How does a former All-Star who lost his way offensively find his way back to respectability?
New White Sox shortstop Paul DeJong hopes it starts with a fresh start with a new team going into spring training and a different, simpler hitting mindset of less video and swing analysis and more see the ball, hit the ball — with an emphasis on the opposite field and up the middle.
“I want to feel it, I want to see the pitcher and let my natural ability shine with that,” said DeJong, who hit 74 home runs and 82 doubles for the Cardinals from 2017-19, his first three seasons.
“Just to start from the beginning with a team is going to be great for me,” said DeJong, who encountered a difficult transition after playing seven seasons with the Cardinals — the only team he knew — to playing for the Blue Jays and Giants all in one season in 2023.
Coming to the Sox, with whom he signed a modest one-year, $1.75 million deal Monday, might feel a little like home. DeJong’s family moved to Antioch when he was 11 and he graduated from Antioch High School in 2011, but his roots to the area go back to great grandparents who lived in the South Deering neighborhood on the South Side in the 1950s. DeJong graduated from Illinois State, where he majored in biomedicine/pre-med.
The Cardinals drafted him in the fourth round in 2015 and in his first season in 2017 he was the National League Rookie of the Year runner up to the Dodgers’ Cody Bellinger, and an All-Star in 2019. The Cardinals signed him to $26 million extension in 2018, and while his defense remained better than average, he batted .192/.265/.353 from 2021-23.
The Cardinals traded DeJong to the Blue Jays on Aug. 1. He was released three weeks later, signed by the Giants and released after four weeks in San Francisco.
With the Cardinals last season, he batted a respectable .233/.297/.412 with a .710 OPS and 13 homers in 81 games. Then he went 3-for-44 with the Jays and 9-for-49 with the Giants with one homer between them.
“I kind of struggled with the Blue Jays and San Francisco a little bit, but that was more just my head was in every place,” DeJong said. “I was all over the place as far as my mentality, going to a new team in the middle of the season when these guys had their team chemistry since February or even sooner.”
He wanted to contribute but wasn’t “totally focused in and confident in what I was doing.”
Perhaps a fresh start with a new team, clearing his head during the offseason and going to spring training knowing the shortstop job is his to lose will help. DeJong said he’s not going to over-analyze his swing any more.
“It’s going to be totally a mentality and not so much a physical thing,” DeJong said. “I got lost a little bit. When things go bad you start really analyzing yourself on video. I’m going to use the least amount of video that I’ve ever used this year. I don’t really want to watch myself.
“As opposed to trying to break down video, you can get really micromanaging your body and I really just want to be an athlete out there. Early in my career there wasn’t much expectation of about what I was doing, it was more a freedom to play and that’s how I played my best.”
If DeJong, 30, can provide stability in the middle of the infield and find a way to resurrect his bat, the inexpensive signing will be a bargain. His offense might be a substantial “if” but the defense shouldn’t slump.
“I really take pride in my defensive abilities,” DeJong said. “That’s something I worked on with (coach) Jose Oquendo in the Cardinals organization, being a fundamental player, so I bring being that steady, make the fundamental plays, help our pitchers out, get outs, make double plays, just trying to be a staple.
“I’m excited to work with [new second baseman] Nicky Lopez up the middle. “The biggest thing is the fundamentals, it’s not trying to be flashy, not trying to force things, for me it’s about making the plays and preparing, doing my work pregame, talking to the other infielders with our communication. If things happen in the game, going in the video room, deciding what needs to be done, what did we do right, what did we do wrong, just focusing on the little details.”