By Rob Rains
JUPITER, Fla. – The ultimate tests will come later this year for Paul DeJong, during games in the regular season, when he will truly find out if all of the time and effort he has put in to try to correct his swing is really working.
Even now, though, before the lockout ends and spring training – at some point – officially begins for the Cardinals, DeJong can tell. He can see, and feel, the difference.
DeJong, along with several of his teammates, has been working out five days a week at a private baseball facility not far from Roger Dean Chevrolet Stadium. On Tuesday, he took several rounds of live batting practice, including facing Cardinals’ teammate Miles Mikolas.
“It’s definitely showed up during these live at-bats,” DeJong said of the changes he has made. “I feel confident about my swing, and I’m just trying to keep other parts of my game sharp as well. I feel like I’m in a good position right now. I feel good about where I’m at.”
For most of the last two seasons, DeJong could not honestly say that very often. A bout with COVID was mostly the cause of a poor 2020, followed by a broken rib, and DeJong spent last year searching for consistency without much success.
The result were career lows in batting average (.197) and on-base percentage (.284) and a .674 OPS. He lost his hold on the starting shortstop position in September and went into the off-season determined to change a career trajectory that had spiraled in the wrong direction since his 2019 All-Star season, when he slugged 30 home runs.
“At the time I was like crawling on my hands and knees, clawing, that type of feeling,” DeJong said. “But I’m happy I’ve come out on the other side. I’m fortunate to have another opportunity this year to make an impact. I’m ready to feel free and ready to go as soon as we get our chance.
“I think a lot of it was physical last year and part of it was mental … When things start going bad you start looking for new ways, new things, start eliminating things, so then your routine and preparation can be all over the map. Sometimes it can be great, some days it can be non-existent.
“I’m just trying to figure out what I need to do everyday and the reasons why I do it. The specific drills I am doing now, they have reasons why. I’m just understanding myself a little better.”
One of the biggest reasons behind DeJong’s boost in confidence has been his work since November with Lorenzo Garmendia, a hitting coach who runs Gradum GSwing and has who has a long list of clients that he has helped over the years. Among his current clients are fellow shortstops Carlos Correa, Francisco Lindor and Willy Adames. Mookie Betts and J.D. Martinez are two more examples of hitters Garmendia has helped over the years.
DeJong’s teammate, Harrison Bader, has also worked with Garmendia in the past and put him in touch with DeJong after last season ended.
“I needed to do something new,” DeJong said. “I needed to work and Lorenzo reached out to me and we hit it off right away.
“I started hitting a lot earlier (in November) trying to fix some of the things and get consistent going into the season. It was a new, completely different offseason for me in some respects and I think that was good for me.”
Garmendia knew as soon as he saw video of DeJong, after also watching him live in games when he was facing some of his other clients, that he could help DeJong correct the flaws in his swing.
“I knew he had the correct fundamentals of the swing, but I also realized he had lost it,” Garmendia said. “That’s the kind of guy I can help right away. I kind of felt bad that I didn’t reach out to him during the season because he wouldn’t have had the season he had last year.
“The way he was getting attacked by pitchers, he couldn’t handle the inside pitch, which is a strong point for him. His swing caters to the inside pitch.”
In starting to work with Garmendia, DeJong said he was relying on advice he picked up in recent years from former teammates Dexter Fowler and Kolten Wong.
“I learned from them about investing in your career and yourself,” DeJong said. “You see a lot of guys hiring massage therapists, chefs, weight trainers, hitting coaches … whatever it is; whatever it takes for you to be the best player you can be out there. That’s kind of where I ended up.”
Garmendia said it was a credit to DeJong that he was willing and receptive to listen to a new voice.
“Not all players are like this,” he said. “Payul was very open-minded as soon as we talked.”
Said DeJong, “The names of guys he has worked with speaks for themselves. He’s been great. I love his energy, I love his willingness to work.”
DeJong knows that maybe after this season his name will be one of those on the long list of players that Garmendia has helped.
“I fix a lot of guys,” Garmendia said. “Think about it. If I am a hitting coach, when are you going to need me? When you are going well or when you are going bad. I knew I could fix him (DeJong). I just needed him to be open-minded.
“He is going to hit. I think he is going to have his best year offensively and we shouldn’t see what happened last year again.”
In simplistic terms, what Garmendia primarily is trying to do for DeJong is to keep his swing inside the ball, allowing him to hit the ball to all fields.
“The results will tell you if you are doing it right,” DeJong said. “The Rapsodo machine really is helping in seeing spin off your bat. Exit velocity and launch angle, that stuff’s important too. I’m able to train and see which ones (swings) were good and which ones were bad and learn to make adjustments from there.
“If I hook a ball foul down the left field line, then I know I was coming around it, so my next adjustment would be to try to stay inside it more and hit that ball up the middle. … I am hitting sliders (off the machine) that are off the plate away and backspinning them into the gap in right center. Or fastballs, I am hitting to right center with backspin at the right angles. I’ve been getting a lot of feedback so my work has been really clean and efficient.
“Last year I was just kind of out and around everything and hitting groundballs to the pull side. Now I want to be hitting more balls in the air and driving the ball in the gaps … being aggressive in my zone as opposed to not trying to do something wrong.”
Garmendia has helped DeJong develop that mental approach to his at-bats as well as help with the physical changes.
“There’s a little psychology there of attacking where I want to attack,” DeJong said. “That idea has really helped me, that and training my swing path. If I stay inside the ball at all times, that will give me a chance even if I get jammed I can get a base hit over the infield or if I catch it just right it’s a ball in the gap or a home run.”
If there was anything Garmendia was a little unsure of about DeJong it was how intelligent of a player he is.
“Sometimes when you are that smart, I worry because it’s like a doctor who wants to operate on his own brain,” Garmendia said. “It’s not a good idea. It’s the difference between being a how guy and a why guy. The expression goes that if you are a how guy you will always have a job and if you are a why guy you will be the boss. When you are a player you want to be a how guy.”
DeJong’s confidence heading into the start of this season – delayed for an indefinite period because of the lockout – has been aided by his work with Garmendia but also by both public and private comments from Cardinals officials about how they consider DeJong their starting shortstop. There were a lot of quality shortstops on the free agent market and the Cardinals did not pursue any of them before the lockout began.
Now 28, DeJong has two years left on a six-year contract he signed before the 2018 season, plus two option years. He knows how important this season will be for the rest of his career. He knows there are skeptics who wonder if he can once again become the hitter he was in 2019.
“It’s monumental,” he said about this year. “It’s a great opportunity for me to show what I’m made of and propel myself forward. I’m relishing this opportunity to get back out there and play.
“I have no question about how mentally tough I can be out there. It’s about being physically right, having the right swing path, the right timing. It’s also about having a clear mental attitude and the focus you need to have success in the big leagues. I’m trying to put all that together.”
Garmendia believes that will happen.
“The best thing we can do for our clients is help them become their own best coaches, so when they are in the box they can make the adjustments pitch to pitch,” Garmendia said. “I have no doubt that he can do that.”
Follow Rob Rains on Twitter @RobRains