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How long can Cardinals stick with DeJong’s steady glove if his bat, their offense come up short?

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Cardinals 4, Pirates 9

Cardinals infielder Paul DeJong watches his high pop up on Sunday, April 10, 2022, in the ninth inning of a game against the Pittsburgh Pirates at Busch Stadium in St. Louis. Photo by Christian Gooden, cgooden@post-dispatch.com

The head of baseball operations stood outside the lobby of a California resort, his industry on the brink of a lengthy work stoppage, and to anyone within earshot shared publicly what he said privately to the team’s shortstop.

Another executive, standing a few feet away, labeled the offseason “the year of the shortstop” with a quintet of talented players at that position reaching free agency at the same time. The opportunity for teams was rich; the shortstops soon would be richer. There would be a lot of names swirling around, some bound to stick to his team, so the head of baseball ops reached out to his shortstop to affirm the plan to keep him at the position.

That pledge has paid off for Seattle’s Jerry Dipoto.

While many of the free-agent shortstops such as Trevor Story and Carlos Correa have opened the season sluggishly — two of the fab five are batting less than .200, all five slugging below .390 — the Mariners’ J. P. Crawford is off to a raucous start with a .340 average, a .546 slugging percentage.

On the same day as Dipoto and at the same resort, John Mozeliak, the Cardinals’ president of baseball operations, quietly made a similar comment about his team’s long view of its shortstop: The team would stick with Paul DeJong despite a downturn in his production. Mozeliak told him, in person, shortly before Thanksgiving that they would not be shopping for a replacement. It was a seed of confidence, planted in winter, followed by an encouraging spring — but has yet to bloom heading toward summer.

A commitment made in November has become a familiar question by May.

“I just feel like I blinked a little bit and all of a sudden here we are,” DeJong said Sunday morning at Oracle Park in San Francisco, his batting average about to hit .130. “For me, it’s just the nitty gritty now and not getting too far ahead. I blinked and I feel like I missed some opportunity this year. I need to lock in on the moment, go pitch to pitch. That’s the only way I can do this.”

Tough trip

As the Cardinals return home to host the Baltimore Orioles for one of their rare visits to St. Louis since shedding the Browns name and migrating from St. Louis after the 1953 season, DeJong is coming off a steady and likely unplanned run of playing time. The six-game trip began with infielder Edmundo Sosa going on the COVID-19 injury list. That opened up six consecutive games for DeJong to start at shortstop, six uninterrupted starts to find his rhythm at the plate. He got two singles Saturday, but those were his only two hits as he finished the road swing two for 19 (.105) with three RBIs, a walk, and five strikeouts.

The Cardinals liked the matchup offensively one game in San Francisco for left-handed hitter Brendan Donovan, but with a groundball-getter on their mound they sided with defense and DeJong. It’s his glove that has kept him in the lineup for now. His glove and production elsewhere in the lineup, his manager added. Before an error Sunday and miscue turning a double play, DeJong led all shortstops in defensive runs saved. Even after the mistakes, his plus-5 DRS ranks second at short and fifth most at any position, snug behind teammate Tommy Edman’s plus-6. He countered Sunday’s error by stealing a hit with a running catch in left field.

“Right now, DeJong playing short is my call to win because of what he’s doing on the other side of the baseball,” manager Oliver Marmol said. “The middle of your field you want to be strong defensively, and if the rest of your lineup is doing their job you can get away with a strong defensive shortstop with some upside on the hitting that’s not there yet.”

A steady spring from DeJong that showcased an improved swing and approach fed the team’s optimism that he could stem a two-year decline in batting. While dealing with hand and torso injuries and recovery from COVID-19, DeJong has hit .202 in 182 games since 2020, and the former All-Star and Cardinals’ single-season record holder for home runs hit at shortstop has slugged .356 in his past 662 plate appearances. The Cardinals saw upticks in March in the metrics that indicate a hitter closer to restoring power, elevating his production. A “really good spring,” Marmol called it.

The analytics have not maintained that altitude by May.

Falling figures

Barrel rate measures the numbers of balls in play by a hitter that have an exit velocity greater than 98 mph and the launch angle that most often produces a hit (greater than a .500 average) and often extra-base hits. DeJong’s has dropped from 10.6% last year to 5.7% this year. A “Solid” rate comes from balls in play just on the fringe of barreling — they produce in the area of a .400 average. DeJong’s rate has cratered, from a career average of 7% to 1.9% this season, per Baseball Savant. He’s facing a higher percentage of breaking balls and off-speed pitches than in previous years and, thus, a career low percentage of fastballs.

Correspondingly, the percentage of balls he’s getting under and popping up or flying out has soared to what would be a career high, at 45.3%, per Statcast. The MLB average is 24.4%.

“When he gets his pitch and he’s swinging at the pitch he should, like he has been, those have to turn into line drives like he’s had in the past,” Cardinals hitting coach Jeff Albert said. “He’s under or fouling off pitches that he should handle, pitches he’s used to handling. We’re trying to get that back on track. If we can get that right with his swing, the pitches he’s swinging at he should put in play hard. And then he’s Paul DeJong.”

That is not who his private hitting instructor saw going to the plate recently. DeJong said he got a call from Lorenzo Garmendia, who he hired during the lockout, and the coach told him “(you) didn’t look like yourself.” His body language gave away his batting average. DeJong took it as a reminder — and a challenge.

“I tried to have a different attitude,” DeJong said.

And he had stouter at-bats, though he fouled off several pitches he would like to sting and still struggled with two-strike counts.

Asked if his focus or confidence was being tested, DeJong shook his head.

“It’s more of my intent being tested,” DeJong said. “I find myself trying to bite off too much at once, instead of just doing my piece and being locked in on that moment. I feel different than last year and I feel better, but I might be in the same place. I’m trying to create things instead of trusting it.”

What’s next?

How long the Cardinals give him depends on what’s happening around him.

There are two guaranteed seasons, including this one, and $18 million remaining on his contract extension. DeJong said he has not considered whether the team would send him to Class AAA Memphis for a reboot. To that question he replied how he “feels I can contribute here and I belong here and I’ll find a way here.”

The Cardinals will know more Tuesday about Sosa’s timetable for a return. Top prospect Nolan Gorman leads Memphis with 12 homers and continues to gain experience at second base. The Cardinals have been, thus far, reluctant to move Gold Glove-winner Edman from second to shortstop, but they cannot dismiss the notion.

In the ninth inning Sunday, Marmol pinch-hit for DeJong and the plan, if the Cardinals tied the game, was to lose the designated hitter and have Donovan play second base.

Edman would move to short, the manager acknowledged.

DeJong’s play in the field continues to get him time at the plate to reward the Cardinals’ winter commitment or see that shift under the increasing heat of summer.

“When things aren’t going right you have to take little wins here and there,” DeJong said. “And that, to me, is competing or squaring the ball up, or seeing a bunch of pitches or working a walk, moving a runner — all of those little, minor things are what you’re looking for, and then — and then — the big stuff will come.”

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