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Kolten Wong’s approach at the plate has improved

The embattled second baseman is off to a great start.

St Louis Cardinals v Milwaukee Brewers Photo by Dylan Buell/Getty Images

Kolten Wong made a splendid play up the middle yesterday to curtail one of the Reds’ early threats in the 3rd inning in which they ended up stranding two. It’s the back-handed, hop-throw play we’ve seen Wong make before (you can watch it again or for the first time in GIF form in the recap of yesterday’s frustrating loss), but seeing nice glove work from him during a stretch in which he’s hit so well is almost enough to forget about all the fuss that was kicked up right before the season about his playing time.

After getting the start in only seven of the first twelve games, Wong has made twelve straight starts and hit .333 with seven extra-base hits, eight runs scored, and reached base well over 40 percent of the time. The Cardinals are also 9-3 in this span which is likely related on some level. What’s most certainly related to Wong’s recent spike in playing time is that Jhonny Peralta has been a non-factor this season and every starting pitcher for the last twelve games has been right-handed where Wong owns favorable splits.

So Wong is making slick defensive plays we’ve seen him make before, he’s on a bit of a hot streak at the plate which we’ve also seen before (Wong had a 114 wRC+ for the first half of 2015), and he’s getting the nod when a righty is on the mound. Nothing really surprising so far, but that hasn’t stopped people from noticing. Here’s Bernie Miklasz from this past Friday:

But I want to attach it to what we saw from Wong last season, after his return from a demotion to Triple A Memphis. From July 1 of 2016 through Thursday’s double-header sweep of the Toronto Blue Jays, Wong has 247 plate appearances for Cardinals.

Over that time Wong has posted a .341 on-base percentage, .439 slug, and a .780 OPS.

Wong’s wRC+ (weighted runs created plus) of 104 means that Wong is four percent above league average offensively. I’m not saying that it qualifies as some monumental achievement to be four percent above league average. But trying to make a case that Wong is special … well, that isn’t my goal.

The point? Wong is improving. His offense is flowing again. And Wong’s numbers are on the rise even though he’s experienced terrible batted ball luck, with a .271 average on balls in play — of 29 percent under the MLB average. If anything Wong’s offensive stats should move upward.

If there’s a trend to keep an eye on, and Miklasz pointed this out as well, it’s Wong’s possibly newly-found plate discipline. Wong is making more contact than before, and worked more favorable counts on the first pitch (52.7 first-strike percentage versus 58.2 for his career heading into this season). He’s also swinging less in 2017 and most notably swinging way less at pitches outside of the zone. Per FanGraphs, between 2014 and 2016, Wong took an offering at more than 30 percent of pitches off the plate, including nearly 35 percent in 2015. In this young season that number has fallen to under 23 percent, which is in the top-20 in the National League.

That in and of itself doesn’t say all the much about Wong if he’s not reaching base since he’s not the likeliest of players to create runs with power - heading into this season Wong had a career .370 slugging percentage in nearly 1,500 plate appearances. And reaching base hasn’t typically been Wong’s strong suit either. He only walked 6.4 percent of the time for his career, a number which would have ranked near the bottom 20th percentile in all of baseball for qualified hitters in 2016. The result had been a career .309 on-base percentage (again, bottom 20th percentile stuff) before this season.

This season, he’s earning a walk nearly 13 percent of the time, has has a .364 on-base percentage, and slugging .455. All three numbers are comfortably within the top half of the NL. And he’s doing all this while striking out less (12.8 K% in 2017 versus 15.4 percent for his career). In other words, we’re not looking at a Matt Carpenter situation where an uptick in power justifiably resulted in more strikeouts.

But, like Carpenter, what we could be seeing is the evolution of a hitter. Emphasis on could. I recognize we just hit the first day of May, Wong is not yet to 80 plate appearances, and I don’t envision a world where he’s as valuable at the plate as Carpenter. Nonetheless, I was actually doing Wong a bit of a disservice when noting his career 6.4 walk rate and .309 on-base percentage heading into this season because each number has steadily climbed as follows:

2014: 4.8 BB% / .292 OBP

2015: 5.9 BB% / .321 OBP

2016: 9.4 BB% / .327 OBP

That’s not substantial improvement but add in the 2017 numbers (again 12.8 BB% / .364 OBP) and the hope is this is the guy we always thought Wong should be: A guy who can find the gaps, use his speed to be a pest on the bases, and when he’s in a funk to work counts to find a way to still get to first base. To put it simply, an above-average bat to go along with a good glove in the field.

Wong turning himself into a perennial All-Star might be wishful thinking, and his early stats could easily regress to where his status with the team is as iffy as ever. So far though he’s on pace for close to 530 plate appearances, maybe 600 if he can solidify his presence on Mike Matheny’s good side. Continued improvement and evolution at the plate should do just that.