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Is Kolten Wong due for a breakout?

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What's holding Wong back from an All-Star season?

Jeff Curry-USA TODAY Sports

As a former first round pick in the 2011 draft, Kolten Wong is another success story for the Cardinals' draft and development machine. He hasn't done it by providing eye-popping numbers, but Wong has been solid at a position that has been tough for the Cardinals to fill. And being a solid contributor at the league minimum is a great thing for the team.

But now that Kolten has shown he is a starting caliber player, Cardinals fans have started to wonder if more is possible. Will he take a step forward and be an All-Star caliber player, and establish himself as part of the core of the Cardinals moving forward?

Let's look at his numbers and see if we can gauge the likelihood of that scenario. We'll start with his career numbers to date:

PA BB% K% ISO BABIP BA OBP SLG wOBA wRC+ BsR OFF DEF WAR
2013 62 4.8 % 19.4 % .017 .191 .153 .194 .169 .168 -2 0.6 -6.5 1.5 -0.4
2014 433 4.8 % 16.4 % .139 .275 .249 .292 .388 .299 90 5 0.2 4.3 1.9
2015 613 5.9 % 15.5 % .124 .296 .262 .321 .386 .310 96 3.2 0.2 2.6 2.3
Total 1108 5.4 % 16.1 % .124 .282 .250 .303 .374 .297 88 8.8 -6.2 8.4 3.9

He certainly didn't have the greatest of luck in his first taste of the big league in 2013, but at this point that's well behind him. 2014 wasn't a great year, but while he was below average in each of his four core stats, he was close enough to average to pull in a 90 wRC+ at the plate.

On the surface it seems he improved overall in 2015, raising his walk rate a bit, cutting his strikeouts a small bit, and had more success on balls in play. It came with slightly reduced power, but overall 2015 was an improvement, as he turned in a 96 wRC+. Despite a below average hitting line, his defense at second has been enough to make him an above average player on a rate basis in his career.

But let's take a look below the surface and see how Wong looks as a hitter. Looking at his plate discipline numbers, I saw two stats that changed significantly from 2014 to 2015:

O-Swing% Z-Swing% O-Contact% Z-Contact% Zone%
2014 32.7 % 65.8 % 72.6 % 89.7 % 45.1 %
2015 35.7 % 73.3 % 70.4 % 90.8 % 40.1 %

A five percentage points may not seem like much of a change in Zone%, but consider this: In 2014, Wong saw pitches in the zone at an above average rate, ranking 125th lowest out of 209 players with 400 or more PA. In 2015, among 141 qualified players, Wong had the 6th lowest Zone%. That is a very drastic change, and indicates that pitchers started attacking Wong in a different manner in 2015 than they had the year before. Wong didn't adjust to this well, as he increased the amount of swings he took on pitches outside the zone rather than controlling the zone better.

Here's another way to show how big of a change there was in Wong's Zone%. This is the top 10 negative changes in Zone%, among players who had at least 400 PA in 2014 and a qualified season in 2015:

14 O-Swing% 15 O-Swing% Differential 14 Zone% 15 Zone % Differential
Wong 32.7 35.7 -3 45.1 40.1 5
Revere 28.5 29.5 -1 48.4 44.2 4.2
Cruz 33.6 34.1 -0.5 44.9 42.0 2.9
Kinsler 31.0 28.7 2.3 49.4 47.0 2.4
Gordon 32.9 38.1 -5.2 49.5 47.5 2
Frazier 33.7 37.8 -4.1 44.2 42.2 2
Peralta 30.2 33.1 -2.9 44.3 42.3 2
Posey 30.3 30.7 -0.4 45.1 43.4 1.7
Cain 35.3 36.1 -0.8 46.4 44.7 1.7
Cespedes 38.7 39.1 -0.4 45.1 43.6 1.5

So Wong had the largest drop in Zone% from 2014 to 2015. As you can see, all but one of the players featured in this chart increased their O-swing% as well, indicating that at least some of the reason for the decreased pitches in the zone was from pitchers recognizing that the player was more likely to chase than the year before.

Generally, the most common reason a hitter will see less pitches in the zone has to do with power. The more power a player is seen to have, the more pitchers are willing to nibble around the zone and avoid giving up a dinger. Our current low run environment started in 2012, and here's every qualified season from then on comparing ISO to Zone%:

ISOandZone

The link is pretty strong, but ISO is not the only thing correlated with Zone%, O-Swing% also has a relationship:

OSwingandZone

The relationship is weaker, but it's still a factor. Being that Wong has consistently put up a below average ISO over his time in the majors, it's hard to imagine him getting pitched around as a result of pitchers scared of the long Wong ball. Wong did have the 19th largest increase in O-Swing%, but that doesn't seem to tell the whole story of why he would have the single largest increase in Zone%. Wong did have a better first half than second in 2015, perhaps his hot first half left pitchers more worried about challenging Kolten?

BB% K% ISO BABIP wRC+ LD% FB% HR/FB Hard% O-Swing% Zone%
1st Half 6.5 % 15.3 % .154 .310 114 24.7 % 32.7 % 10.5 % 30.3 % 34.4 % 41.2 %
2nd Half 5.0 % 15.8 % .084 .278 71 19.5 % 33.0 % 3.0 % 23.0 % 37.4 % 38.7 %

Wong certainly did have a better first half than second, but his first half line isn't exactly one that would make opposing pitchers scared to put the ball over the plate. Pitchers threw increasingly more pitches out of the zone to Wong, and he continued to increase how often he was willing to chase.

