Throughout my three and a half years at Bradley University, I had the privilege of being a member of the Bradley Athletics broadcast and production team, Braves Vision. Working sports like soccer and basketball at the division one level was a dream come true, and on the basketball court I was able to have a court-side view of one of the best regular season college basketball teams–the 2013-14 Wichita State Shockers.
But it was a different school in a different sport that allowed me the opportunity to see a future pro that I would come to love and appreciate.
The Bradley baseball team plays at Dozer Park, the home of the low-A Cardinals affiliate, the Peoria Chiefs, and during the 2014 season and the 2015 season, I got the chance to work games against the Illinois State Redbirds, our hated rival. One member of those teams played all over the diamond during his college career, starting games at catcher, second base, third base, shortstop, right field, and designated hitter. I didn't think much of this player (the Bradley team was a .500 team in 2014, so honestly every opposing player looked good) but he ended up being drafted by the St. Louis Cardinals and has now become a fixture in the lineup at shortstop. Of course, I am talking about Paul DeJong.
DeJong was unheralded out of college and was drafted in the fourth round by the Cardinals in the 2015 MLB Amateur Players Draft. He burst onto the scene in 2017, a mere season and a half after being drafted, with a second place Rookie of the Year finish. DeJong hit 25 home runs in 108 games with an OPS+ of 121. Injuries derailed his progression last season as a broken hand limited him to 115 games. But prior to the injury, DeJong had hit 8 home runs in 24 games, even though his average had decreased a bit, down to .260 from .285 his rookie year. After the injury, DeJong saw his average drop further to .240 on the season, .231 over his final 74 games played, striking out 73 times. During those games, DeJong simply didn't look right. He was chasing pitches and could not catch up to the high fastball. But even in a down year, where he looked awful in the second half, he still had an OPS+ of 102, which is the league average.
Going into the season, many fans wondered if he could bounce back. Was the second half Paul DeJong the real Paul DeJong despite what the team was saying? Being the optimist that I am, I thought his bat speed struggles had to be because of the broken hand. Yes, he was healthy, but the hand and wrist are two of the most important aspects of a hitter’s ability to have the bat speed necessary to hit a major league fastball. I thought, with a full offseason to strengthen those muscles back up, DeJong would be able to build upon that outstanding rookie season.
DeJong has done just that this season. Riding a 12-game hit streak, DeJong has a slash line of .346/.414/.673 with an OPS of 1.087 and an OPS+ of 181. In addition to that, DeJong has played a flawless shortstop, has hit six doubles, a triple, and three home runs while driving in eight runs. In the series sweep against the Dodgers, DeJong was the leader of the offense that saw Matt Carpenter and Paul Goldschmidt share a combined four hits. For the series, DeJong went 9-13, with four doubles and three walks. Now DeJong will probably always have a 20+ percent strikeout rate, but the approach he has shown, and the ability to drive the baseball at any moment, demonstrates that having DeJong as the three hitter all season may be perfect for this Cardinals team with the OBP monsters of Carp and Goldy ahead of him.
On the other hand, a pitcher I did not see having as much success as he has had, is John Gant. Gant has been fantastic out of the pen for the Cardinals. In his 10.2 innings pitched, Gant has allowed only one earned run, three total, for an ERA of 0.54. Now can Gant sustain this? I'm not sure, but someone much better than I at evaluating pitchers, Joe Schwarz (@stlcupofjoe) of the Athletic, thinks that Gant can be a weapon out of the pen and the details in this article are much better articulated and explained then I could manage so check it out.
Now a few notes before we wrap this up:
- I am a huge fan of the Matt Carpenter extension. He is one of my favorite Cardinals, and I am excited at the possibility that he will truly be a Cardinal for life just like Yadi and Waino. Check out Corey Sanzone's piece on the extension.
- The Dodgers sweep made me INCREDIBLY optimistic about this team for the season. I am trying to temper my expectations as it's so early, but it's not working well.
- The Marcell Ozuna play was one of the weirdest things I have ever seen, and I swear it was like watching Manny Ramirez reborn. Now if he can hit like Manny, that would be great. He has finally shown that power we were hoping for in the last few games. Let’s see it continue.
- I am too excited about what Nolan Gorman and Dylan Carson have been doing in the minors so far. I'm so psyched to watch them in a couple of years make a huge impact at the big league level.
- Now you may be wondering what movie I was watching while I wrote this. With the release of Avengers: Endgame in 14 days, I am re-watching all of the MCU films to this point. I started with seeing Captain Marvel in theaters before watching the entirety of Phase One this week with my umpteenth viewing of The Avengers tonight. I love that movie and I am so excited for Endgame. Only another 14 to go.
Thanks to Baseball Reference and FanGraphs for stats.