There have been a few moments over the last two months, since Paul DeJong announced his arrival in the major leagues by hitting the second pitch he saw for a home run, that he has paused to appreciate where he is and how far his career has come in such a short length of time.
“I see someone way up in the upper deck watching the game,” DeJong said, “or there was the day I was pretty thrown back by talking with Joey Votto at second base about hitting. He told me he liked my swing. That was kind of cool.”
Those moments, plus his success on the field, have combined to make the last two months with the Cardinals the best two-month stretch of DeJong’s life.
“Without a doubt,” he said.
DeJong has gone from not being certain how long he would stick with the Cardinals after being promoted as an injury-replacement for Kolten Wong on May 28 to becoming the team’s starting shortstop and third-place hitter, a rare double-double, especially for a player who did not turn 24 until Wednesday.
“It’s felt like I’ve been here longer than two months,” DeJong said. “The amount of experiences I’ve had, the varied experiences all add up and each one is distinct to me … It’s going to be fun to look back at the end of the year and see the things that happened.
“Now I’m just trying to focus on the day to day because that’s what really got me here. I don’t think I can get away from that. If I have that laser focus on the job at hand I think I will have more success.”
The success DeJong has achieved to this point, beginning with that pinch-hit homer off Greg Holland in Colorado in his first at-bat, has linked DeJong to some of the best rookies in Cardinals’ history.
The only Cardinals’ rookie to hit more than DeJong’s 14 homers in his first 50 games in the majors was Albert Pujols (16). The last rookie to play shortstop and hit third was Red Schoendienst in 1945. His eight homers in July equaled the second most in one month for any rookie in franchise history.
That’s not bad for a player who made his major-league debut just 674 days after he was drafted in 2015, the Cardinals’ fourth-round selection from Illinois State. Because his ascension to the major leagues happened so quickly, DeJong really never obtained the hype and advance publicity teams these days usually heap on their top prospects.
“I never really felt like I was a prospect or this young guy with a lot of development and a lot of upside,” DeJong said. “I felt like I was slowly making improvements so I would be ready to play pretty soon. I kind of knew in spring training. I felt then I could be here and could help this team win.
“I never really got the hype throughout my whole career. That’s fine by me; it’s not something I’m concerned about. I just let whatever I do on the field speak for itself.”
Basically, that’s the same attitude DeJong has had since he was in high school in Antioch, Ill., north of Chicago and only miles from the Wisconsin border.
It was there, when he was a freshman, that DeJong experienced one of his first life-changing moments.
Impacted by injury
“My journey took me a couple of different ways I didn’t expect it to go,” DeJong said. “I kind of find myself appreciating it more because of what I went through. I feel like there’s a couple of moments, turning points. The first was my freshman year in high school when I was hurt so I had sports taken away from me.”
DeJong tore the ACL in his right knee playing basketball, which was his chosen sport at the time.
“When I found out, I was in tears because I knew I wasn’t going to be able to play for I didn’t know how long,” DeJong said. “That kind of touched me in my heart.”
The next year, DeJong tore the ACL again, also while playing basketball.
“I had grown six or seven inches in between and it (his knee) didn’t hold up,” DeJong said. “I stopped playing basketball after that. But when I came back (playing baseball) I didn’t take anything for granted.”
DeJong ended up going to Illinois State, without a scholarship, after coach Bo Durkac heard about him through a fellow coach and welcomed DeJong to the team without ever having watched him play a game in high school.
Professional baseball was not on DeJong’s radar then, in the fall of 2011. He and the other incoming freshmen position players were all red-shirted, and DeJong spent that season mostly catching pitchers during their bullpen sessions.
Even though he made himself a pretty good catcher, according to Durkac, necessity the next season saw DeJong moved to second base.
It was then that Durkac saw what would turn out to be DeJong’s strongest tool, his bat, something DeJong’s dad already had seen for years.
“He’s not physically overbearing,” Keith DeJong said of his oldest son. “He’s not a super big guy but he’s able to do things with his swing. At times when I was coaching him opposing pitchers and coaches didn’t expect him to do what he did. A number of times he hit home runs when he was 12 years old that surprised people.”
Said Durkac, “He brought that with him, believe me, we didn’t teach him that. The one thing that helped him the most was getting stronger. He’s not a big guy when you compare him to corner infielders and corner outfielders. The way his swing is is like the little golfer who can pound the ball 340 yards. How can he do it? It’s his mechanics.”
