St. Louis Cardinals: Kolten Wong’s statistical future
By Larry Levin
The output of St. Louis Cardinals second baseman Kolten Wong in 2017 has been truly excellent. But are his offensive numbers — an OBP close to .400 and an OPS well over .800 — sustainable for future years? Let’s take a look.
The St. Louis Cardinals have invested a ton of hope and dough in Kolten Wong over the past several years. He was the team’s first-round pick out of the University of Hawaii-Manoa in 2011 (after the Twins had tried grabbing him three years earlier in the middle rounds of the 2008 draft).
After about two years’ worth of minor-league games, Wong arrived on the major-league scene back in 2013, and already, his energy, athleticism and excitement factor were on display. Unfortunately, many will recall him being picked off first to end Game 4 of that year’s World Series as reflective of his abilities.
And in some ways, that view isn’t altogether wrong. For while Wong came to the “Bigs” ready with his electricity, consistency wasn’t the theme of his game. From a spectacular grab up the middle to a bobbled routine grounder, Early-Kolten was perceived as a diamond still in the rough.
The team thought so, too, as Wong rode the Memphis shuttle when the Cards deemed him incapable of fulfilling his potential. But each time he seemed more steady and ready for the limelight.
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Even with his shortcomings, though, that glove and his ability to manage a tolerable OBP for a second baseman kept him mostly employed in the Show in 2015-2016 (and nicely rewarded with a multi-year contract in excess of $20M before the ’16 season). With 271 games with the St. Louis Cardinals during that period, he managed almost 4.0 WAR in less than two full seasons.
Then this year, injuries notwithstanding, all the expectations seemed to come to fruition. Both his on-base and slugging percentages skyrocketed, catapulting Wong to a vastly higher OPS than in the previous three years in which he hovered around the .700 mark.
It would be great to pencil in this kind of production from a second baseman with Gold Glove potential. The trouble is, there’s a bit of question about the strength of the foundation, as borne out by some underlying statistics.
Most notably, Wong’s BAbip — his batting average for balls in play — sits at .353, or almost 60 points higher than in any previous season.
Why is this important? Well, because BAbip is one of the typical markers of a statistically unusual performance by a hitter. Often time, an unusually higher than normal BAbip signifies the insertion of a big luck factor into the performance.
That’s not always so. For instance, a harder hitter, especially one who hits a ton of super-sharp grounders, or line drives, which are more likely to escape even the best of fielders, can generate a higher BAbip through his own bat speed.
There’s no question that Wong has adjusted his stance which seems to have shortened his time to the ball. Gone are the ultra-high hand positions and other factors that appeared to make every swing an adventure toward contact.
But is that enough to explain the high BAbip in and of itself? We doubt it.
Take a look at Randal Grichuk, Wong’s teammate, as a comparable. Grichuk suffers most of the time with an anemic OBP, hovering at or around the .280 mark. But in one season, 2015, he managed to find the .329 mark, which, combined with his .548 slug that year, would have made him well on the way to a regular if not a minor star, given his absurd amount of power.
When he retreated in 2016 and again this year, we found out several things. First, it doesn’t help Randal that he is utterly unable to walk; he has 52 bases on balls in his last 882 plate appearances. In a word, that’s awful.
But we found something else out too, a factor that plays into the Wong analysis. In Grichuk’s seeming breakout year, his BAbip was an astounding. 365.
At the time, we thought fine, he wallops the ball, he’s just mashing it right by fielders. But whoops…in 2016 and 2017, his BAbips returned to .294 and .292, respectively.
And that’s why we are concerned about Kolten. Yes, he looks far more comfy at the plate. Yes, he’s stung the ball innumerable times. And to be fair, he walks at a somewhat better clip than Grichuk, but not nearly enough better for at least a conventional leadoff guy.
In other words, we’re going to have to keep an eye on Wong to see if he regresses based on babip returning to normal, and whether he can coax more walks. Because, quite frankly, the kind of OBP he has garnered this year may be impossible to sustain without the BBs.
Wong is a major-league guy, someone who fits well within a winning lineup. He probably can’t carry a team but he can and may very well continue to be a strong component of success. But with his stats dependent on some underlying factors that haven’t boded well for others, his situation continues to require careful watching.