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Kolten Wong and the beauty of small sample sizes

Beauty is in the eye of the beholder.

Hô ka nani!
Hô ka nani!
Scott Rovak-USA TODAY Sports

On August 15, 2013, the St. Louis Cardinals purchased the contract of Kolten Wong from Triple-A Memphis. After three successful minor league seasons, the 22nd overall pick of the 2011 MLB Draft was finally getting his shot at the big leagues. St. Louis had lost 14 of its last 20 games (including a seven game losing streak) dating back to the start of the Atlanta Braves series on July 26, and John Mozeliak was hoping Wong could provide the spark the team needed to return to their winning ways.

I don't know about you, but I was borderline ecstatic about the call-up. Unfortunately, I was unable to find my exact tweet from the night the news broke, but I believe I classified it as something comparable to "Christmas morning." Was I being a tad dramatic? Maybe, but the Cardinals were playing like crap at the time, and it was time to switch things up—time to infuse some life into the dead lineup. Wong's career .301/.365/.446 slash line over 1,264 plate appearances is pretty indicative of his ability at the plate. His 50 stolen bases in 67 attempts showed he had an aspect of his game that the current Cardinals lacked.

Unfortunately for Wong, small sample sizes have been a major component of his big league career so far. Wong made his debut before September call-ups which is usually indicative of a team having an immediate need leading to regular playing time. Unfortunately, this did not end up being the case for the 23-year-old second baseman last season. The way I see it, his career (including this year's Spring Training) can be broken up into four small sample sized parts: 1) good, 2) bad, 3) bad, and 4) good.

1) Good:

He started in four of his first five big league games and went five for 18 (.278 batting average) at the plate and three for three on stolen bases. After just 18 plate appearances and three successful stolen bases, some fans across Cardinal Nation were classifying Wong as "the real deal" or "just what the team needed." Though it definitely was a good start, Wong was never allowed to validate these claims because he received only six more starts the rest of the season and ended up with a total of 62 plate appearances (if he had played every day, this number could have been 150 or higher).

2) Bad:

A young player needs regular at bats to gain comfort and prove his value in the big leagues. Wong was never given this opportunity last season. Despite having a solid start (discussed above), 17 of his 62 plate appearances (27.4%) came as a pinch hitter. Pinch hitting is one of the hardest things to do in baseball, and it is even harder for a player that is lacking in big league experience. Wong had just one hit and one walk in the pinch hitting role and was never allowed to get comfortable after receiving regular playing time immediately after his call-up. He had a .098/.159/.098 slash line the rest of the way and had a finishing line of .153/.194/.169.

Some of the same fans that had classified him as the "real deal" after 18 plate appearances were now questioning "What's wrong with Wong?" after just 44 more plate appearances. These weren't "regular" plate appearances either. These were sporadic (one, maybe two per game) and as I stated above, they often came in the pinch hitting role. Thus, after 62 regular season plate appearances, Wong had already experienced the strong reaction of Cardinal Nation to two small sample size extremes: one good and one bad. He didn't get much of a chance to contribute in the playoffs and despite being considered an above-average base runner by just about every single scout, all fans seemed to talk about was this.

3) Bad:

Wong had zero hits in 10 at bats to start Spring Training. Oh, man, my Twitter timeline was going crazy at this point. It had gotten to the point where people were saying he needed to go back to Triple-A to get back in his comfort zone. For real? After just 10 at bats? Someone went as far as asking Derrick Goold in one of his chats what he thought of possibly sending Wong down to Memphis. Though he didn't say a move was necessary, he basically said the option could be explored if his struggles continued. If I'm Goold and I'm asked this question about Wong after just 10 at bats, here is my response: "Next question, please."

4) Good:

Wong has gone seven for his last 14 with two home runs, and fans are back on the "He's the real deal" bandwagon again. Yes, Wong has been seeing pitches extremely well at the plate of late, but we really need to give it a rest and just "let the kid play." Both the fans and the media have handled the Wong situation pretty poorly in my opinion. Wong was the 22nd-overall pick (in 2011) and has made top prospect lists ever since for a reason. His minor league numbers are plenty indicative of his capabilities at the plate, on the base paths, and in the field.

Will Wong ever be an All-Star in the major leagues? I don't know, but one thing I do know is that I am not making a decision on his future after just 94 plate appearances (including Spring Training). I look forward to tracking the development of Kolten this season, and I hope the majority of Cardinals fans are as well.

Well folks, there is the "beauty" of small sample sizes. A first round pick, top prospect, and player who has hit at every level of the minor leagues has already been considered "good", "bad," "bad," and now "good," and he hasn't even cracked 100 plate appearances in a big league uniform. Small sample sizes may not be statistically significant and they definitely aren't predictive of future events, but they sure are interesting to look back on after the fact.