Reactions were mixed when the Cardinals selected Kolten Wong in the first round of 2011's draft. At Baseball Prospectus, Kevin Goldstein lauded his line-drive hitting skills but projected him to be a merely average defender at second base. Azruavatar explained why Wong was a better pick than Pete Kozma and concluded, "He should hit and if his fielding is up to par at second, he could be a solid regular in the majors in 2-3 years."
Wong's performance has been all over the place since then, but he does seem to be right on track in terms of arrival time. In the year he was drafted, Wong signed early enough to accumulate more than two hundred plate appearances for Quad Cities, the Cardinals' single-A affiliate at the time. Wong's professional debut featured a very productive .410 wOBA that included strong strikeout and walk rates, exciting the fanbase of an organization that had not seen a second baseman perform above league average offensively since Skip Schumaker played out of position there in 2009.
Wong fulfilled his reputation as a polished college hitter by OPS-ing above .800 in first three months at double-A while maintaining a decent walk rate, but his numbers plummeted in July. His BABIP slipped to a career low and only nine percent of his balls in play were line drives. Whether it was pitchers exploiting a hole in his swing or the rigors of a long season taking its toll, the numbers suggest that Wong started pressing. He swung more often and stopped walking (3% in 144 PAs in Aug/Sep) altogether. This performance followed Wong into the Arizona Fall League (AFL) where a high average helped mask the fact that he still wasn't hitting for extra bases or taking walks.
In an interview with Derrick Goold, Wong attributed some of his struggles to weight loss and how opposing defenses started setting up differently with him at the plate. He also explained how the Cardinals have challenged him to be a better defender:
The thing is everyone knows that I can hit decently well. I want to change everyone's perspective of me of being not only a good hitter but being the best all-around player I can be. That's my goal every year is to come in and be a better fielder. Every year. One of the coaches told me, 'Don't think about being a good hitter. Think about being a Gold Glove player.' That is the mentality I have to take. I want to become as good as I possibly can in all aspects of the game.
To his credit, the conversation has started to change. Baseball Prospectus has talked up his defense with Jason Parks describing him to have an "above-average arm" and "good glove" prior to the season and Zach Mortimer referring to him as a plus defender in a Minor League Update. In his annual prospect rankings, John Sickels described Wong as having a "steady glove."
Matheny has also noticed Wong's improvements in the field (from Jenifer Langosch):
"I saluted him and the Minor League staff. Mike Shildt and his staff last year, the effort he put in certainly was worth the effort. He came back a better defensive player, without question. Just watching him move around the bag, watching how he was turning, watching his first step, his instincts."
As far as his offense goes, Wong understands where he needs to improve at the plate (from MiLB.com):
"Hitting-wise, I've been trying to be more selective, but also to be able to try to stay with that line-drive approach and get on base. At the next level, my job is going to be to get on base."
Wong appears to have found his footing in recent weeks. After a modest start to the season, Wong has cranked out ten extra base hits (five doubles, two triples, and three home runs) in his past eleven games. To put this hot streak in perspective, Wong only managed ten extra base hits in his previous thirty-one games. An OPS that was below .700 on May 7th now stands at .888, and Wong's overall line is suddenly on par with his stellar performance in single-A.
Another encouraging sign is that Wong has regained some plate discipline by walking in six of his last nine games. He had only walked five times in his previous 33 games for Memphis and seven times in his last 220 plate appearances in 2012 split between Springfield and the AFL. Wong will need to cultivate some more patience at the plate if he wants to be a top-of-the-order hitter for the Cardinals.
With Matt Carpenter handling the keystone position with surprising dexterity these days, Wong has some time to refine his craft in Memphis. Carpenter's proficiency at second base has left me feeling like the Cardinals need Wong less than I would have guessed entering the season, but it's nice to know that he's almost ready should they want him, especially if David Freese can't turn things around.