DeJong was smart enough – heading for a 3.76 GPA and a degree in biochemistry – to know that his bat was the best part of his game.
“That’s my tool,” he said. “I saw a picture of me the other day from back when I was playing 9 and under ball or something and my swing looked exactly the same as it does now, or at least my stance anyway. “It’s one of those things that hasn’t changed.”
That swing helped DeJong set a record with 20 home runs in the summer Northwoods League, a wooden bat league for college players, which began to get the attention of scouts.
It was the swing, and some of his more intangible traits, that attracted Cardinals’ area scout Tom Lipari to DeJong.
“Besides the power to all fields Paul demonstrated, I would say his on-field makeup is what stood out to me the most,” said Lipari, then responsible for the upper Midwest territory and now working in north Texas. “His maturity stuck out. No matter the outcome of an at-bat, whether a strikeout or a home run, Paul’s demeanor remained the same.”
Lipari saw DeJong on several occasions in the spring of 2015, but there was one day that he particularly remembers.
“I have a younger brother, Billy, who was a catcher at Evansville, named after Billy Martin,” Lipari said. “He’s the same age as Paul. I made sure I was at the series for obvious reasons, not only to see my brother play but to see Paul as well. My brother took great pride in his game-calling ability and told me before the game he had Paul ‘figured out.’ I just kind of chuckled. The first at-bat Paul hit a laser in the gap. I remember my brother looked back at me in the stands, smiled and shook his head. It was hilarious.”
Durkac saw similar situations often that season.
What neither the coach nor the scout saw, however, was how well DeJong could play shortstop – he only played one game at the position his last year in college.
“We look like idiots because he didn’t play shortstop for us, right?” Durkac said.
One of the reasons for that was because Illinois State had an older player ahead of DeJong, Brett Kay, who as a senior was named the Missouri Valley defensive player of the year. He was a 20th round draft selection by the Giants in 2013.
The move to shortstop didn’t happen for a while with the Cardinals, either. DeJong started his pro career at third base before playing 11 games at shortstop for Springfield last season, followed by 17 games at the position in the Arizona Fall League.
It was that experience that convinced the Cardinals to move DeJong to shortstop when he began this season at Memphis, playing 39 of his 48 games in Triple A at shortstop before he was promoted to St. Louis.
DeJong was as confidant that he could play there successfully as he was about his ability to hit.
“Each day it’s getting better and better,” he said. “I was always confident in my hands and my arm to make the routine plays, but it’s the little things, like cuts and relays on balls in the corner, who is running, those are the plays I am adjusting to. Overall I feel good there.”
When DeJong stepped onto the field at Busch Stadium on May 29, making his first career start that night at second base, it was the second time he had ever been on the field – but the first time he was wearing a uniform.
A good impression without playing
A few days before the 2015 draft, DeJong made the trip from his home to St. Louis for a pre-draft workout even though he knew he would not be able to participate because of a broken thumb. He thought it was important to come anyway.
“I was watching all the guys playing on the field and I was stuck in a collared shirt with a splint on my thumb,” DeJong said. “I was thinking ‘this sucks,’ but I got to talk to some of the scouts and I tried to show them I was interested. Luckily the Cardinals picked me and I’ve never looked back. It’s probably the best thing that’s ever happened to me.”
Durkac was excited too, but not as much as his wife, Heather.
“She has been a big Cardinals fan her whole life and when Paul got drafted she was like, ‘We’re going to see him play in the big leagues,’” Durkac said. “I was like, ‘Heather, you better pump the breaks here a little bit.’ He’s a fourth-rounder, but fourth-rounders who get to the big leagues and stay there are rare. Paul was a hell of a player for us and a hell of a person, a great student, but you don’t know if he has the talent to get there.”
DeJong proved that he had the talent, and now that he is a major-leaguer, he has had to adjust his goals – now the goal is to stay there, not always easy for young players. All he has to do to realize that is look at the fact he has replaced a player, three years older than him, Aledmys Diaz, who made the NL All-Star team in 2016 as a rookie but is now back in Triple A.
“You have separate team goals and individual goals,” DeJong said. “The team goal is to make the playoffs and individually it’s to be a good selfish in that every time I go up to the plate I want to get a hit, to get my job done individually to help the team. It’s more about winning at this point. I never really felt like that in the minors; there it was more about putting up numbers. Now it’s different.”
