St. Louis Cardinals: Kolten Wong Should Let His Play Do The Talking

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Mar 22, 2017; Jupiter, FL, USA; St. Louis Cardinals second baseman Kolten Wong (16) at bat during a spring training game against the St. Louis Cardinals at Roger Dean Stadium. Mandatory Credit: Steve Mitchell-USA TODAY Sports
Mar 22, 2017; Jupiter, FL, USA; St. Louis Cardinals second baseman Kolten Wong (16) at bat during a spring training game against the St. Louis Cardinals at Roger Dean Stadium. Mandatory Credit: Steve Mitchell-USA TODAY Sports /
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Kolten Wong had a strong reaction to comments that the St. Louis Cardinals are considering platooning him this season, but his production speaks louder than his words.

Kolten Wong’s struggles for the St. Louis Cardinals this offseason are well known. Following a hitless three at-bat Sunday, Wong’s spring batting average fell to .170. His slow started prompted manager Mike Matheny to suggest that an infield platoon might be an option, a notion confirmed by John Mozeliak’s comments that Wong needs to hit in order to play.

Per Ben Frederickson of the St. Louis Post-Dispatch, Wong did not take kindly to those comments. Publicly, he is now on the record saying he’d rather be traded than platoon at second base. (Update: Wong has asked to clarify his comments here).

It’s not a huge surprise that an MLB player wants to be an everyday guy. However, most wouldn’t come out and express such glaringly obvious discontent before the season starts. Derrick Goold has noted the team had issues in the clubhouse last season, and Wong is getting 2017 off to a similar start.

Additionally, Matheny and Mozeliak suggested a platoon would be an option, not a certainty. Wong will still likely get the lion’s share of time in April and May to make his case. Even to date, he’s gotten the 4th most plate appearances among all St. Louis Cardinals in the exhibition games. He’s not being denied the opportunity promised to him this offseason. Not yet, at least.

But beyond the politics, Wong’s comments illustrated a confident self-image, a picture we all bought into when he was a prospect and when he teased us early in 2015. How does his production align with that view?

First, in reference to the extension he signed last year, Wong compares his situation to Josh Donaldson and Jose Bautista: “all these guys never figured their stuff out until later down the road.” That’s true – Donaldson didn’t break out until his age-27 season (Wong will be 26 this year) and Jose Bautista didn’t become a household name until his age 29-season.

Of course, Donaldson’s breakout season was also his first full MLB season. Maybe he took a little longer to get to the show, but he finished fourth in AL MVP voting in his first full year there. Wong, on the other hand, has managed 5.5 WAR over the last three years. He rates out as an average player.

Jose Bautista took a little longer to adapt to MLB competition. After sticking in the MLB over a full season for the first time in 2006, Bautista averaged 478 plate appearances per year until 2009 while producing just below a league average 95 wRC+. Over the last three years, Wong has averaged 469 plate appearances and produced a 91 wRC+. Some hope, it appears.

Yet, Jose Bautista earned his playing time in the early stages of his 2010 breakout campaign. That spring, he hit for .439 average with five home runs. He followed that up by producing a 158 wRC+ and 16 home runs in April and May. Wong’s spring average this season is nearly 300 points lower than Bautista’s 2010 spring, and Wong is never going to produce that level of power.

So, while those guys are fine comparisons when it comes to players whose career sparked a little later than most, they both earned their playing time through stellar performance.

Next, Wong said he expected to be a mainstay in the lineup based on comments made this offseason regarding team defense. He says, specifically, “On defense, I’m one of the best second baseman in the league.”

Unfortunately for Wong, that doesn’t check out using Defensive Runs Saved or Ultimate Zone Rating. Since 2013, there are 51 players who have spent one thousand innings at second base. By DRS per 1000 innings, Wong ranks 11th. By UZR/150, he ranks 15th. Above average? Yes. One of the best? Not really.

Finally, he compares his situation to a young Yadier Molina. Molina was actually a worse hitter than Wong over his first four seasons, yet he stayed in the lineup regardless. Why doesn’t Wong get the same treatment?

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There are a couple reasons. First of all, Molina was the second best defensive catcher in the league according to Baseball Prospectus in 2005, his first full season. Secondly, the Cardinals didn’t have other options at catcher who they believed had comparable value to Molina.

Flash forward to today, and that simply isn’t the case for Kolten Wong. Jedd Gyorko, the 2016 team leader in home runs with 30, primarily plays second base. Greg Garcia, who owns a 107 wRC+ in 362 MLB plate appearances, primarily played second base and shortstop in the Minor Leagues. Both of those players are valuable and both are challenging Wong for playing time.

If Kolten Wong wants to be an everyday player, he should start by just hitting the ball. I know it’s not that simple, but a little success would go a long way for his mindset and status with the club. Additionally, he needs to always make the routine plays. Using Inside Edge Fielding over the last three years, Wong ranks last among second baseman at making the easy play, which is by far the most common type of opportunity.

The St. Louis Cardinals made a bet on his talent and committed five years to Wong. He followed it up by hitting .231/.319/.299 for a 72 wRC+ through May 31st. The Cardinals stuck behind him this offseason, and I expect he’ll get a fair chance to earn playing time during the season. Yet, the Cardinals goal is to make the playoffs, not to play Kolten Wong no matter how he’s producing.

Next: 2017 Cardinals Roster Finalized

Opening day is just around the corner. Wong can expect a few more games’ worth of plate appearances this spring and then opportunities to prove himself during the season (even if he starts out in a platoon). It’s time for Kolten Wong to let his play do the talking.

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