There is a path to improvement for DeJong, but that improvement may come with another team.
Paul DeJong has been one of the more frustrating players for Cardinals fans this season as he has inexplicably gone from being a 4 fWAR player to a below 2 fWAR player. Despite this, his defense and his plate discipline have remained strong. The shortstop has actually increased his walk rate from his best years at the plate and kept his strikeout rate around the same level. This is an encouraging sign from a player that has looked lost at the plate at times this season.
Obviously, any discourse about Paul DeJong’s struggles at the plate must begin with his career low exit velocity. The 28-year-old has just a 7th percentile average exit velocity (86 mph). However, he also has a career high barrel rate of 9.8% (64th percentile). This has allowed DeJong to retain his power as he has hit 17 home runs this year. His .190 ISO is 12 points below his career average, but that is not a precipitous drop.
Since DeJong’s plate discipline and power numbers have remained steady despite his struggles, it is clear that he has had a difficult time with consistently making hard contact. While this is abundantly clear from his low exit velocities, his soft contact rate (according to Fangraphs) is 2.5% below his career average. The problem is that his hard contact rate is a career low and nearly 4% below his career average.
Thus, the problem with the increased medium contact is that it has not been productive for DeJong. Medium contact generally does not clear the fence, and it has not done well on the ground. DeJong is batting a career low .186 on ground balls which is well below his career average of near .250. Part of the reason for this is that the shift has taken away plenty of hits from him. Opponents have shifted on 55 of the 86 ground balls that DeJong has hit and have held him to just a .145 average in those situations.
When he hits the ball in the air, DeJong generally does well despite his low exit velocity. Although, nearly all of his production on fly balls has come from pulled fly balls. The problem is that DeJong only pulls the ball in the air 34.3% of the time. This means that 65.7% of his flyballs are hit in directions where DeJong has just a 48 wRC+. This is opposed to a 366 wRC+ when he pulls the ball.
Thus, there appears to be solutions for Paul DeJong. The first is obviously to make consistently better contact. This is something that he was able to do in his first three seasons, so it is possible that he can rebound next year. The second solution is to pull more of his flyballs. Additionally, he could also look to slap something to the opposite field when he has two strikes and is not likely to get anything good to hit.
DeJong has proven to be a valuable player and his plate discipline, power, and defense have all remained steady this season. This is a promising sign that DeJong may be able to figure things out in 2022.
It is still unclear as to if he will get that chance to do that next year. With the Cardinals having some money to spend in the offseason, the team could dip into the shortstop market in order to find a player with fewer question marks. There is certainly nothing wrong with this approach and there is a decent chance that it would improve the team, especially if the team signed Carlos Correa or Trevor Story. A direct consequence of this would be the likely trade of DeJong as the Cardinals would likely choose to keep Sosa instead. A problem with this strategy is that the organization would be selling low on a player who has a decent chance of turning things around.
Correa and Story are certainly better players than DeJong as both have been able to reach 5 fWAR in a season and have come close to reaching 6 fWAR. If DeJong can turn things around, though, or if the organization has confidence is a time share with DeJong and Sosa, then the team would be able to chase starting pitching and relief help. This may be more beneficial considering the problems that the Cardinals have had with pitching this season.
There is also a scenario where the St. Louis Cardinals chase a star shortstop and still hold onto both DeJong and Sosa. Everything depends on how the Cardinals view DeJong, though. If they think that he can return to form, then the team will likely begin next season with DeJong as the starter and Sosa receiving a lot of playing time. It is difficult to be closed off to the idea of improving at a position where one player is likely overachieving (Sosa) and the other is batting below .200.