Kolten Wong and the small sample size

David Kohl-USA TODAY Sports

The refrain of "small sample size" has become a familiar one in baseball analysis. A litany of anecdotes bolsters the cautionary phrase, with Bo Hart being the St. Louis Cardinals player who immediately brings the term to mind. Over weeks, months, or even a year, a ballplayer can play above or below his true-talent level. So it’s typically a good idea not to get too high or too low on a player based on the start to his career or season. Hot and cold streaks will ultimately converge, forming a whole over time that allows us to see just how good the player truly is.

This underpinning reality of baseball often pits the sport at odds with our instant overreaction culture. The season is a 162-game grind in which the cream by and large rises to top. Immediate judgment of a player or team is quite often impossible. In baseball, it takes time for true talent to show itself.

The nature of the game made the Cardinals’ handling of second base early this season difficult to understand.

Veteran Mark Ellis, who the club signed in the offseason, notched 32 spring-training plate appearances (PA) before being sidelined with knee tendonitis that saw him start the season on the disabled list. His rehab stint in the minors consisted of just one game in which he took three PA and stroked a single. On April 14, rookie Kolten Wong went 0-for-4, dropping his seasonal line from .279/.354/.349 to .255/327/.319 (numbers often fluctuate quite a bit in the early season because of low AB and PA totals). The Cardinals then activated Ellis after his lone rehab game and installed him in the starting lineup on April 15. With everything we seem to hear about timing and getting game ready during spring and Wong playing fairly well, the quick activation of Ellis seemed odd at the time. Looking backward with 20/20 hindsight, it was a bad decision.

In his excellent post critiquing the Cardinals’ early-season reaction to a slow start, Joe Sheehan analyzed how the activation of Ellis coincided with Wong’s batting falloff:

Which is exactly the point at which Matheny seemed to alight upon him as a problem. Mark Ellis came off the DL on April 15 and started that night against Brewers righty Marco Estrada. Wong started on the 16th (0-3) and 17th (2-6), but sat the 18th against Gio Gonzalez; now he was in a strict platoon with Ellis, which meant he was coming out of games even when he started. When Wong got back into the lineup, he was batting seventh and eighth. Wong went 0-for-3 on the 19th and was on the bench on the 20th against Stephen Strasburg — the second time in six games he’d been benched against a right-hander. Remember, we are less than a week removed from Wong being a plus contributor; now, he can’t even get into the lineup.

Wong started three more times, going 2-for-11, and was sent to the minors on April 28. The ESPN story lede refers to Wong as "struggling," but the evidence for that is scant. When Wong was a regular, he was playing well. Once Wong’s playing time became erratic — through no fault of his own — he didn’t play well, but that period of "not playing well" featured a grand total of 24 PA over ten days in which Wong started just six games, never more than two in a row. If you wanted to cause a rookie to fail, playing Wong the way Matheny did over Wong’s final two weeks on the roster is pretty much how you would do it. Matheny did a poor job of evaluating Wong’s actual performance, then doubled down on that evaluation by taking a young player and making him guess as to whether he’d be playing on any given day.

When general manager John Mozeliak and Matheny opted to demote Wong to Triple-A Memphis, the Hawaiian was batting an unimpressive .225/.275/.268. Despite its ugliness, Wong’s line was better than that of either Ellis (.100/.240/.100) or Daniel Descalso (.115/.179/.192). Throw in defense and base-running, and the Cardinals made themselves worse with Wong’s demotion in terms of talent.

At the time of the move, Matheny and Mozeliak spewed forth mealy-mouthed rationales that did little to offer anything credible as an explanation. Since the announcement, Derrick Goold and Bernie Miklasz of the St. Louis Post-Dispatch have made clear on their indispensable Best Podcast in Baseball that the primary reason the Cardinals demoted Wong and Shane Robinson was because the team’s veteran, multi-million-dollar players weren’t hitting. So it seems that the club was willing to abandon in part its offseason roster revamp (David Freese to Anaheim, Matt Carpenter to third base, Wong to second, and Bourjos in center) because of poor hitting over the span of less than a month’s worth of baseball. As Sheehan sets forth in the above-linked post, the Cardinals freaked out over a small sample size.

The promotion of Greg Garcia and Randal Grichuk did little to help the offense. After demoting Wong in the hopes of jump-starting a sluggish lineup, the Cardinals then turned to the second baseman as the offensive ignition. Not surprisingly, his talent has begun to show and his batting line has surged upward. Since rejoining St. Louis, Wong has hit .364/.432/.455 over 38 PA. A hot small sample of PA has offset a cool one, and Wong’s overall 2014 line has nearly risen to the level of the MLB’s overall hitting line for second basemen.

2B

BA

OBP

SLG

OPS

wOBA

wRC+

MLB

.253

.314

.372

.686

.304

90

Wong

.269

.327

.327

.654

.293

85

Wong will doubtlessly have ebbs and flows in his offensive production. All players do. Hopefully Matheny decides to stay the course with the Cardinals’ second baseman of the future, giving him the bulk of playing time at the keystone. Wong should be the primary second baseman of the present. He’s earned it with talent.

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