CLEVELAND — At some point Tuesday, when all the jersey signing, baseball signing, and all-consuming All-Star asks had been somewhat addressed, something probably unexpected gripped a few of the hitters in the National League clubhouse.
“We were bored sitting in here,” Cardinals shortstop Paul DeJong said. “So, let’s go to the cage and hit. Let’s go.”
A common phrase around both clubhouses this week at Progressive Field and the 90th All-Star Game was “pick the brains.” Cardinals prospect Dylan Carlson said before the Futures Game that he intended to “pick the brains” of other minor-league standouts. Lucas Giolito, White Sox starter, said he and high school teammate Jack Flaherty, Cardinals starter, continue to “pick each other’s brain” about how to improve as a starter. And, like several other first-time All-Stars, Pirates slugger Josh Bell talked about how he wanted to watch, study, and “pick their brains a little bit” by being around other All-Stars. Picking brains sure beats boredom.
And so that’s where DeJong found himself a few hours before first pitch Tuesday – “picking some brains,” he said, in the cages and swapping stories with Nolan Arenado, shortstop Trevor Story, and two leading candidates for the NL MVP, Bell and Cody Bellinger.
“No kidding,” DeJong said. “We talked about the game, random things, random anecdotes. How (the game) is changing and the guys aren’t throwing 89 mph now. Arenado said his first homer was off a guy throwing 89-90 and said to some of the young guys, ‘This will never happen anymore.’”
Sharing a cage and sharing a dugout with some of the best hitters in the National League, allowed DeJong to watch them all hit from different angles. Rather than from the vantage point of shortstop or the television camera, DeJong could pick his angle, see setups from the side, and watch habits in the on-deck circle. He said he wanted to learn some of the hitters’ game-day routines and cage habits to see if any would help him.
One of the conversations that will linger for DeJong and he hopes to incorporate into how he preps for a game didn’t come with another player. It was a Dodgers coach.
Brant Brown, a former big leaguer, serves as the Dodgers’ “hitting strategist,” and he came along with manager Dave Roberts’ coaching staff to work with the National League players on Tuesday. DeJong was set to get late-game at-bats, and he listened as Brant offered some Dodger-fried scouting reports on the American League pitchers. DeJong said the presentation “really clicked with me.” Rather than hearing a list of what pitches the reliever has and how he likes to use them, where he likes to use them, and what count he’s likely to use them in, Brant also offered a plan as to how to get a hit off this. Not how to hit his misses or where those misses are going to be – but how to have an approach that is geared toward the pitcher’s tendencies.
“What you have to do is cover his pitches,” DeJong explained. “With (Cleveland reliever) Brad Hand, he throws that inside two-seam fastball and the back-foot slider. He told me to be left-center with (the swing) because my misses will still be on the barrel. But if I try to fight him to right field with my swing then my misses are going to be foul balls or under (the pitch). Even though he’s throwing in, still I want to put something off the plate. I can pull a middle-away pitch with authority then. It’s about getting that good direction.”
In the eighth inning of Tuesday’s classic, DeJong faced Hand and felt prepared for that at-bat because of what Brown could do for him.
He got that fastball in for a called strike 1. He then took two sliders for balls outside the strike zone, in part because he wasn’t looking to drive the ball to right field. Hand missed with two fastballs – one away and one well in and low – and DeJong took his walk.
“I didn’t even swing the bat once,” he realized later.
But after time with Brown and mingling with MVP candidates, he did take away some things that will influence the next time he does.
Cubs third baseman Kris Bryant explained how the All-Star Game offers a chance to talk with division rivals without the air of the division race. He called DeJong a “pretty cool guy.” Bell talked about the same conversations that DeJong described for the group that went to the cage together. Heading to the All-Star Game, DeJong had said he wanted to spend some time around Arenado, who he considers one of the best all-around players in the game and a model for how he aims to influence the game on defense and offense – at a premium position in the field and a pivotal position in the lineup. The All-Star Game “makes guys human vs. on the bases when you say hello, have some small talk, and get back to playing,” DeJong said.
“We’re just trying to shoot the breeze,” said Bell, who visits St. Louis with the Pirates for a series that starts at Busch Stadium on Monday. “I know DeJong was saying he wanted to see (Pirates closer Felipe) Vazquez pitch.”
Vazquez heard about that.
“I’ll see you in a few days,” the reliever promised DeJong.
That’s probably not what DeJong meant.