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Kolten Wong and his slump

The Cardinals recently benched Kolten Wong for three out of four games, including two against righthanded pitchers. Wong had not shown great signs of struggling prior to his benching, but if the Cardinals were basing their decisions on the results over sixteen plate appearances, the benching appears premature.

Benny Sieu-USA TODAY Sports

On April 13, 2014, the season was looking pretty good for Kolten Wong. Coming off a two-hit game that increased his hitting streak to six games, Wong was hitting .279/.354/.349. The power was not there, but with a wOBA of .311 and a wRC+ of 97, the Cardinals were getting average offensive production and solid defense at second base. For a rookie, Wong was holding up pretty well. Wong then went two for his next 16 and the Cardinals decided to bench him for two games, including one against a righthander. The Cardinals could very well have had valid reasons for holding Wong out for the next two games, but hopefully they were not resting him because he only got two hits over his next four games.

After Wong sat for two days, Cardinals' manager Mike Matheny did not use the term slump, but he did indicate that he saw something indicating Wong was struggling. Matheny talked to the Post-Dispatch.

He was still doing OK. It just kind of hit when Mark got here, and all of a sudden Kolten lost his timing a little bit. He'll get it back.

Wong agreed with the assessment.

I knew my timing was off. I haven't been slumping really. But I can feel I'm not where I need to be.

If that is the case, it is fair to say that Wong has not been at his best at the plate over the last week, but it is important not to make judgments based on results in a small sample size. Looking in small samples, every hitter struggles. Last season, according to Baseball Reference Play Index, 939 non-pitchers had hitless streaks lasting at least four games, something Wong has yet to do this season. The Cardinals had 68 non-pitcher hitless streaks lasting at least three games, something Wong achieved for the first time after pinch hitting last night (the three double-digit streaks last season came from Brock Peterson, Ty Wigginton, and Pete Kozma).

Assessing Wong's ability at the plate based on 16 plate appearances where he got only two hits, did not walk and struck out three times is a poor use of statistics. In 2013, the average major league hitter had a batting average of roughly .250, walked eight percent of the time and struck out twenty percent of the time. While Wong is projected to have a higher average and strike out less, for the purposes of this exercise, we'll assume league averages.

Over 16 at bats, the most likely outcome we would assume is four hits for a .250 average. Over 16 plate appearances (I realize I'm mixing at bats and plate appearances. It makes things slightly easier), we would expect one walk, maybe two. For strikeouts, we would expect roughly three strikeouts. Of course, using some math, we can actually figure out what percentage of every outcome we would expect. For zero hits out of sixteen, the math is easy. We take .75 (which is the odds of an out in sixteen at bats) to the 16th power. We end up with 1.0%. That means for a .250 hitter, we would expect zero hits just one percent of the time. Warning: it has been awhile since I have done this type of work so if I grossly misjudge this please let me know. Also, skip ahead to the next paragraph if you have no interest in mathematical formulas put into sentences. We can repeat this for all the outcomes taking 0.25 to the power of the number of hits, multiplying it by 0.75 to the power of the number of outs, multiply by 16 factorial, then divide by the number of hits factorial, and then divide by the number of outs factorial. For the number of hits, here is a graph showing the expected distribution over 16 at bats.

As expected, four is the most likely outcome with three hits and five hits not too far behind. Two hits, just a .125 batting average is the fourth most likely outcome. The above graph does a good job showing the arc and how the vast majority of outcomes are between two and six hits. As an alternative visual, this pie chart demonstrates how common two hits are relative to the other outcomes.

Repeating the same exercise above for walks yields the following graph.

While a player not getting walks over a long period of time is certainly concerning, over sixteen plate appearances, just one walk is the most likely outcome and zero walks comes in second. Looking at the results of only sixteen plate appearances and drawing conclusions about how they see the ball is not useful. Here is the corresponding pie chart.

Repeating the same process for strikeouts we see a medium between hits and walks.

Wong's three strikeouts over sixteen plate appearances is the most likely outcome for an average player. While Wong may be better than average in terms of avoiding strikeouts, changing the strikeout percentage to fifteen as opposed to twenty still makes three the number at just under 23%.

The point of the above graphs and charts is not to say Kolten Wong is not having trouble at the plate. He may very well be struggling at the plate and fighting with his swing, but drawing conclusions from statistics in sixteen plate appearances is not as good as scouting. If Matheny and his staff are seeing something amiss in Wong's swing, they are in a much better position to make those determinations. That goes for Wong and any other player when dealing in small sample sizes.

However, if Wong is truly struggling, giving him more time off would seem to be a poor way to get him back on track. Wong had poor results last season when he played intermittently. After ten at bats in Spring, Wong had no hits, but continued playing time resulted in a solid spring. Playing Mark Ellis against lefthanders makes a lot of sense. Wong may not fare poorly against lefties, but Mark Ellis is a solid hitter with the platoon advantage and using Ellis in those situations makes sense. Unfortunately, Wong has recently sat twice in favor of Ellis against righthanded pitching.

The Cardinals are not at the point of stunting Wong's development or misusing him based on two starts, but there is a reason the Cardinals traded David Freese and moved Matt Carpenter to third base. That reason is not the 36-year old Mark Ellis. The Cardinals showed confidence in Wong in the offseason. They showed confidence in him in the Spring, and they showed confidence in the early going of this season. Showing confidence without putting too much stock in sixteen plate appearances will likely be better for Wong and the Cardinals going forward.