The only negative about DeJong’s performance so far with the Cardinals has been a poor strikeout to walk ratio, something which Durkac was concerned about as he moved from college to professional baseball. Durkac also realized, however, that the game is different today than it was when he spent seven years playing in the minor leagues.
“I thought his bugaboo was going to be his strikeouts,” Durkac said. “He didn’t have great numbers here either, but in this day and age if you have power they don’t care. Strikeouts to the analytics guys are the same as a groundout or fly-out. Defense is so good at the big league level that if the ball isn’t put into play hard it’s probably going to be an out somewhere.
“If you can’t hit the ball over the fence you’re probably going back to the minors. Strikeouts in the old days used to be a curse, but now if you can hit the ball over the fence they don’t care.”
DeJong does care, and improving that aspect of his game is something he is working on. For the first time with the Cardinals he drew two walks on Sunday after drawing just six in his first 200 plate appearances.
“There are good and bad strikeouts the way I see it,” DeJong said. “If you strike out with guys in scoring position, RBI situations, that’s bad. If I work a 2-2 count and swing and miss at a tough slider or if he (the pitcher) dots the black with a fastball and I take it, that’s not much different than hitting a weak ground ball to second base. It’s the same result.
“My production has to be good if I strike out. I can’t just strike out and not produce. There’s a tradeoff for sure. I’m trying to adjust to how guys are pitching. Some guys are aggressive and come right at you and others have a different approach, where you have to kind of wait for your pitch. Hitting third, I’m still looking for pitches to drive early in the count. I think what I need to do is start to calm down and take what they give me.”
That change likely will come in time. Despite the way he has burst onto the scene, DeJong still is a work in progress, learning something new, on and off the field, every day.
DeJong made childhood field trips to Milwaukee and Wrigley Field because of his good grades, but has not visited many of the major-league stadiums where he is now playing. He usually takes the team bus to a new stadium because otherwise he wouldn’t know where to go.
“When I went to games, it always seemed like the players were superstars,” Keith DeJong said. “How could they be this good? Now I’m watching Paul, and he’s just playing baseball. It’s the same thing he’s always done.
“To me it doesn’t seem like it’s been that quick because I’ve been with him since he started playing. He’s just passed each step and gone a little higher. He worked at it each year, to get a little better.”
For some hot out-of-the-box rookies, there is a natural fear that the success will fade, that the player isn’t that good and will be exposed when opponents start facing him for a second or third time. DeJong has to prove that will not happen to him.
“The best advice came from my dad,” DeJong said. “He said ‘just go have fun and take what they give you.’ That’s all I need to remember. I keep in touch with family and friends and teammates who made an impact on me early on.
“I am here to play and win and continue the Cardinals culture. That’s what I feel like and how I fit in and why I feel I belong. It’s fun to be a Cardinal in this town.”
Nobody is prouder of DeJong and his success than his college coach and DeJong’s father.
“He is level headed and comes from a great family and was raised in the right way,” Durkac said. “He’s going to stay humble and keep working at it. He’s going to keep listening and accept coaching. I don’t see him changing.
“When Paul got drafted talent wise I thought he was probably a seventh to ninth-round talent, but if teams factored in the makeup and his intelligence and the want-to and steady-handedness and the five inches between his ears, that enhances his draft stock three or four rounds in my opinion.
“Character matters, and it’s not just lip service. I think the Cardinals, maybe more so than other organizations, put stock in character.”
Durkac was at a high school game in Bloomington, Ill., not long ago, scouting a player, when an adult slow-pitch softball tournament was taking place on an adjacent field.
“I was standing down the left field line with my video camera and I heard guys talking on the softball field,” Durkac said. “One said, ’You hear about that kid from Illinois State who’s tearing it up for the Cardinals?’ I was thinking, ‘You know you’ve made it when male softball players in a small town in central Illinois know about a guy from Illinois State hitting home runs in the major leagues.”
Said Keith DeJong, “No matter what profession he had gone into I think he would have had success because that’s the type of person he is. For him right now it’s baseball. If he had decided to go to med school or use his bio-chem degree and work for a chemical company I think he would have been a success there too.”
Follow Rob Rains on Twitter @RobRains