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Home » Bernie Miklasz » Cardinals 2B Kolten Wong Is a Strong Candidate for Offensive Improvement in 2017

Cardinals 2B Kolten Wong Is a Strong Candidate for Offensive Improvement in 2017

After being handed a $25 million contract extension last spring … after a disappointing 2016 season … after yet another organizational vote of confidence and pledge to make him the regular starter at second base, it’s time for Kolten Wong to deliver in 2017. Deliver on GM John Mozeliak’s investment of money. Deliver on the investment of faith. Time for Wong to stand up — and prevent manager Mike Matheny from sitting him down. Again.

Wong had a .240 batting average with a .327 OBP in 2016.

Wong has come through before, tantalizing the Cardinals and their fans with outstanding stretches that showcased his talent, only to relapse in another round of teasing.

There was Wong’s .724 slugging percentage, three homers and seven extra-base hits in his 30 postseason plate appearances in 2014 …

There was Wong’s superb first half in 2015; he put up a .343 onbase percentage and .434 slug in 353 plate appearances before the All-Star break. Wong didn’t make the NL squad, but his was an All-Star caliber first half. (Second half? Crash.)

There was Wong’s demotion to Triple A Memphis in early June of 2016, followed by his encouraging response after being recalled to the big club on June 17.

In his final 217 PA of the season, Wong turned in a .341 onbase percentage and .401 slug.

So here we go again. The Cardinals are scheduled to open 2017 spring training in Jupiter with a Feb. 14 reporting date.

By all means feel free to laugh or snort at me later if warranted, but I’m optimistic about Wong improving offensively in 2017.

Using some numbers from STATS LLC and FanGraphs, here are several reasons why;

(1) Wong has tools. They’re still there. He’s graded out among the best second basemen in the majors defensively, credited with 19 Defensive Runs Saved (total) over the past three seasons. He has plus speed. He has a quick bat and pull-side power.

(2) Wong — at age 26, and with 1,469 MLB plate appearances on his resume– is entering the sweet spot of his career. If Matheny is telling the truth about playing Wong on a regular basis, we should start to see more of the peak-form Wong and less of the enigmatic, frustrating Wong.

(3) You don’t see it on the baseball-card stats, but Wong improved his plate discipline in 2016. Wong’s overall batting stats were mediocre at best in ’16; he hit .240 with a .327 onbase percentage and .355 slug. But Wong’s walk rate jumped to a career-best 9.4 percent, up from his 5.3% over the previous two seasons. His strikeout rate was a career-low (as in best) 14.4 percent, down from his 16% rate over 2014-2015. Wong’s overall contact rate (83.2%) was above his career average. His contact rate on strikes was a career-best 91.4 percent. Wong still swings at too many out-of-zone pitches, but his “chase” rate of 31 percent in 2016 was better than his 34.4% chase rate in 2015.

(4) Wong reduced his soft-contact rate in 2016 and kept his hard-contact rate in line with his career range of 26, 27 percent.

(5) Wong is way overdue for enhanced batted-ball luck. Some of you — as always — don’t want to hear it, because you simply reject the notion of batted-ball luck. The dismissal of an obvious factor (luck) in hitting success/failure makes absolutely no sense to me, and never will. Then again I’m one of the loons who believes that the earth is round.

Wong hasn’t gotten any breaks, that’s for sure. He had a .275 average on batted balls in play (BIP) in 2014, followed by a .296 BIP in 2015, and a drop to a .268 on BIP last season. Wong’s three-season average on balls in play (.283) is 17 points below the overall MLB average and ranks 149th among 178 qualifying hitters over that time.

Wong has found too many gloves when he hits ground balls; his .217 average on grounders over the past three seasons is 21 points under the overall MLB average. Some of that is due to Wong’s pull-hitting ways, making it easier for opponents to over shift and set up their infield defense accordingly against the LH-swinging Wong.

According to Fangraphs, Wong’s batting average against traditional shifts was only .147 last season.

Wong’s numbers have always been higher when his ground-ball rate drops — it was only 40 percent during his robust 2015 first half — so that’s something to watch out for in 2017.

Sooner or later, Wong will benefit from better luck … unless he’s cursed under some eternal bad-luck moon, or something.

The luck has to change, right?

It’s time.

Thanks for reading …

–Bernie 

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About Bernie Miklasz

Bernie Miklasz hosts “The Bernie Miklasz Show” weekdays from 7am-10am on 101ESPN. Bernie spent 26 years as the lead sports columnist at the St. Louis Post-Dispatch, has won multiple national writing awards, and has worked in sports radio since 1983. Bernie votes on several prominent awards, including the Pro Football Hall of Fame, Baseball Hall of Fame, Heisman Trophy, and NL Cy Young.
  • ken

    not much you can add to “time for Wong to stand up.”

