presence he brought to the defense, it was DeJong’s bat that got the attention.
He would hit 25 home runs in the Majors that season. Add in the 13 he hit in Memphis for a total of 38 on the year. Those 25 home runs ranked second in MLB among shortstops behind Francisco Lindor. His 123 wRC+ ranked fourth among shortstops with at least 400 plate appearances behind Carlos Correa, Zack Cozart, and Corey Seager. That was one of the reasons the Cardinals were amenable to locking him up to a 6 year, $26 million deal when he expressed interest in getting financial security.
But since that rookie season, DeJong’s reasons for keeping his job switched up. He has hit just .237/.316/.440 with a 101 wRC+ over the past two seasons, but he’s been among the leaders at shortstop with +38 DRS and a +18.5 UZR.
Those numbers rank him second in defensive runs saved behind Ahmed. He also ranks third in ultimate zone rating behind Andrelton Simmons and Lindor. In fact, DeJong, Simmons, and Lindor are the only three shortstops to appear in the top-5 of both DRS and UZR for the past two seasons. It’s impressive company for DeJong, because those are the two guys I would start with when discussing the best shortstop in baseball.
For some context in my discussion, there are two things that I always consider when talking about the “best” something in baseball.
First, you need to consider the whole package, offense and defense. Perhaps for a shortstop, favor defense more because it’s a defense-first position. That’s why I discount a guy like Xander Bogaerts who, while having a 141 wRC+ at shortstop, also was last in the league with -21 defensive runs saved. He might be the best hitter who plays shortstop, but so would Mike Trout if the Angels played him there. Though it doesn’t make him the best shortstop.
Second, you need a track record. There is inevitably going to be some variation in data from year-to-year, but over the course of time, someone who is consistently at the top of the board is better than someone who posts up one strong season and then disappears. You need consistency.
So I think right now you’ve got a group of Simmons, Lindor, and DeJong as your candidates because of their consistency in the top-5 of each of those two defensive metrics the past two seasons.
Simmons, 30, is in the final year of his deal with the Angels. Over the past two seasons he was second with +35 DRS and first with a +30.1 UZR. He has hit .286/.326/.395 the past two seasons with a 97 wRC+ and is coming off the worst offensive season of his career. He has been worth 4.2 WAR per 600 plate appearances (WAR/600).
Lindor, 26, is making $17.5 million this season for the Indians with one additional year of team control ahead of him before free agency. He’s been rumored to be on the trading block since the organization has hinted that they don’t intend to extend him. He was fourth with +23 DRS and second with +20.5 UZR. Lindor hit .280/.344/.519 the past two seasons with a 123 wRC+ as he regressed back to his career norms in 2019 after a career year in 2018. He’s been worth 5.1 WAR/600, though roughly two-thirds of that comes from that 2018 career year.
DeJong, 26, is locked up for four more seasons in St. Louis and is owed $24.2 million with two more option years beyond that. He was second with +38 DRS and third with +18.6 UZR. He has hit .237/.316/.440 over the past two seasons with a 101 wRC+ with pretty even seasons the last two years. He’s been worth 3.8 WAR/600.
If you want to compare him to this group, Ahmed has posted a 2.1 WAR/600 over the past two seasons. Nearly half as valuable as this group.
So in conclusion, DeJong is on par with the top defenders at the position, but it’s his bat that is what is holding him back at this point.
When you look at DeJong’s offensive production the last two seasons, he appears to be an average hitter whose production is carried by his power, but that only tells part of the story. When you break his seasons down, he becomes a fast starter who can’t maintain his production.
Back in 2018, DeJong posted a slash line of .260/.351/.473 with 8 home runs through the first 41 games of the season and looked to be making the front office’s decision to extend him look like a prescient move. But his season would be derailed by a pitch that broke his hand and resulted in surgery. After he returned in July, DeJong hit just .231/.292/.314 with 11 home runs in the final 75 games of the season.
Over the winter you can explain the season away because hand injuries are difficult to come back from mid-season because of the important role they play in a hitter’s swing and timing.
Unfortunately for DeJong, he repeated that performance in 2019. Using that same May 17th date of the hit by pitch from the previous year, DeJong was hitting .318/.408/.541 with 7 home runs in 45 games. But from May 18th to the end of the regular season, DeJong hit just .199/.280/.404 with 23 home runs in 117 games. For comparison, Harrison Bader was hitting .195/.309/.339 when the team elected to demote him in July.
Mike Shildt explained this away in the offseason that DeJong may be being used too heavily and that he’ll be more proactive this season to give DeJong time off, especially with Tommy Edman on the roster. DeJong did play 111 of the 116 games he was available for in 2018 and started 159 of 162 last season. But Edman, a career shortstop through the minors, didn’t play a single inning there in the Majors for Shildt last season.
Only time will tell whether Shildt is right or whether DeJong will continue his hot starts to cold summers.
Both could be true. So could neither.
But to answer the question I posed in the title, I don’t believe Paul DeJong is the best shortstop in baseball, but I also don’t think it would take much more from him to put himself over the top. If he could provide a little more punch with the bat, he has the defensive credentials to win the argument.
Entering 2020, I feel like DeJong is in the same position Kolten Wong was last season. He’s flashed all the tools at the big league level and now he just needs to find a way to put them together consistently. He’s already proven himself elite defensively, and as long as he remains so, he’s at a position where he will keep getting opportunities to put it together offensively. Because while he may not yet be the best shortstop in baseball, there are only a couple who are demonstrably better than he is and those guys command a lot more money than DeJong already has.
In a Twitter poll conducted by Birds on the Black’s Nicholas Childress last week about what you want to see most for the Cardinals next season:
- A healthy Carlos Martinez.
- A Matt Carpenter bounceback season.
- A healthy Alex Reyes.
- Or a consistent Harrison Bader.
I chose a Carpenter bounceback as my choice.
Fundamentally, because as I considered the question, the organization has pitching depth and they have outfield depth, but the number of players who have the potential to be 5+ WAR players — of which Carpenter is one — are small. Carpenter and Paul Goldschmidt both had 5+ WAR seasons in 2018. Only 19 players in baseball did in 2019. But the player I feel who is most likely to have his first 5+ WAR season in 2020 is DeJong, who led the team’s position players with 4.1 WAR last season. Either way, he is undoubtedly one of this team’s most valuable players.
Jon Doble has been writing about the St. Louis Cardinals since 2010. You can find him on Twitter at @GroundRuleDoble. Thank you for reading.