Things went south rather quickly for shortstop Paul DeJong during his disappointing, albeit brief, tenure with the Toronto Blue Jays.
Following seven partial seasons in St. Louis, the long-time Cardinal was acquired by the Blue Jays via trade on Aug. 1, one day before his 30th birthday. His arrival also came less than 24 hours after Bo Bichette suffered a knee injury that, at the time, appeared significant.
As such, DeJong was brought in as insurance to help fill the massive void left by the infield stalwart, adding another middle infielder to the mix to compete for reps alongside Santiago Espinal. Neither, however, proved particularly effective, especially at the plate.
DeJong was notably ineffective, as he went 3-for-44 (.068 AVG) with 18 strikeouts and zero walks over 13 games. Eventually, Blue Jays brass had seen enough, designating him for assignment upon Bichette’s return from the 10-day IL on Aug. 19 - ending DeJong's Blue Jays tenure after just 18 days.
The veteran righty cleared waivers and was released by the organization just a few days later, making him a free agent, then shortly thereafter inked a major-league deal with the San Francisco Giants on Tuesday.
Considering DeJong was worth minus-0.9 fWAR in Toronto, it's understandable that the front office decided to cut its losses rather than retain the sunk cost. The pill was made easier to swallow given that St. Louis had already agreed to cover 50% of his remaining salary as part of the trade.
It was still a surprising decision to most, even though the deal only cost minor-league reliever Matt Svanson. Nevertheless, Blue Jays fans will probably remember it as one of the quickest and biggest whiffs in franchise history.
DeJong's bat goes ice cold
So why didn’t this trade work? Could the team have done something differently for it to succeed? Did the Blue Jays give up on DeJong too soon?
We’ll likely never know 100 percent either way. But one thing the Blue Jays definitely could not have predicted is DeJong enduring the worst 13-game stretch of his MLB career post-trade.
The 2019 All-Star posted a minus-77 wRC+ in his brief time north of the border, meaning he was 177% below league average during that dreadful stretch. That is about as bad as you can get.
For reference, the last time any Blue Jays player struggled that mightily over a similar sample size was former catcher Jarrod Saltalamacchia, who slashed .040/.077/.040 with a minus-79 wRC+ in 10 games before being released in May 2017.
Joining a new team presents many challenges, especially when it happens mid-season. All you want to do is make a strong first impression, or in DeJong’s case, help lessen the blow of losing an irreplaceable shortstop.
But that never had a high likelihood of happening, as replacing Bichette — especially his offensive output —is impossible. Even so, that mindset might be where the former Cardinal’s woes began, which saw him try to perform considerably above his potential as a hitter.
Plate discipline has never been DeJong’s strength, but it morphed into a much larger concern in Toronto, with his chase rate soaring from 31.2% before the trade to 61.3% afterward. A similar trend occurred with his whiff rate, climbing from 32.5% to 42%.
The red flags didn’t stop there, as DeJong also swung at a higher clip (68.9%, 18.9% increase), made less contact (62.6%, 5.7% decrease) and saw fewer pitches in the strike zone (38.6%, 3.2% decrease).
These poor swing decisions, of course, led to less-than-ideal quality of contact and batted-ball results. Plus, it made the veteran shortstop incredibly easy to game plan against.
After struggling to produce hard contact in St. Louis, opposing pitchers exploited that weakness upon his arrival in Toronto, causing DeJong’s hard-hit rate (26.9%, 6.8% decrease) to fall even further. He also failed to barrel a single pitch during that time.
It's one thing when a player isn’t hitting balls hard, but the situation becomes even more dire when most of their batted-ball distribution stays on the ground - which was the case for DeJong. The 30-year-old's ground-ball rate (50%) increased while his fly-ball (34.6%) and line-drive rates (15.4%) sank in the opposite direction.
Nobody was expecting DeJong to match Bichette’s offensive production. That would’ve been unrealistic. At the same time, however, walking into a clubhouse that just lost its best hitter for an unknown amount of time couldn’t have been easy.
A flawed utilization plan
It would have been tough for anyone not to feel the weight of effectively replacing Bichette, especially considering Toronto’s front office only managed to acquire one position player at the trade deadline. But it also didn’t help that DeJong wasn’t particularly set up for success either, at least on the offensive side of the ball.
At this stage of his career, DeJong is better suited for use in a platoon role than an everyday one. That way, he's able to provide value as a reliable defender off the bench and primarily suit up versus left-handed pitching. Even earlier in the season, despite a down offensive year, DeJong had been having success against southpaws with the Cardinals, slashing .266/.368/.453 with a 129 wRC+.
The Blue Jays didn’t possess that luxury while Bichette was injured, leading to DeJong logging over 70% of his 44 at-bats against righties. Had DeJong stuck around a little longer, he may have been able to turn things around in the batter’s box with additional opportunities versus lefties.
In the end, though, management felt there wasn’t space on the 26-man roster for a player who had cost them nearly a full win according to fWAR in less than three weeks - an unfortunate outcome that places an equal amount of blame on both sides for its result.
As DeJong heads to the West Coast, he’ll join a Giants squad that has excelled at executing in a platoon-based philosophy all season. Plus, they'll have plenty of reps available with shortstop Brandon Crawford recovering from a recent forearm injury.