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As lockout persists, DeJong hits new drills and data to ‘lock-in’ swing and reward Cardinals' confidence

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St. Louis Cardinals vs Los Angeles Dodgers National League wild-card game

St. Louis Cardinals shortstop Paul DeJong (11) strikes out while batting in top of the ninth inning of the National League wild-card game between the St. Louis Cardinals and the Los Angeles Dodgers at Dodger Stadium in Los Angeles on Wednesday, Oct. 6, 2021. Photo by David Carson, dcarson@post-dispatch.com

At this point on the calendar, with report date supposed to be a page away, Cardinals shortstop Paul DeJong would be gathering for grounders with fielding guru Jose Oquendo and several teammates in Jupiter, Fla. They meet early to tune their footwork and get a step ahead on spring training.

DeJong is in Jupiter with a glove handy.

Oquendo lives nearby and knows where fungo bats lean.

But the persisting lockout keeps them apart as major-league club officials, including coaches, cannot communicate with players on the 40-man roster. No early reps in the hitting lab with coach Jeff Albert. No January morning short-hops from Oquendo.

“I’m trying to be my own best coach at this point,” DeJong said.

All while entering a pivotal time in the shortstop’s career.

An All-Star for the Cardinals in 2019 who set a club record for his position with 30 homers, DeJong’s production, like his swing, drifted in 2021 and then his grip on the starting job loosened. The Cardinals have committed publicly and privately to DeJong, asserting they expect him to reclaim short. Before the lockout they were not active in discussions with any player in this marquee class of free-agent shortstops.

Meanwhile, DeJong has been active — seeking out and hiring a hitting instructor to help him regain the swing and reward the Cardinals’ confidence.

“I really think I’m in a different place as far as my understanding of my swing,” DeJong said. “I thought my mechanics — I was searching. I don’t take offense to (that description). I really was kind of all over the map last year. I addressed a lot of things with my coach now. We’re on the same page, and I’m understanding the correct way I can do things.”

After returning to Florida in the past few weeks, DeJong has started working five days a week with Lorenzo Garmendia, founder of Gradum Baseball. Milwaukee shortstop Willy Adames credited Garmendia with jolting his production, and Adames was urged to work with Garmendia by Mookie Betts, Dodgers right fielder and former MVP. In 2019, Garmendia met Betts on the road during the season to help adjust his swing. Garmendia has also worked with Boston designated hitter J.D. Martinez, and DeJong connected with Garmendia through teammate Harrison Bader.

With a biomechanical inspiration, Garmendia advocates what he calls the “G-Swing.” Among things he works with hitters on is better coordination between their legs and their swing, meeting the pitch out front, at a point for power and angle for line drives, and — a key for DeJong — keeping their hands above the ball. DeJong sees the overlap with Garmendia’s instruction and what Albert, with the Cardinals, has urged.

That starts well before he attacks a pitch.

“I know that one of Jeff Albert’s big things — especially with me — we talked a lot about my inconsistency with my routine, and that he thinks I need a consistent routine to be a consistent hitter,” DeJong said. “Lorenzo has really helped me with his program to have a good routine. I can execute it every day. (Before) it was: ‘What am I feeling today?’ I was a little bit too reactive instead of proactive.”

DeJong, 28, is entering the fifth year of a six-year, $26-million extension, and after the 2023 season the Cardinals have two club options.

This past season, DeJong had a career-low .197 average and continued a two-year dip in production with a .378 slugging percentage and .673 OPS over his past 158 games. At the General Manager Meetings in November, president of baseball operations John Mozeliak said the club saw reasons for DeJong’s struggles and thus solutions for a rebound. A few weeks later, right before Thanksgiving, DeJong was working out in the clubhouse weight room at Busch Stadium when Mozeliak walked in.

He came to amplify in person what was quoted in print.

“People feel that DeJong fell off a cliff,” the shortstop said, recalling the phrase that stuck with him. “The team knows that’s not true.”

On March 14, 2020, few hitters in baseball had better spring numbers than DeJong. He was 14-for-30 (.467) with twice as many hits as strikeouts (seven). His five home runs led the Grapefruit League and tied for the second most in the majors with future teammate Nolan Arenado. No player in Florida had more hits than DeJong, and throughout baseball no player with 30 or fewer at-bats had as many hits as DeJong. He had asserted his claim to being the Cardinals’ cleanup hitter. And then the games stopped.

When baseball resumed after COVID-19 closed camps and shortened the season, DeJong’s struggles started. He learned he tested positive for the virus while quarantined in a Milwaukee hotel room on his birthday. The next spring, he hit .200 (nine-for-45) with 16 strikeouts and talked about his misplaced timing. On May 11, a pitch drilled him in the side. He played the next day, and then missed a month with a fractured rib. The season was uphill from there. DeJong’s line drive rate slashed in half, down to a career-low 15.7%. He had a career-low hard-hit rate of 34.5%, and his average exit velocity (86.3 mph) ranked in the bottom 8%, according to Baseball Savant.

“What comes to mind when you ask is, OK, I’m hitting the ball on the ground and that means … maybe I am protecting that left side,” DeJong said. “I never want an excuse like that because you find a way. Maybe subconsciously I was rotating too early and slowing everything down, too cautious, and kind of just tentative. I was doing stuff that wasn’t powerful.

“It’s one of those learning years,” he added. “I think I went through a lot.”

After the season, DeJong went west — on a hunting trip to Montana with a cousin. One night, his headlamp was the only one working as they navigated a stream with limited vision while hauling a deer. He made his annual trip to Wisconsin for ice fishing at “area” lake, the name used to avoid revealing a fertile fishing spot. And he traveled to the Dominican Republic to participate in a coastline cleanup as part of his work with Players for the Planet.

DeJong’s work with the environmental group, his education advocacy, and his lab experiment videos from previous winters all stem from his curiosity, his interest in science. He has been known to turn that empirical eye on baseball, too. Still relatively new to the shortstop position when tasked with playing it at the majors, DeJong explored and established a routine to improve his fielding. That started in January during the workouts that cannot be happening now with Oquendo, Tommy Edman and other teammates.

DeJong knew what defensive drills he had to do “to stay locked in.”

He didn’t take that same approach with hitting — until now.

“I’m more mindful of what it is I’m doing and why,” he said. “We have a solid routine working right now. That really just kind of locks me is as far as my connection.”

With Garmendia, DeJong goes through a series of drills before facing pitches. They include one-handed swings with a smaller bat, choking up on his bat for swings, and a “V-Drill,” where the bottom hand grips normally and the top hand cradles the bat on the slope from index finger to thumb, the “V.” With each swing he can peek at a TV screen in the cage with immediate analytics on the ball’s spin and exit velocity. He said videos of where his swing started to where it is this week show improvement — and he can feel it before the data says it.

Left to his own devices, he’s still got a jump on spring.

Now to get in some grounders.

“Trying to get a little group of infielders to work together,” DeJong said. “So I can get this rolling.”

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