St. Louis Cardinals: Trying to Diagnose Kolten Wong
So what gives with Kolten Wong’s hitting?
Wong’s struggles at the plate are a bit more complicated. Looking at his batted ball statistics, the first thing that stands out is that he has been pulling the ball more often and is becoming increasingly more pull-oriented every season.
His Pull% in limited action in 2013 was 31.9% and has increased every year until reaching 45.1%. This makes it easier for defenses to position against Wong, making him susceptible to infield shifts. This Pull%, however, doesn’t indicate Wong is too heavy of a pull hitter. Among the thirty-eight second basemen with more than 300 PA in 2016, he ranked only 9th highest.
Another area which might help explain his lack of success is Wong’s line drive % (LD%). Line drives are the most likely to go for hits, so hitters with a higher LD% will have a higher batting average and higher BABIP.
Among the same set of second basemen in 2016, Wong ranked 23rd with a LD% of 19.9% but 35th with a BABIP of .268. Across the 268 MLB players with at least 300 PA, Wong ranked 175th in LD% and 229th in BABIP. So, maybe there was a little bad luck involved.
Where it starts to get more compelling is when looking at Wong’s Soft%, Med%, and Hard%. This stat judges balls based on exit velocity to categorize them into soft-, medium-, or hard-hit balls. The harder a ball is hit, the more likely it will be a base hit or better.
In 2016 among the sample of 38 second basemen, Wong ranked 33rd with a Hard% of 25.9% but 5th with a Med% of 54.1%. Looking at the entire MLB with more than 300 PA, Wong’s Hard% ranked 237th and his Med% ranked 40th.
The Hard% aligns with his ranking with BABIP, and largely explains why Wong had such a weak BABIP in 2016. Additionally, Wong’s high ranking in Med% but bottom tier in Hard% indicate that either Wong is just missing a lot, or he doesn’t have a fast swing speed. Checking out Wong’s average exit velocity via Statcast, it appears to be the latter.
Since Wong has such a high Med%, we would expect that his average exit velocity would be very close to the MLB average exit velocity. Wong’s average exit velocity in 2016, however, was nearly two MPH lower than the MLB average, as he registered an average of 87.61 MPH compared to an MLB average of 89.57 MPH.
It appears Wong is hitting so many Med% balls because he simply lacks the swing speed to consistently hit balls with higher exit velocities.
Another troubling sign is Kolten Wong’s average launch angle on his batted balls, again via Statcast. Here, Wong averaged a 10.42 degree launch angle compared to an MLB average of 9.97 degrees.
This isn’t because Wong hits fewer ground balls than the average MLB player, either. With a GB% of 46.0%, Wong is hitting an average amount of ground balls. Rather, this higher launch angle means that the fly balls and line drives Wong does hit are at higher-than-average launch angles for those type of batted balls.
Balls that are most often hit for home runs are high launch angle line drives or low launch angle fly balls, and these balls need to be hit at high exit velocities to leave the park.
For Wong, this means that while some of his line drives may actually be creeping up into home run launch angles, his average exit velocity suggests he is not generating the power to put them over the fences. Thus, while some fall in for doubles or triples, some also end up in the outfielder’s glove.
One more glaring weakness for Kolten is his inability to hit MLB off-speed pitches. Against four-seam and two-seam fastballs, Wong hit .341 and .304 in 2016, respectively; both of these were better than Jason Kipnis of the Cleveland Indians, one of the better-hitting second basemen this past season.
Against off-speed, however, Wong was terrible in 2016. He saw a steady diet of sliders, change-ups, curveballs, and sinkers, and hit .128, .200, .227, and .179 against those pitches. These averages were all significantly worse than how Kipnis fared against similar off-speed. It is especially worrisome that in his third full season in the Majors that he has still failed to adjust to MLB pitching.
Now for some positives. It does appear that Kolten Wong is refining his approach at the plate. His K% has decreased each season, and was down to 14.4% in 2016. Additionally, his BB% has increased each season and nearly doubled last year to 9.4%. These indicate that he is being more patient at the plate and getting the bat to more balls.
This combination should ultimately lead to steadier results. Putting more balls in play means that Wong’s batting average is less dependent on having a strong BABIP, while drawing more walks results in a higher OBP even if the average is down. Both of these factors are important in remaining a consistent, everyday starter, and especially so for Wong, whose inconsistencies often lead him to the Matheny doghouse.
So, to sum up, Wong’s bat likely has not translated to the MLB level yet because he hits less line drives at higher launch angles and lower speeds, and hits worse than the 2013 version of Pete Kozma against off-speed pitches. However, he does appear to have improved his approach at the plate, which might lead to better results down the line.