After a season in which he not only made his Major League debut but also turned in one of the top rookie performances in the National League, it’s easy to see why Paul DeJong recently posted a thanks to the St. Louis Cardinals and their fans for the “best year of his life”.
“To be a starting shortstop in the big leagues has been a dream of mine since I was five,” shared DeJong. “To finally have it here, it’s comfortable at first and then you realize you have to get back to work and do your job.”
DeJong made his MLB debut on May 28th, hitting a home run of Colorado Rockies reliever Greg Holland in his first at-bat. He played in 12 games before a one week return to Memphis but was then recalled for good on June 15th.
“The ups and downs I went through–staring in Memphis, getting called up, then getting sent back down, and coming back and contributing–just an amazing year,” said DeJong. “I really got a taste of what the big league life is like and I feel like I learned more about baseball than any other year playing.”
DeJong finished the season with a .285 batting average, 25 homeruns, an .857 OPS, and 65 runs driven in.
“I think I really had to adjust and understand the league and how it was attacking me and how I wanted to respond,” said DeJong. “I just love the day-to-day of baseball. The competition and all that stuff, all the preparation that goes into it so I’m kind of missing that right now. But I’ll refuel.”
“The thing about him is the toughness you see,” said Mike Matheny down the stretch. “The mental toughness. We watched, he would get tired and we were all cautious about do we keep pushing him, even though it looks right? And he was really smart with how he did his work on days when he wouldn’t come out here and was inside getting soft tissue or inside getting compression but he would stay in the weight room. Then the next day you would see him completely rebound. Most of that’s mental, in my mind.”
“Some days, you’ve just got to take it easy,” said DeJong. “Days I wasn’t starting I would definitely tone back the physical activity and I think mentally just getting a reset day–just kind of take a step back and kind of self-analyze yourself to see what you need to do moving forward, those days are huge. For me, it only takes one sometimes and sometimes it can just be an at-bat that locks you back in but there’s many ways you can kind of refocus and start fresh.”
Initially bouncing between second base and shortstop, DeJong only played shortstop after June 26th. After settling into one position, his defense–specifically his range, continued to show improvement.
“The mental toughness, once again, of handling that position, batting third in the order, being so young in the game, I don’t know if you could ask anymore of a young player than what he did,” said Matheny.
After last season at this time, DeJong was playing in the Arizona Fall League, so this is his firs true break from baseball in some time. He again plans to do some ice fishing in January and some deer hunting later this fall. But he hasn’t overlooked his baseball needs.
“I’ll be down in Florida too, so I’ll get my beach time and workouts in and baseball related stuff,” said DeJong, who has plans to work with first base coach Oliver Marmol. “I’m definitely going to get my groundball work in before Spring Training, just to get a jumpstart on that because I can be a better shortstop. That’s an area I want to improve on, so I’ve got to work at it.”
The second half of the season also showed DeJong improve his walk rate while cutting down on strikeouts. Part of that were adjustments that he made, part of it was just getting more comfortable as a rookie.
“He’s responded extremely well,” said Matheny. “We’re at that point where we’re just–he’s our guy at that spot in the order and he’s our guy at that position. Let’s not run him through tests every time he gets out there. He’s figuring out ways to help us win. You can’t deny the fact you’re looking at 35 home runs in a season and the kid plays up the middle. That’s special.”
“I think July you really saw the first adjustments going,” said DeJong, who was named NL Rookie of the Month for July. “Then August, I fell back a little bit and in early September, I fell back a little bit but made my adjustments again and finished strong. A lot of it was just being relaxed. Sounds like it’s easy to do, but the emotions of the game is something I had to adjust to. Moving forward, I got more and more comfortable and relaxed in the box despite the situation and I think that’s really the key for me.”
As he adjusted, DeJong saw his spot in the lineup change as well. Moving into third in the order, he hit .292 and hit 11 of his homeruns and drove in 34 RBIs there. While hitting third could seem like more pressure, it was actually a familiar spot and comfortable for DeJong.
“It’s just the stage that you’re on,” he explained on dealing with the emotions of the game. “The competition level and the will to want to get the job done. Sometimes, I’d go up and be down 5-1 or something and really all I had to do was get on base and I was swinging a little too hard and trying to pull homers. It’s all about intentions. You have to keep the emotion out of it. Just stay relaxed and take what the pitcher gives you. It’s really the universal approach in a walk-off situation or if you’re the first batter of a game. It’s trying to minimize those ups and downs…that’s the emotional rollercoaster that you get.”
In essence, the key is finding a way to be comfortable so no thought is required, to just let the natural talent take over instead of trying to make something happen.
“Absolutely,” said DeJong. “That’s where the trust in the preparation and the routine comes in so that whether you were 0-4 yesterday or 4-4, when you come to the park today you have your set of checklist of items to do and then you go out and do them. It just comes naturally and you don’t have to try and be anything you are not.”
Providing a sounding board to help work through those emotions was John Mabry.
“It was definitely my hitting coach,” credits DeJong. “Mabry helped me a lot…understanding what kind of pitcher is out there and then understanding what I had to do as a hitter to have success. I learned a lot from him and he was able to help me take a step back with a lot of things and see what I’ve done, see what I’m trying to do, and see how I have to do it. Mabry, I would say, was a huge influence.”
So in a season of so many firsts, what will Paul DeJong look back on with the biggest smile this off-season?
“I’ll probably look back and think about the images that I remember over the year,” he said. “Like hitting homers and fireworks at Busch or that first homer I hit in Colorado. I think it’s going to be these experiences that I went through. And also that vision–I’ll probably be thinking more about the vision than the past. Trying to get to where I want to get and where I want to take this team. A lot of good thoughts about Cardinals baseball going, that’s for sure.”
photo credit: Jeff Curry-USA TODAY Sports