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DeJong playing like an elite big-league shortstop

Shortstop Paul DeJong is a big factor in the Cardinals’ rise to the National League Central lead. (photo by Mike Morrow)

When one of a big-league club’s best hitters is a shortstop it’s almost like having an extra player in the lineup. Think Cal Ripken Jr.

That’s what you have in St. Louis at the moment, as Paul DeJong is batting third in the lineup and hitting .333. He’s a major reason the Cardinals have climbed into the lead in the National League Central Division with a series against the second-place Cubs coming up this weekend.

DeJong was among seven players columnist Richard Justice named a few days ago as among darkhorse candidates for an MVP award this year.

Here are a few reasons why that’s not so far-fetched:

Start with the basics. DeJong, who took the organizational tour through the Cardinals’ Tennessee connections, playing for Johnson City in the Rookie-level Appalachian League and parts of two seasons at Class AAA Memphis, is an offensive powerhouse of a shortstop right now.

According to data from the Cardinals two days ago, DeJong was first among National League shortstops in hits, runs, extra-base hits, doubles, batting average, on-base percentage, slugging percentage and OPS.

He has appeared in 31 games, with five home runs, 13 RBIs and a .393 on-base percentage. He has been everything the Cardinals would want in a player batting third in the lineup.

A few days ago, Craig Edwards at FanGraphs highlighted DeJong as the No. 4 player in baseball in Wins Above Replacement (WAR), behind only Cody Bellinger, Christian Yelich and Mike Trout. Edwards zeroed in on the fact that DeJong has reduced his strikeout rate at an impressive pace. Edwards found that in more than 1,000 minor-league plate appearances, DeJong struck out 24 percent of the time. As to be expected, that went up as a big-league rookie, as he struck out 28 percent of the time in his first season with the Cardinals. That fell to 25 percent last season. This year, DeJong is striking out only 18 percent of the time he goes to the plate.

FanGraphs is quick to point out that cutting down on strikeouts is not automatically symptomatic of an improved player. He could simply be grounding out weakly, for example. But Edwards drills down to show DeJong is swinging at more pitches that are in the strike zone than before, which is key. It gives DeJong the ability to capitalize on batter’s counts, 2-0, 3-0, 3-1. When the pitcher really needs to throw a strike and puts one in the strike zone, DeJong is less prone now to let it go by. He pounces. DeJong does have 23 strikeouts, the fourth most on the team. Veterans Paul Goldschmidt (36), Matt Carpenter (33) and Marcel Ozuna (25) have more.

DeJong is only 25. Taken by the Cardinals in the fourth round in 2015 out of Illinois State, he made his major league debut at age 23. So his emergence to be counted among the league’s elite shortstops offensively has been a quick success story.

He hit .486 in 10 games at Johnson City in his draft year, quickly moving on to Class A Peoria, and playing the next season at AA Springfield, where he hit .260 in 132 games. He played 48 games with the Memphis Redbirds in 2017, batting .299, but moved up to the majors playing 108 games for the Cardinals, belting 25 home runs and batting .285. He was second in the Rookie of the Year voting in the National League that year behind Bellinger of the Dodgers.

Last season, DeJong hit .241 for the Cardinals in 115 games and slugged another 19 homers. He also played four games in Memphis on an injury rehab assignment, going 4-for-13. Could the strikeout ratio be the biggest factor in DeJong’s strong numbers this season? Hard to tell. But something has him going.

Maybe his success is because he studies a lot. In high school in Antioch, Ill., DeJong was named the science department’s Most Outstanding Student, and he’s noted for working with respected scientist Dr. Lawrence Rocks on the study of heat effects on a baseball.

Playing in muggy St. Louis, there will be a lot of hot baseball. Regardless of the weather, DeJong is a hot hitter. Especially for a shortstop.

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