St. Louis Cardinals: A realistic look at Kolten Wong
The St. Louis Cardinals season is in full force with hot takes abound, but patience will be key in this long season.
The St. Louis Cardinals, like any other team, aren’t at a lack of polarizing players. There are factions of fans that differ on a myriad of Cardinal players, some more intensely than others. For the purpose of this piece though, we are going to take a look at Kolten Wong and his rough start to 2018.
To start we have to look at some of the background into why there is even a divide when it comes to Wong.
Before the start of the 2016 season the front office and Wong agreed to a 5 year 25.5 million dollar deal. The deal was essentially to buy out his arbitration and then some to try to save money on a guy they assumed would begin to blow up and outperform his salary. You see these contracts happening more and more often these days (see Scott Kingery). It’s a guaranteed payday for the player and the team has potential to save a good amount of money if that player pans out.
While some may disagree on whether the contract was worth it, numbers don’t lie. According to Fangraphs and their dollar value calculator, which uses WAR to calculate what a player would make in free agency, Wong was worth 27.2 million dollars combined between 2016 and 2017. If you’re keeping score at home, that’s more than the entire dollar value of his contract.
Moving to this year, Wong has started off ice-cold, much like the temperatures these guys have had to play games in. As of writing this, Wong has a .146 average, a .286 on-base percentage and only one run. Those are brutal stats, no one will argue and it isn’t easy to defend, but I’m going to try.
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To get an idea of Wong’s struggles, let’s take a look at Wong’s batting averages on April 19th in each of his seasons with the St. Louis Cardinals. In his first full season with the team, Wong was batting .237. In the following year, it was .219. He followed those up batting .200 and .171 in 2016 and 2017, respectively. The team earlier start to this year has him playing more games than those seasons to this point. In making that point you also have to be willing to admit the conditions they have played in need to be considered as a factor.
So now that you have an idea into Wong’s slow starts with references that show it’s not an isolated incident, it’s important to look into the factors that have led to this slow start. After delving into Wong’s stats this year a couple of things stuck out to me immediately.
The first being his BABIP, as of this writing it currently sits at .171, an abysmal number under any standards. Especially for a guy who most projections expected to have a BABIP sitting around .290 and has a career average of .287.
Delving even deeper into Wong’s stats there seems to be a correlation to his poor BABIP. Kolten Wong’s career groundball % is 47.2, while his career line drive % is 20.1. His percentages this season, 63.6% groundball and just 6.1% line drive. Wong is making contact at a pretty decent clip but very little of his contact is resulting in a hard hit ball.
Forty percent of the balls he has put into play so far this season qualify as soft, nearly doubling that of his career average. On the other end of the spectrum his hard hit balls are only making up 14.3%, nearly half of his career average. What you are seeing is the definition of outliers and will more than likely come back to the mean, it’s really just a matter of time.
Since we’re focusing so much on the negative, I think it’s important to recognize a positive or two about Wong’s season.
I realize a lot of you probably just audibly said something about no positives, well you’re wrong. To this point, and again it is early, Wong is setting career bests in strikeout % and walk %. To this point Wong has six walks and six strikeouts, both putting their percentages at 12.2%. His career averages for those are 7.3% (walks) and 15.3% (strikeouts).
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These are clear improvements to his plate discipline, though it is a small sample size. But, you can’t discount his plate discipline because it is a small sample size if you are going to use his other batting stats against him even with their small sample size.
The moral of all of this is more than likely, Wong is going to improve. Fans are fast to forget his success last season because they are disappointed with his start this year.
Wong made real strides in his game last season, especially against lefties. Of course baseball fans, especially the BFIB are a “what have you done for me lately” group and unfortunately for Wong he hasn’t done much.
While I might be in a minority, I’m not close to giving up on Kolten Wong. It is my belief based on the numbers that Wong will be better. Confidence will be key, Wong has shown that he hits in streaks and when he is on, he is impressive. Don’t be surprised when the weather improves and Wong does too. That can and should be said for a lot of the team if we’re being honest.
As for those clamoring for Wong to get benched or get traded, do you have a realistic plan in place? Jedd Gyorko is back, that helps spell Wong while he tries to break out of the slump. With Gyorko back in the fold Matt Carpenter can slide to second base while Gyorko mans the hot corner. The question is are you really ok with Carpenter playing second base on a daily basis?
Carpenter is also batting below .200, so he clearly shouldn’t be the main option if you base it on how guys have started their seasons. Let alone his defense there last year was less than stellar. Last year Matt Carpenter played 103 innings at 2nd base. In those 103 innings he only made 86.7% of the routine plays that went his way.
Something else to pay attention to, while this piece has been mostly focused on his bat, Wong is statistically off to one of his best starts defensively in his career. His one error through his first 18 games is the best start he’s had in his career. While he may not be making the spectacular plays he is making nearly all the routine plays. In comparison to Carpenter’s 86.7%, Wong has made 96.4% of his routine plays.
Another option is let’s call up Max Schrock from AAA. He’s batting .397 for Memphis right now, his bat would be quite the improvement over what we have seen thus far this season. This plan has more holes than Swiss cheese. First and foremost, how do you get him on the roster? Sure you could argue that Wong should be sent down to figure things out, it may actually do him some good.
The problem is, Schrock isn’t on the 40-man. If you hadn’t heard the Cardinals already have a jam-packed 40-man they have had to maneuver a lot this season already. Signing Greg Holland led to the team to put Alex Reyes on the 60-day disabled list, something they said they wouldn’t do, but had to out of necessity. So once Reyes is good to go, someone has to go and you risk losing that player, the same case would have to be made for Schrock. Taking a look at the 40-man roster is there two guys that you are willing to lose? That is the only step that can be taken to get Schrock onto the roster.
So say you get that all figured out and you somehow make room for him on the 40-man. The next issue is the guy has only played 13 games at the AAA level. While it isn’t outlandish to make that sort of move, it is outlandish to assume Schrock can continue to have similar success if he is brought up a level. The perfect example of this is Yairo Munoz, the other half of the Cardinals trade with the Oakland Athletics this off-season.
Yairo Munoz made quite the name for himself this spring. Munoz beat out heir apparent Harrison Bader for the final spot on the roster because of his play and his ability to play multiple positions. He then proceeded to go 2-18 and found himself demoted when Gyorko returned from the disabled list. MLB is a different animal than AAA, Schrock deserves the time to develop at AAA and build on his impressive start.
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Even with Wong and others struggles at the plate the Cardinals find themselves with a 10-8 record. Through 18 games last year; the Cardinals had a record of 8-10. The team has improved from last year, even if it isn’t by a huge margin. Regardless the team is above .500 with basically half their lineup struggling, while the other half carries them. The season is 162 games folks, patience is key, if you’re freaking out already while the team is winning, I worry about you come the stretch run.