Mike Trout made his big league debut on July 8, 2011. Over the course of the rest of the season, he hit .220/.281/.390 in 135 plate appearances. The next spring he got just one hit in six at bats due to a mysterious illness that prevented him from starting the year in the majors. Then, he had two of the greatest season of all-time. Kolten Wong struggled in the majors last year, hitting .153/.194/.169 in only 62 plate appearances. He did not get a hit in his first nine at bats of spring and announcers are already questioning his ability.
Comparing Kolten Wong to Mike Trout is a just a tad bold, but pretending to know what Wong will do in the majors in 2014 based on 62 plate appearances in part-time work and a handful of trips to the plate in spring training is equally presumptuous. Wong's inability to hit last year in an unfamiliar role or his struggles in February make little difference when projecting his ability to contribute this coming season.
A first round pedigree, two years on many analysts Top 100 prospects lists, and success in the minors do not guarantee success, but to assume failure based on such a small amount of plate appearances is faulty logic. Wong was not the first player to struggle after his initial call-up to the big leagues, and he will not be the last. From 1998-2012 there have been thirteen non-pitchers and catchers aged 22-24 who received 50-150 plate appearances in their initial call-up, hit below .225 and were given starting at bats the following season. In their first action in the majors those players averaged 82 plate appearances, a slash line of .198/.278/.341 and a .276 wOBA. Those numbers are a little better than Wong's last year, but they are still poor offensive numbers.
Here is a chart showing the overall averages for the following season as well as averages for the top four, the middle five and the bottom four based on wOBA.
Here is an accompanying list of the same players and their performance in their second years.
When teams gave their young players a chance to succeed, they generally rewarded the patience afforded to them. Only Brent Lillibridge had a really bad year, and almost all of the players were above average offensively. These players are not an example of what Kolten Wong will do. These players help to show a poor start in the majors is not necessarily an indicator that a player is not ready to help a major league ballclub.
When the sample size is at its smallest, overreacting becomes easy. Listening to early Cardinals broadcast, those wheels are already in motion. There may be some who believe Wong needs to hit the ball on the ground more. Last season, he had an extremely high 60.9% ground ball rate. Wong actually made solid contact a decent amount of the time last season, posting a 17.9% line drive rate. Wong simply had some bad luck at the plate with only a .191 BABIP. With more plate appearances, his numbers would have moved upward.
Only three of his eight line drives fell for hits, well under the .690 BABIP for the rest of the league. If he had just six more hits and three more walks, his batting average would have been .254 and his on-base percentage would have been .323. Those numbers are not fantastic, but would not have garnered near the scrutiny he has received so far this spring. With just a little luck, his numbers could have been even better than that. His expected BABIP based on the types of balls he hit last year was .337 based on this xBABIP calculator. With so few plate appearances to work from, numbers, both low and high, can exaggerate a player's actual abilities (See Kozma, Pete, circa 2012)
It is fair to criticize Wong's game, to wonder if he will struggle in the majors, and to question his ceiling. Those are all valid criticisms. However, basing those opinions and questions on what amounts to two to three weeks worth of plate appearances is a very poor use of statistics. After years of positive scouting reviews, experience in the minor leagues, and success at every level, Wong has earned the chance to contribute at the major league level for the Cardinals. Wong's initial struggles are not uncommon and those who exercised patience with their young, talented players have often been rewarded with solid play for their teams.