But it still doesn't explain why Wong's difference was much larger than usual. Perhaps as a rookie who didn't have much buzz, pitchers were fine with challenging him. Then, as the league saw Wong a few times, they picked up on his tendency to chase, and pitchers continued to expand the zone against him.

Whatever the reason for his low Zone%, this is a significant stumbling block for Wong. In the second half of 2015, Wong posted the 3rd lowest Zone% among qualified players, alongside the 26th highest O-Swing%.

This isn't a crippling problem, but other parts of his offensive profile aren't making up for it. In both 2014 and 2015 Wong posted a below average BABIP and ISO. The main problem with the BABIP is a pop-ups When combining both years, Wong has the 11th highest IFFB% at 13.4%. Because that rate is based on fly balls, Pop-ups really only count for about 4.5% of Wong's batted balls, but when considering that they're nearly always an out, and the spread between the large majority of players' true BABIP skill is only 20-30 points, it means Wong is at a disadvantage when it comes to BABIP skill.

Like the discipline numbers, the pop-up problem isn't crippling, but there also doesn't seem to be anything making up for it. His FB% has been almost exactly average, so if he had more his pop-up rate would be even higher. But conversely, if he wants to put up power numbers, he has to get the ball in the air more. He certainly seems to be trying:

The most notable thing to me about Wong's swing as always been that aggressive leg kick. He also seems to get his bat down into the zone early. I don't know the scouty things to tell you much about Wong's swing, but it certainly seems like what he's trying to do at least, is to get the ball in air on each swing. So perhaps as he continues to make adjustments, he'll improve on that.

So that, in a nutshell, is where Wong's current limitations are. Pitchers know he expands his zone and has obliged him by throwing him pitches out of the zone at one of the highest rates in the league. He also hits pop-outs at an uncomfortable level which gives him a disadvantage when it comes to BABIP. And while he's not powerless, he hasn't made up for those deficiencies with an above average power output.

Baseball is a game of adjustments, and while opposing pitchers seemed to win that battle in 2015, Wong will have his chance to answer back in 2016. Hopefully the Cardinals and Wong are aware of the extreme nature of which he was pitched this year, and are working more on laying off pitches out of the zone. Or maybe he comes up short on that, but he improves his timing somewhat and starts turning those pop-outs into more outfield fly balls and line drives. And perhaps that better contact quality also results in slightly higher HR/FB rates.

Wong's Defense

So far, according to the metrics, Wong has been an above average defender. The metrics take a long time to stabilize, the common cited number is three years worth of data. With Wong, including 2013's cup of coffee, and subtracting out the time missed from his demotion in 2014, we have about two years. So we're two-thirds of the way there.

The two main metrics, Ultimate Zone Rating (UZR) and Defensive Runs Saved (DRS) both agree that Wong is an above average second baseman. UZR has him at +4.5 runs above average in his career so far while DRS has him at +14. When looking at how UZR breaks down Wong's value, it shows that he has a strong Range score and a negative Error score. I think that matches up really well with what I've seen of Kolten: he has the ability to make some great plays, but he also has a tendency to boot a few more than he should.

Wong makes some great plays using his athleticism, like this one:

Or here's another favorite of mine:

But  he's also had a tendency to miss some easy ones like these two from the same inning:

What I like about that though is that players can fine tune their hands as time goes on. Players aren't usually going to improve their arm strength or their range after entering the league. He'll probably never be as sure-handed as his double play partner, but he probably will improve that part of the game. Wong has the arm and the range, he just needs the glove to catch up a bit.

Wong is a valuable asset even if he doesn't improve

I don't want anyone to get the wrong idea about this post. If Wong doesn't improve, he's still valuable. Consider that three years of Daniel Murphy just cost the Nationals $37.5M and their first round pick in next year's draft. Wong will cost less than half of that dollar amount over the next four years, and while Murphy has been a little bit better than Wong over the last two years, he'll also be entering his age 31 season next year.

Or we could compare him to Ben Zobrist, who just received $48M over the next four years. Zobrist is projected as better than Wong, but will be going into his age 35 season. I don't think it's a long-shot at all that with Zobrist almost certainly declining in his late 30's that Wong matches Zobrist's WAR over the next four years, and Wong will cost more than $30M less.

Average players are expensive in free agency, is the point. Wong put up average seasons in 2014 and 2015 when there wasn't anyone else in the org who could be expected to be that good. Average is a relative term, and being average among the starting caliber players at the highest level of competition in the baseball world is actually very valuable.

I think overall, Wong will improve at least a little bit. He'll probably be a little more sure-handed in the field going forward, and he'll probably cut back on the chases after a poor showing in the second half of 2016. Hopefully the power numbers improve a bit as he enters his physical prime. Maybe an adjustment to his swing cuts down on the pop-ups, or increases his fly ball and/or line drive numbers. I don't think he's very likely to be a perennial all-star or anything, as that would probably require him fixing all of these issues or at least a big turnaround in one or two, which seems unlikely. He could certainly have a season or two where everything goes right and he's one of the most valuable players on the team.

But again, if Kolten just keeps doing what he's been doing, that's alright by me.