Can Paul DeJong Sustain Success?

The Cardinals announced Monday that they reached a contract agreement with Paul DeJong; he’s guaranteed $26M for the next 6 years, with 2 team options. The Cardinals seem to make one of these extensions each spring, but did they pick the wrong players?

DeJong came out of nowhere in 2016 to be runner up in the Rookie of the Year voting. He took over shortstop from a struggling Aledmys Diaz and never looked back. DeJong looked like a good player, until you see his high strikeout total and low walk rate. Many players can survive with one or the other; it’s rare to see a good player with both.

Through 2016, there have been 39 seasons where a player had a K% greater than 25% and a BB% less than 5%. Most of the players have been recent; 25 have been since 2002.

To filter it further, I took out the guys with few than 20 homers. We’re at the 7 closest players to DeJong’s rookie season: Butch Hobson (1977), Jim Presley (1986), Cory Snyder (1986), Miguel Olivo (2009), John Buck (2010), J.P. Arencibia (2013), and Mike Zunino (2014). None of these guys are a perfect match; DeJong had the best slash stats of the bunch. To get a better estimation of how they match up, I took DeJong’s stat rates and applied them to the amount of games the comps played; so I took DeJong’s 25 home runs over 108 games and projected how many he’d have in 159 games like Hobson. I then looked at key stats (Runs, hits, doubles, homers, RBIs, BB, and Ks) to see how they matched to the comps; if the players were within 5 of any category, they received a point.

The best comp of the bunch was Snyder at 5; over the 103 games, DeJong would have been at 113 hits, 25 doubles, 24 homers, 20 walks, and 118 strikeouts (Snyder actuals are 113, 21, 24, 16, and 123 respectively). Olivo was the second best at 4: 26 HR, 69 RBI, 22 BB, and 131 K (actuals of 23, 65, 19, 126). Hobson, Presley, and Buck all had 3; Arencibia and Zunino each had 1.

With Snyder as the best comp, we can look at his career and see how he ended up.

1986 was Snyder’s rookie season; he played for 8 more seasons and was worth a total of 0.6 bWAR over his career. He was all over the place during his playing days; his peak bWAR was 1988 (2.7) and had 3 years of positive bWAR (including his rookie season). Defensively, he was pretty close to DeJong as well; he played multiple positions and the results were mixed. His fielding skills eroded as he got older, which is to be expected for many players that are defensively limited to begin with. DeJong was always considered an average defender at multiple positions; I’m expecting he’ll see a similar erosion of skills too.

Many of the other comps are hard to compare to DeJong; more than half the list was catchers. Hobson and Presley primarily played third and both were pretty much below average fielders.

Another difference between DeJong and the others was the point of their careers that were comparable. Zunino was in his second season, but the other 5 were established Major Leaguers; the 5 established players averaged about 4 years of playing time after the comparable seasons (since Zunino is still playing, I didn’t include him). With all 6 comps, they’ve averaged 5 years of playing time after the comparable seasons. I note this because of the total 31 seasons played after the comparable seasons, 12 had a K% under 25%.

Hopefully DeJong can sustain prolonged success in the majors; with his skillset, repeating 2017 might be difficult. To succeed, he’ll need to push that BB% up and keep working on defense. In the long run, DeJong will probably move off shortstop; if guys like Max Schrock, Edmundo Sosa, and Delvin Perez progress through the minors, they’re all better suited to be an everyday shortstop. DeJong’s bat would work fine as a third baseman; he’s got the power and, as noted, needs to work on the strikeouts and walks.

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