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In praise of Kolten Wong

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The 2nd baseman of the past should be the 2nd baseman of the future.

Scott Rovak-USA TODAY Sports

Kolten Wong plays beautiful baseball.

The aesthetic beauty of Wong's game was never more on display than this season, when his two greatest assets - defense and base running - were so glaringly absent from much of the team.

In the final week of the season, his speed and base running skill twice gave the Cardinals a chance to win games in the late innings. The most memorable was his 9th inning leadoff triple, where he was stranded in the Cardinals final loss and ultimately fatal blow to their season. But the very next night, he accomplished nearly the same thing by going first-to-third on a hit-and-run. (He was again stranded, but the Cardinals won anyway.)

On the defensive side, I have a hard time remembering any "highlight reel" plays from this season that didn't involve Wong, and probably none impressed me more than this one:

Have you ever seen a 2nd baseman go that deep and that far to the shortstop side to make a catch? I don't think I have. Of course, given the Cardinals team defense this year, I would have told Wong to get to everything he could, Kelly Leak style.

I was sitting behind home plate at this game, and off-the-bat, I thought there was no way he would get to this ball, let alone do this:

Okay, I could post Wong defensive porn all day. And it's probably no surprise to anybody that he is capable of highlight-reel plays. The knock on Wong has been inconsistency and, especially at the plate, a tendency for long slumps. There is truth to those notions, but I feel like it has lead too many people - including some in the Cardinals dugout who wear giant watches - to conclude that Wong is not a valuable player.

Defensively, Wong has always provided value, but he took that value to the next level this season. In fact, even given his somewhat limited playing time, he finished 10th in the league in defensive value among 2nd basemen.

Historically, while Wong has provided elite range and great ability to turn double-plays, he has given back some of that value through errors. This season, he pulled that negative value in terms of what UZR calls "Error Runs" back to nearly league average. Via Inside Edge, which tracks the chances a player converts of various difficulties - routine, likely, remote, etc. - Wong improved in every category.

Now granted, single-season defensive stats, small sample size, blah-blah-blah. But Wong has always provided solid defensive value, and this season even more so.

By BsR, Fangraphs all-emcompasing measure of base running, Wong finished in a virtual dead-head with Greg Garcia and Randal Grichuk for best on the team. By Weighted Stolen Bases, which assigns value for runs added through stolen bases, Wong lead the team at 1.2 runs added. Jeremy Hazelbaker ranked next at 0.1. EVERYONE ELSE WAS ZERO OR NEGATIVE.

How you imagine Wong as a hitter probably depends on when you were watching. As Fearless Leader Craig Edwards noted at Fangraphs when the Cardinals signed Wong to a long-term deal before this season, Wong's career has featured long stretches of above average hitting and long stretches of well-below-average hitting.

That continued this season, with Wong posting a .285 first half wOBA and a .319 2nd half. His power completely vanished in April and June, with no extra base hits either month. But it came back strong in the 2nd half, with is ISO rising significantly in July, August and September.

Despite all the waves along the way, Wong has ended each season in more-or-less the same place: A league-averageish hitter. For the league as a whole, he's probably just a bit below league average. For 2nd baseman, he's right around or maybe even a smidge above average.

When you look at the totality of Wong's profile, you realize just how absurd the idea of playing him in the outfield was. It's not Wong's bat you need to get into the lineup. It's his glove - at 2nd base.

Kolten Wong may never be the All-Star some of us hoped he could be, but given regular playing time at the keystone, I'm confident he will be a 2-3 win player, a solid starter, and given the composition of this team, a greatly needed source of defensive value.

In an interview with Bernie Miklasz earlier this week, John Mozeliak specifically called out getting Wong more time at 2nd base as a way to improve the defense next season. He also mentioned finding Matt Carpenter "a consistent position," and it should be clear to everyone by now that position is not 2nd base. (It's 1st base.)

If the Cardinals want to re-insert Wong as their primary 2nd baseman, and I think they should, that leaves only the question of what to do with Jedd Gyorko. Of all the ways Mike Matheny found not to play Kolten Wong at 2nd base this season, the most defensible was when he inserted Gyorko, especially in the 2nd half when he went all Jimmie Foxx.

But while his 2016 defensive numbers were positive, Gyorko has been a liability with the glove for his career. If Gyorko remains a Cardinal and the team believes there is another 30 home runs in his bat, the more optimal place for him would be at 3rd base, where Jhonny Peralta took the majority of the starts while posting a team-worst -0.5 WAR.

I think it's possible that we see a massive overhaul of the team this offseason, and as a young player locked up on a fairly inexpensive contract, it's certainly possible that Kolten Wong could be moved as a part of that. But as currently constructed, Wong offers too much value as a 2nd baseman to be wasting away on the bench or face-planting in left field.