The St. Louis Cardinals second baseman enters his sophomore season with high hopes of a breakout year, something similar to VEB's community projections: .276/.330/.423 in 564 plate appearances. Despite a successful rookie campaign which placed him third in National League Rookie of the Year voting, it was clear that there were portions of Kolten Wong's game that needed refinement going forward, with getting on base more consistently near the top of that list (2014 on-base percentage: .292).
Twenty-eight regular season plate appearances is nowhere near the sample size needed to predict what will happen the rest of 2015, but for what it's worth, Wong has already walked five times (for a walk rate of 17.9%). This means that despite a .227 batting average, his OBP is a healthy .357—a rate that, if maintained, would make him a viable candidate for one of the top two spots in the batting order. While his walk rate is a marked improvement from last season (2014: 4.8%), it is likely unsustainable—meaning he will need to raise his batting average to help maintain his OBP, which is not an unreasonable task.
Now, most of the time, I utilize a not-insignificant filter when I hear Tim McCarver talking on the Fox Sports Midwest broadcast. That is not meant to be a knock on McCarver because I truly respect what he has done for the game of baseball. Rather, it's just seems like we don't always see the game through the same line of vision, whether that is a good or bad thing I do not know. Yet, early in 2015, when he started talking about something related to Wong's swing/stance, I was intrigued by what he had to say. While I do not have a direct quote available, he said something along the lines of "Wong's hands are too low in his stance, making him particularly vulnerable to swings and misses on pitches up in the zone." This is a phenomenon my eyes have told me about since his debut back in 2013, but I never took the time to examine the data until now (after his sample size grew):
Keep in mind, this map only shows Wong's performance against pitches currently classified as "hard" by BrooksBaseball: fourseamer, sinker, and cutter. As you can see, the graph is pretty red up in the zone (and out) and even dark blue/purple in the middle three zones. For perspective on the middle three zones, take a look at Matt Carpenter's map. Unlike most heat maps, the hitter does not want a large area of red or dark blue on his "Percentage Whiffs" map. Thus, it appears that Wong does, indeed, have a swinging and missing problem on hard pitches up in the zone.
Frankly, even when he does make contact on these pitches, he's not experiencing much success either (still a pretty small sample size, though):
Looking at the top two lines of the map, Wong is hitting .185 (15 for 81). While this is not a fair comparison for Wong, Carpenter is hitting .240 (43 for 179) in this zone. Batting average doesn't always tell the whole story, though. While Wong has only 15 hits on hard pitches in this zone, maybe he's still driving the ball for extra bases? Unfortunately, his "Isolated Power" map shuts down this idea, and in fact, only one of his 12 career home runs occurred on a hard pitch up in the zone.
The sample size is getting to a point where, barring an alteration in mechanics and/or approach, this is something we can expect from Wong for the rest of his career. Can he still be a successful second baseman? Absolutely. His speed, defense, and threat for power is a unique combination for the position, but this finding definitely tempers my enthusiasm a little bit. As you can see from the maps included above, we are not talking about a small "hole" here. While I do not claim to be a hitting mechanics expert, it makes sense as to why low hands would affect a hitter's performance on hard pitches up in the zone. Obviously, hand placement is only one part of a very complex equation, but it just may be something worth addressing.
Credit to BrooksBaseball for the data used in this post.