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Kolten Wong, the outlier

The 2016 Cardinals as a whole are nothing like Kolten Wong and that’s why he should be an integral part of these last two weeks.

Milwaukee Brewers v St Louis Cardinals Photo by Dilip Vishwanat/Getty Images

During Saturday night’s game (I think it was Saturday night’s game) before the tide turned and when it still looked like the Cardinals were on the brink of falling four games behind the Giants and three out of the wild card race, Tim McCarver and Dan McLaughlin tried to sum up what’s wrong with the 2016 Cardinals. Surprisingly (and inaccurately, in my opinion), the first thing McCarver cited was the offense. To McLaughlin’s agreement, he characterized the offense as basically home run or bust.

That a homer-friendly offense could actually be counterproductive is not a new idea. On a recent (and excellent) episode of Jonah Keri’s podcast, John Smoltz opined that teams which got a lot of their runs by way of the long ball often ran into trouble in the postseason when met with a natural dry spell (or simply better pitching) rendering them unable to manufacture runs by actively getting on base.

I have no idea if there’s any actual merit to what both McCarver and Smoltz said. It’s certainly more reasonable than the archaic “home runs kill rallies” meme that used to pop up every so often, but while McCarver’s diagnosis on Saturday may have been wrong, his facts were not. Forty-five percent of the Cardinals’ runs this year have come from a home run. For context, the MLB average is around 40% and only the Mets, who have generated a whopping 53% of their runs by way of home run, can top the Cardinals in the National League and they’ve also scored 127 less runs.

As such, the Cardinals have the second highest wRC+ as a team in the NL behind the Cubs but are in the middle of the pack when it comes to getting on base. Only Matt Carpenter and Aledmys Diaz rank in the top 40 in the NL in on-base percentage (minimum 300 PAs). And if you’ve stuck with the Cardinals this long in 2016 what follows are some facts you likely don’t need to hear regurgitated, but ones that I’ll relay anyway: According to FanGraphs, the Cardinals rank last in the NL in base running (yesterday’s game was a veritable showcase of their ineptness on the basepaths this year) and 12th in team defense.

One of the few Cardinals who has broken from the 2016 mold is Kolten Wong. With just five home runs, he has not joined in on the fun and will most certainly end the season with the lowest home run total and slugging percentage of his short career. He also isn’t the one likely to stall a rally by committing the daily TOOTBLAN, or to extend the team’s time in the field with an untimely error. Your necessary warning to be wary of the small sample sizes, but, per FanGraphs, of the ten position players on the Cardinals with at least 300 plate appearances this season, Wong is one of two with a net positive in both base running and defense (the other, remarkably, is Jedd Gyorko).

Here’s the unlikely duo in action:

Lately, Wong has been a stable presence in an infield marked by upheaval. For example, last Saturday he was the only player in the infield who started the game at the position he was intended to play at the beginning of this season.

(Reminder: Follow vhs.)

Much was made of Wong’s demotion earlier in the season - Derrick Goold wrote about it just yesterday - and since his return on June 18, he’s hit .253/.350/.402, good for a 103 wRC+ in 203 plate appearances. Not eye-popping numbers but certainly adequate for a defensively sound second baseman on a bad defensive team.

What is eye-popping, at least within the context of Wong’s own career, is that heading into 2016, Wong drew a walk 5.4% of the time and had an OBP of just .303, which created a lot of justified skeptics when Wong made noise in the offseason of his goal to bat leadoff. Since his return he has an 10.8% walk rate, raising his season mark to 9.8% and his season OBP to .331. Both are above the average in the NL for 2016 (8.4% and .322) and going back to Cardinals position players with at least 300 plate appearances, Wong’s walk rate and OBP rank second and fifth, respectively.

This is not to argue that Wong has transformed into the ideal leadoff hitter. He’s not - and with 13 games remaining there’s no reason to deviate from the Carpenter-Diaz one-two punch at the top of the lineup anyway. But with Gyorko, Brandon Moss, Randal Grichuk, et al, the feast or famine quota has been met. And make no mistake, that’s not intended as an insult. In spite of the implications earlier, I think even McCarver and Smoltz would agree that a team who hits a lot of home runs is unquestionably preferable to one that does not. But given that these Cardinals are fundamentally flawed on defense and the basepaths, Wong should have a daily spot in the lineup to counteract that to whatever noticeable impact.

The good news is that’s more or less happened. (Maybe I say this because I still feel badly for unfairly ripping him last week, but after having the urgency to cut Jaime Garcia’s last start short after two innings and replacing his spot in the rotation with Alex Reyes, pitching Seung Hwan Oh in the 8th inning on Saturday night and then sending him back out for the 9th, and yesterday’s lineup - more of this lineup, please - I feel like Mike Matheny has been pretty good lately.) Wong has started 15 of the last 18 games, and has a 124 wRC+ in that time. The number of games currently left in the 2016 season is unknown, but by being different, by possessing skills that aren’t being provided by basically anyone else in the lineup, Kolten Wong has earned the chance to play an integral part in almost all of them.