  • M W

    Gobbledygook.
    So Wong improved his contact rate and walk rate and still had a horrible season.
    Until he learns how to deal with the ups and downs of a season, he won’t improve. It’s convenient that the mental issues of Wong were not mentioned. Does Bill James have a stat for that?

    • Kyle ShaBram Sharamitaro

      Bernie mentioned that after his demotion and return, he had a .342 OBP and .401 slugging… His first half number obviously drug his season totals down. a .342 OBP from a speedster in the 8th spot in the lineup would be enormously valuable to a team that has Fowler/Diaz/Carp coming when the lineup turns over.

      Also, his defense rated very well again last season.

      I’m not necessarily a “fan” of Wong, but I refuse to just blindly hate on him, as some of you are prone to do in Cardinals nation.

      I certainly hope he can stop tinkering with his batting stance and hitting style, deciding what he wants to try and do and sticking with it.

  • flood21

    You give many reasons why Wong is due and I agree with them. Wong’s problems stem from his lack of maturity and that can’t be measured by numbers.

  • George Belt

    The biggest deterrent to Wong’s performance has been MM with his inconsistent utilization. Young players need to play to develop and it seems they only play with MM when there are no veteran alternatives. Diaz only played because the two veterans that were going to play went down with injuries. They preach and teach pitch to contact but the defense utilized doesn’t seem to match that philosophy. Wong has outstanding range, has a really strong arm, and turns the DP very well.

    • badgerboy23

      Exactly,. That brilliant judge of talent (MM) had Diaz ticketed to Memphis and was going to start Gyrko in front of him and that washed up guy from the Mets. I walked in to Jupiter last March and got my first look at Gyrko (h was at SS), looked at my wife and said “we are in trouble”. Gyrko performed superbly, but he is not a SS by any means.

  • James Berry

    I have been and will continue to be a fan of Wong. Unlike Matheny, i’m telling the truth when i say that. Wong definitely needs to improve at the plate, but Matheny has to give him that opportunity as well.

  • rightthinker4

    Bernie, I hope you’re right about Wong. A solid offensive year from Wong and the addition of Fowler, would significantly close the gap between the Cardinals and Cubs.

  • Sam Ross

    Maybe it’s just me, but does anyone get annoyed when Wong doesn’t run full speed on ground ball outs? If he is a speedster, why not use his speed every chance he gets and try to beat out the throws? I see Diaz hustle every time he makes contact and it just so happens that he was a league leader in infield hits last year. Wong has tools but doesn’t use them to his advantage 100% of the time. He has been doing this for 3 years and I don’t see any improvement…I hope that I am wrong this year.

    • Kyle ShaBram Sharamitaro

      it’s just you.

      hitting a routine grounder to the second basemen is ALOT different than a grounder to shortstop or third base. Many more things can go wrong when the ball is hit to the left side of the infield.

      Also, I feel you are suffering from a case of confirmation bias.

  • Kyle ShaBram Sharamitaro

    With Wong, i feel like too many fans only focus on the negatives.

    I am certainly not a Wong apologist, but I also try and look at things rationally.

    A key for Wong this upcoming season is to keep the ball off the ground. With most speedsters, that would seem counter intuitive, but Wong has long been an easy out when he hits the ball on the ground. He has enough pop in his bat and speed on the base paths to be a menace IF he can start lifting the ball over those infielders that have been gobbling up his sharply hit grounders.

    I, for one, am not worried about his defense. As long as he gets to play consistently (which is not guaranteed) I am confident he will play above average/excellent defense at 2B.

    I, for two, am also not worried about his batting average AT ALL… .240, .250, .260 are all fine numbers IF he is taking his walks like an average (or better) MLB hitter.
    I am mainly concerned with OBP. Especially if he hits 8th, the more walks the better. Hunt for a pitch to drive, and if it’s not there, take a free base.

    The Cards will be able to do a lot of damage when the lineup turns over if a speedster like Wong is on base ahead of the likes of Fowler/Diaz/Carp/Piscotty.

    I am hoping the Cards give him until at least July 1st to establish himself. If by then he still is struggling, then perhaps it’s Gyorko time. Until then, let’s give Kolten a legit shot at being the full time second baseman for the St. Louis Cardinals.

    • Paul

      Well stated, Kyle. I think a lot of what gets overlooked in his ground ball outs, you stated truthfully; “those infielders that have been gobbling up his sharply hit grounders.” If Kolten were a slap hitter, his stats would look much different. Defensive shifts, plus sharply hit ground balls, turn into rather easy outs.

  • badgerboy23

    I am still a Wong believer, but this will be the last year that will happen unless he proves he is what he was touted to be. A couple of unmeasurables not mentioned here…..the Memphis manager will be on staff here to temper MM, the pressure of a young man signing a “confidence building contract” and having to prove the clubs belief should be gone, and last year at this time MM was promising everybody that the club was going to show previously unseen power. I have no doubt that he talked to Wong about that, and I have no doubt that influenced Wong to come out swinging for the fences. The kid has natural pop–10-12 homers should come without trying, but if he hit 45 doubles with those HR’s we would be off and running. Literally.

