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Higher expectations for Kolten Wong in 2015

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Kolten Wong had a solid rookie season despite a somewhat underwhelming stat line. His surprising power, both in the regular season and in the playoffs have upped expectations heading into 2015.

Jeff Curry-USA TODAY Sports

Kolten Wong entered 2014 as the presumptive starter at second base, but with only 62 career plate appearances, there were some questions about his ability to take on that role full-time. To answer those questions, the Cardinals brought in Mark Ellis as caddy to Wong at second base. This season, Wong no longer enters the season with a proven backup. He was the  Cardinals "break-out star" in the postseason. Wong is expected to solidify the revolving door at second base for years to come, but setting expectations for Wong entering his second full season is difficult.

In the year-end wrap, Aaron Finkel discussed Wong's future.

We'll see how optimistic we are as a group about Kolten's sophomore campaign in March, but personally I'm more positive about his future today than I was when I filled out last year's projections despite the fact that his 2014 numbers were a slight disappointment to our hopes a year ago.

In 2014, Wong managed to fall below expectations, yet somehow also raise them for the following season. Before hitting three postseason home runs, Pete Kozma started Game 1 of the NLCS against the Dodgers ahead of Wong. Bernie Miklasz appropriately called that decision "laughable" although laughter was not my reaction to seeing Kozma in the lineup. That game was likely the final benching Wong will see for some time other than for the occasional rest.

Last season's situation failed in multiple respects. The presence of Mark Ellis allowed Mike Matheny to almost immediately jostle Wong's playing time. A compromised Ellis was installed by Matheny as the starter, leaving John Mozeliak little choice but to send Wong back to Memphis to give the developing player the plate appearances he needed. That Mark Ellis was terrible all season only made matters worse.

Wong returned from his lesson in Memphis and hit .254/.295/.414 with 12 home runs, 17 stolen bases and a 98 wRC+ in 357 plate appearances despite playing through shoulder problems. That performance, combined with a few key homers in the playoffs raises expectations for 2015, but the projections do not yet agree. Steamer expects Wong's .275 BABIP from 2014 to carry over into next season with a projected .257/.305/.383 line and wRC+ of 93. ZiPS is more bullish on a slight rebound of Wong's BABIP (it was .332 and .318 his last two minor league seasons), projecting a .264/.310/.389 line with an OPS+ of 93.

The statistics from 2014 and the projection systems tell us to expect more of the same in 2015, yet it is hard not to think more can be expected from Wong. Many rookies who do not quite meet expectations quickly find the shine of their star wear off. Wong has not yet suffered that fate, and many players go on to have very good careers. He is not the first rookie to put up a below-average offensive performance. Over the last twenty years, ten rookies in their Age-23 season have put up a wRC+ from 85 to 95 (min 400 PA). Using Fangraphs Leaderboards, here are those ten seasons.

Season Name Team PA HR SB BABIP AVG OBP SLG wRC+ WAR
1999 J.D. Drew Cardinals 430 13 19 0.270 0.242 0.340 0.424 95 2.5
1999 Carlos Lee White Sox 518 16 4 0.311 0.293 0.312 0.463 92 0.8
1999 Carlos Febles Royals 524 10 20 0.299 0.256 0.336 0.411 87 1.4
1999 Gabe Kapler Tigers 468 18 11 0.256 0.245 0.315 0.447 90 1.8
2007 Chris Young Diamondbacks 624 32 27 0.257 0.237 0.295 0.467 87 0.5
2005 Aaron Hill Blue Jays 407 3 2 0.299 0.274 0.342 0.385 93 1.3
2004 Alex Rios Blue Jays 460 1 15 0.355 0.286 0.338 0.383 87 2
2007 Alex Gordon Royals 601 15 14 0.303 0.247 0.314 0.411 87 2
2006 Josh Barfield Padres 578 13 21 0.307 0.280 0.318 0.423 93 2.3
2013 Didi Gregorius Diamondbacks 404 7 0 0.290 0.252 0.332 0.373 92 1.4

Like Wong, the players had below average BABIPs, averaging .291. Using Fangraphs Custom Leaderboards, here are those players performances at Age 24, the season Wong heads into in 2015.

Name PA HR SB BABIP AVG OBP SLG wRC+ WAR
J.D. Drew 486 18 17 0.351 0.295 0.401 0.479 126 3.8
Aaron Hill 606 6 5 0.319 0.291 0.349 0.386 90 2.5
Alex Gordon 571 16 9 0.309 0.26 0.351 0.432 106 2.5
Chris Young 699 22 14 0.3 0.248 0.315 0.443 91 2.2
Carlos Lee 619 24 13 0.322 0.301 0.345 0.484 106 2.1
Alex Rios 519 10 14 0.309 0.262 0.306 0.397 82 0.9
Gabe Kapler 491 14 8 0.319 0.302 0.36 0.473 105 0.8
Carlos Febles 399 2 17 0.293 0.257 0.345 0.316 69 0.6
Didi Gregorius 299 6 3 0.257 0.226 0.29 0.363 76 0.3
Josh Barfield 444 3 14 0.299 0.243 0.27 0.324 55 -1

Four of the ten players were above average in their sophomore seasons and the group as a whole had a higher BABIP at .308. When comparing below average offensive seasons from the year before, these results are not unexpected. Every one of the players was given an opportunity the following season, but not all came through. Here are those same players' numbers for their four seasons following their rookie year, Ages 24-27.

Name PA HR SB AVG OBP SLG wRC+ WAR
Alex Rios 2415 66 78 0.289 0.338 0.469 109 14.8
J.D. Drew 1753 78 40 0.289 0.384 0.505 132 13.6
Chris Young 2523 84 75 0.24 0.325 0.431 97 11
Aaron Hill 2226 61 19 0.287 0.336 0.443 103 10.3
Carlos Lee 2471 105 49 0.282 0.339 0.484 111 9.5
Alex Gordon 1731 53 32 0.267 0.352 0.442 114 9.1
Gabe Kapler 1637 37 48 0.281 0.343 0.427 94 1.1
Didi Gregorius 299 6 3 0.226 0.29 0.363 76 0.3
Carlos Febles 1339 14 46 0.244 0.322 0.328 68 -0.8
Josh Barfield 497 3 14 0.245 0.269 0.321 54 -1.3

Some of these players would improve over the years, while three did not amount to much and the jury still out on Derek Jeter's replacement on the Yankees. Five of the ten put up better than average careers after their rookie season. What we see above should be the expectations for Kolten Wong. He is likely an average player who has the potential to put up 3 or 4-win seasons with perhaps and All-Star berth or two. He is a good hitter, an incredible baserunner and plays an up the middle position on defense. It is fair to want more than the Cardinals received from Wong in 2014, but stardom is expecting too much. Wong is the weakest hitter in the Cardinals' current lineup. That he could provide more than that bodes well for the Cardinals in 2015.