Cardinals shortstop Paul DeJong, the runner-up in the National League Rookie of the Year balloting last year, batted just .206 from the day he suffered a fracture in his left hand on May 17 until the Cardinals’ most recent series in Miami. But DeJong, who missed seven weeks, said his problem did not stem from the left hand, which had been hit by a pitch, but rather both hands.
“My hands were starting way too high (in his swing),” said DeJong. “Last year, they were way lower. I was having trouble just hitting the ball where my hands were starting. It wasn’t anything about my preparation. It wasn’t anything about my strength. I never thought it was a strength issue with my hand.
“It wasn’t anything about my timing. It was literally about my bat path.
“I kind of lost the rhythm of everything as more time went on. I had gotten away from my swing,” he said after going four for 11 with three extra-base hits including a home run, in the Miami series.
And it wasn’t just physical.
“It took a toll on me mentally,” DeJong said. “Finding yourself as a player in the big leagues in the middle of the season is a challenge. For some reason, I drifted away.
“Coming off the DL, I was struggling every day and I was saying, ‘What’s going on? What’s going on?’
“Everything felt good. I just wasn’t getting any results. I think it was because I was fighting myself. I was doing something I wasn’t accustomed to. It was a challenge physically and biomechanically to get a good hit. Changing my hand position is going to help a lot.
“To start my hands a little lower, my shoulders are in a more relaxed position and my hands are free to hit the ball wherever it’s pitched as opposed to trying to fight myself with one path. If I’m looser with my hands, I trust my eyes and my ability to square the ball up.”
Besides his work with hitting coach Mark Budaska, DeJong said teammate Harrison Bader had helped identify the “hands” problem.
“He’s shorter to the baseball,” Budaska said. “He was getting there anyway and we actually changed two things, including the angle of his front foot.”
DeJong put into practice the new look before Tuesday’s game in which he hit a game-tying homer, a double and a hard fly to right field.
“I knew I was going to have a good game,” he said. After he homered off Miami rookie Pablo Lopez, the 25-year-old DeJong said, “I knew I was going to get a pitch to hit. I know I can hit a pitch down the middle. Those are the moments I think I can provide a lot of — and consistently.”
In April, DeJong had seven homers and six doubles. In May, he had one homer and two doubles before he got hurt. From July 6, he had only one homer and four doubles until the Miami series.
“Slugging in the .400s is not me,” said DeJong, who had a .532 slugging mark last year.
“This year has been wild for me. Tuesday, hopefully, I turned over a new leaf to get to the consistency I had last year. I don’t think it was an accident. I’m not surprised. I think it was because of the adjustment that I made. I don’t know why I got away from what I did last year.
“I’m better than what I’m showing this year. It was like it was snowballing. The mental stuff made me do something physically, like me wanting to make up for lost time.”
DeJong had 25 homers and 26 doubles in 108 games with the Cardinals in 2017 besides having another 13 homers and nine doubles in 48 games at Memphis. He batted .285 in St. Louis and .299 in Memphis.
“I felt I had a lot of contributions last year,” said DeJong, who hit third much of the season. But he went three for 29 hitting third from July 28 through Aug. 5 this year and was dropped down in the order.
Marcell Ozuna was walked intentionally ahead of DeJong in the eighth inning on Wednesday and DeJong responded with a two-run double.
“They may have had some old information,” DeJong said. “I was able to make them pay.”
That gave DeJong 14 doubles to go with his 10 homers and in 159 fewer at-bats, he already has four more walks (25) than he had last year. “My plate discipline has been better,” DeJong said.
DeJong has improved defensively at short and is making more plays both, notably, to his left but also to his backhand. “You have to be able to separate hitting, defense and base running,” he said.
“You’re only doing one of them at a time and you can’t let the bat stuff creep into the other areas of the game. Being able to watch Yadi (catcher Yadier Molina) and see which pitches are coming, I’m getting better at reading swings and anticipating where the ball is going to go.”
As the Cardinals prepare to wrap up their nine-game, three-city trip in Kansas City this weekend, they have won four consecutive series and are five games better than par for the first time since late June.
“We have the pieces, the talent and the energy to pull something off,” DeJong said. “Especially out of the bullpen, we’ve got some guys who are bringing some high velocity and a fearless type of attitude where we can beat some teams and not think too much of it.
“We have some guys who can make hitters uncomfortable.”
The Cardinals have 47 games remaining, 38 against teams they are either battling with for a wild-card spot or a possible division title.
“The sweeps will come,” said DeJong. “But just keep winning series. If we keep winning series, that will put us in a good spot.
“I don’t think this team has given up. I think we have a new spark of life. Let’s see what kind of noise we can make.
“I’m looking to selfishly do well but for me to play well helps our team.”
Budaska has no doubt. “He’s going to go off,” said Budaska.