  • Karl Withakay

    I’m a big fan of Wong and want him to be our starting 2B, but regarding “Wong is way overdue for enhanced batted-ball luck”, in general, the more years that a player’s bad BABIP continues, the more likely it is to be due to bad contact quality or some similar factor and not bad luck.

    When year after year after year a player has bad BABIP, that tends to say something about how they are putting balls in play rather than how unlucky they are. Wong is getting close to the point that his bad BABIP may be a genuine pattern and not clumpy randomness.

  • Pete

    Here are my observations on kolten wong’s performance: he has all the talent in the world. He can become a Joe Morgan type performer. But. He routinely makes the difficult plays and routinely botches the routine plays and one explanation may be his maturity and lack of attention span. He does not bunt nearly enough especially when he is hitting the ball well. If he did that would open more holes. He has way too much movement in his hitting and if he doesn’t make the necessary adjustment he will always be a .240 hitter. He swings for the long ball way too often like almost always. He has plenty of speed but does not have the confidence/arrogance needed to be a great base stealer. He pulls the ball way too much because he is almost always going for the long ball. It is a different game today but the ability to work the pitcher and take walks is a talent he is lacking and if he doesn’t make the necessary adjustment he will never be the leadoff hitter his natural abilities point him toward. With Matt carpenter around if he can’t learn to make the adjustments than it just was never meant to be. All you can ask for is the opportunity so he and everyone should be excited. Let’s go redbirds!

  • Matt Roberson

    Not buying this on Wong, but I appreciate your optimism. Hope I’m wrong.

  • JeremyR

    Honestly, I think we should just be content with what Wong is and not be obsessed with him turning into a star, which may or may not happen. It seems like everyone, the fans, the media, the organization has such big dreams for him and he has trouble living up to them, which probably is hard on him (he’s a guy that plays with his emotions on his sleeve).

    As it is he’s a solid player who provides spectacular (if sometimes unsteady) defense and decent offense. He’s got value as is. It would be great if he improves, but let’s not be disappointed with him if he doesn’t.

  • Tim

    Wong can be a success, he is a very good fielder, does excellent pivot on double plays, good runner. The only thing I do not understand is, why does he swing for fences. I would be happy with a John Jay type bat that gets opposite field hits and gets .300/.350/.400/.750. Add to that some steals and we may have an excellent player.

  • geoff

    This could be one of those seasons where two guys who had bad years last year are, essentially, being put on notice. I think Mo has made it more than clear to Mike that Wong is going to play everyday. Mo likes this kid a lot. I will be amazed if he ever hits well with all of that hand and foot movement in his swing. I am certain that someone has charted it…my eye test tells me the kid was unable to handle pitches above his belt, some foul balls, not many base hits. He has been in the big leagues for some 400 games, it may be time for him to settle on a stance and a swing, and maybe develop a willingness to hit the ball where it is pitched. If they are pitching you up and away or down and away hit the ball to the opposite field. I think Mo has sent the signal to Mike and his coaching staff that they did a terrible job last year. No secret here…Mo has told Mike to write Wong’s name on the lineup card. Mo has also brought in a couple of coaches as well. Schildt is basically a manager in waiting. Mike is Mo’s boy but, don’t think for even one second that Mo will give up his spot to protect a guy who can’t get the job done. Mike’s coaches were so bad that they couldn’t even position the defense, pre-pitch, and Maloney was without doubt the worst third base coach in baseball. I am sure someone has charted third base coach blunders as well. No algorithm needed to know that Maloney was overmatched. I look forward to this team being better prepared to play baseball this season…I think they are planning to use spring training to work on baseball this year instead of making the spring a weightlifting and golf vacation.

  • jamborewe

    I’m hoping that Kolten finds his rhythm. The Cards sure need him to do that. There is a lot of pressure on Wong having a guy like Gyorko on the bench who can do the job if you falter, but its the Big Leagues. There is always someone there who is capable of taking your job.

    Matheny is under pressure to win, and he has a way of letting the players’ performances dictate how much they play. But he knows that at some point you are going to simply rely on certain guys to get it done.

    Watching Wong and Grichuk takes me back to Keith Hernandez and Tommy Herr. Those guys started slowly as young ball players but Whitey Herzog did not try to ease the pressure on them. In fact, he did the reverse. He quieted the masses by simply saying he was convinced that they could do the job. When asked what he’d do if they didn’t, he said, and I paraphrase: Well, we will lose, because I’m not going to sit them down.

  • Mark Lee Arbogast

    His fielding has really never been an issue. Probably the best fielding second baseman here in a long time, mostly because the cardinals devalued that position and decided to spend very little on it. But he stands at the plate and swings a huge bat with all the fury of Babe Ruth. He needs to learn to be a high average contact hitter and get in base. Stop the macho swing crap.