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Kolten Wong’s overlooked progress at the plate

A lone bright spot in Wong’s rough season.

MLB: St. Louis Cardinals at Colorado Rockies Ron Chenoy-USA TODAY Sports

If you’re a regular at this site, you’re well aware of Kolten Wong’s struggles in the last year and a half. If you’re not, this graphic from Fangraphs pretty much sums it up:

Three low valleys from the second half of 2015 right about to the start of the second half of 2016. And no impressive peaks to make up for it. The struggles have had to do entirely with contact quality. At least that's the conclusion from Hard%, which is the percentage of batted balls that a player hits hard:

Woof. At one point things were going so bad with Wong that his Hard% dropped below 15%. That’s compared to a 2016 league average Hard% of 31.4%. At some point, Kolten figured something out and got his contact quality back around where it usually has been.

Even during his struggles though, Kolten’s improvements in contact quality helped somewhat, even if it at times it didn’t seem like it. Here’s the same graph, but with K% and BB% as well:

Despite all of Wong’s woes in 2016, his K% spent a lot of time below his career average, and his BB% spent a lot of time above his career average. Back in July, I wondered if Wong's attempts at working counts was counterproductive, hindering his contact quality. However, he's maintained those gains while getting back to hitting the ball well. As you would expect, his strikeout and walk numbers were better than the prior two years:

He added a large chunk of walks while cutting down on strikeouts, an impressive feat. My goal was to find out how big of an improvement in all non-contact situations - unintentional walks, strikeouts, hit by pitches - Wong had made from 2015 to 2016.

To answer this question, I would turn to non-contact wOBA. Recently, I developed a method to split the non-contact and on-contact portion of wOBA in two. 210 players took 300 PA in both 2015 and 2016, and Wong had the 17th best improvement in non-contact wOBA. Here’s the top 20:

A lot of players that had better overall seasons than expected on this list. Wong stands out as someone who didn’t, because his results on contact more than cancelled it out. This is the silver lining in Wong’s season. He seemed to eventually get his problems figured out with contact quality, and he maintained the gains he made in non-contact plate appearances through the end of the season.

The next question was: going forward, how much should we expect Wong to maintain those non-contact gains? I decided to find out how often hitters maintain similar gains. From 2006 to 2016, I found every player who took 300 PA in three consecutive seasons. I calculated their non-contact wOBA in each season, and found every instance in which a player gained between .060 and .080 points of non-contact wOBA from the first season to the second. For those sets of seasons, I found the difference between the player’s non-contact wOBA in years 2 and 3.

It bears pointing out that the weights for wOBA change year to year, since it’s scaled to that year’s OBP, which also varies year to year. However, the change is very minimal, and I didn’t have time to adjust each year of stats to that specific year’s weights. Thus, each season here is calculated with 2016’s wOBA weights. However, the differences are less than a 1% off. Future posts using this technique will hopefully be adjusted by year, but we’ll have to deal with just getting 99% of the way there this time.

1424 players had back-to-back-to-back seasons of 300 PA or more, and of those, 71 players improved their non-contact wOBA by .060 to .080 points. Of those 71 players, the average gain was .069 points, the same as Kolten’s gain from 2015 to 2016. Those 71 players, on average, lost .035 points of non-contact wOBA in year 3, or about half of what they gained in year 2. Maybe that puts a little damper on things, but that's still a good increase over expectations a year ago.

Here’s the interesting thing though. Check out the top 10 gainers in year 3 for this group of players:

Wong had a huge gain of non-contact wOBA from 2014 to 2015. It also bears pointing out that Wong wants to be the lead-off man, and this is probably a very conscious strategy on Kolten’s part to improve in working walks and avoiding strikeouts. I still don't think he should be the lead-off man, but it is nice to see him making these improvements.

With this new information, let's look at one more thing. Let’s go back to the 1424 players with 300 PA in three consecutive seasons. Let’s look at the top 10 differences from year 1 to year 3:

From our data set of 1214 sets of three consecutive seasons of 300 or more PA, Wong is the third most improved player in non-contact wOBA. That’s pretty awesome. For most the players on this list, their increase in non-contact wOBA was part of an overall breakout for the player. For Wong, it’s kept him afloat during his struggles.

Of course, strikeouts, walks, and hit by pitches are just part of the equation. There’s also what happens when you make contact, and maybe you don’t care too much about Wong’s improvements in non-contact situations when he had such a poor season when making contact.

However, I do have a way to measure a player’s expected on-contact wOBA based on Statcast data. My last post, in which I argued for bidding big on Justin Turner, contains links to many of the articles explaining how I calculate these stats. For the year, Wong had a BABIP of.268. However, the average outcome of each of his batted balls - by Exit Velocity and Launch Angle - indicates that he should have had a .292 BABIP. That’s the reason why his on-contact wOBA ended up at .308 instead of his .316 xwOBA on-contact score.

That doesn’t even factor in Wong’s above-average speed. Nor does it factor in the fact that this year included the biggest slump of his career, when something was clearly going wrong for him. That probably won’t be repeat itself next year. After I wrote about Wong's lackluster contact quality on July 30th, he posted a .326 xwOBA on contact the rest of the way. Not that we should expect that going forward, I'm just giving some context to his season once he started to get beyond his struggles.

Wong probably won’t ever be a great hitter; that’s just not him. However, even in a rough year, his contact wasn’t as bad as the results looked. Add on that he’s quietly been one of the most improved players in the game in non-contact plate appearances, and things don’t look quite so dire. Oh, and then there's the above-average base-running and defense. Wong may not be on the verge of a breakout, but he still looks as solid as he did going into 2016, if not a little more so.