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The optics of Kolten Wong

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For no other player on the roster is the fan perception and reality so far apart as for the unfairly-maligned 2nd baseman.

St Louis Cardinals v Milwaukee Brewers Photo by Stacy Revere/Getty Images

“Optics” is that junky buzzword, almost always used in a political context, when the look of something is demonstrably different from the reality of it. A politician might be doing something as benign as playing a round of golf, but if they’re doing it with a foursome of billionaire donors, while wearing a t-shirt that says “Screw the Workers”... that would be an example of bad optics.

Kolten Wong seems to have a problem with optics.

Why else would so many fans have such a beef with such a talented player? And look, I know it’s tricky to generalize what “fans” think, and there are plenty of woke VEBers who understand the value Mr. Wong provides. But I’ve been the man behind the curtain on the VEB Twitter account when Wong makes a mistake, and the vitriol that comes out really goes to another level.

And then of course, over the last two days, we’ve been subjected to another Kolten Wong Soap Opera. In Monday night’s game, Wong made a throwing error and got tagged out on the bases in a run-down (that maybe wasn’t totally his fault). After the game, Wong reportedly apologized to the team. Then last night, Wong had a solid game, went 2-3 at the plate and drove in one of the two runs. After the game, Mike Matheny proclaimed it “a huge day for Kolten Wong.”

Craig wrote a great post yesterday about Wong’s performance in Monday night’s game, which while not great still produced more value than four other starters. The comments predictably filled-up with the usual complaints: He is a bad base runner. He makes silly mistakes on defense. He is mentally fragile...

First, let’s be clear that basically none of that is true.

Since 2014, his first full season*, Kolten Wong has been the Cardinals most valuable base runner and it isn’t even close. He’s been worth 10.9 BsR - Fangraphs all encompassing measure of base running, which considers stolen bases, taking extra bases, etc. Second place is Jason Heyward, then Tommy Pham, then Pete Kozma. The next most valuable player still on the team is Randal Grichuk, with a BsR of 3.0.

*Kolten Wong has never played a full season because Mike Matheny hates him.

When it comes to defense, over that same period of time, Wong ranks 3rd in Defensive Runs Saved behind only Heyward and Yadier Molina. By DRS or UZR, he has been a plus defender every season of his career.

Offensively, Wong is prone to some long streaks, both hitting well and hitting poorly. But they tend to even out so that his annual production is quite consistent: Slightly below league average overall, though probably right about average for a 2nd baseman.

We’ve got a detailed record of Kolten Wong at this point, and it’s very clear: He is a plus base-runner, a plus defender, and an average-ish hitter. As to why so many fans struggle to see that, I can only refer back to the optics.

The one point I can concede the #WongHaters is this: He does have a certain penchant for the high-profile gaffe. If you get picked-off to end a World Series game, that’s bad optics.

Defensively, while metrics like UZR tell us he has elite range and great ability turning double-plays, he is a bit prone to the error. For his career, what he does well more than balances out what he gives back on those errors. But to the naked eye, a misplayed ball is more apparent than it is that Wong is getting to balls beyond the average 2nd baseman, and certainly beyond what Greg Garcia or Jedd Gyorko would. Again, the optics are bad.

(And yes, to start this season, Wong leads the team in errors and is upside-down in terms of defensive value. But I’ll take his 3+ years of track record over one month and say he turns that around.)

Kolten Wong’s results are good, but the optics are sometimes bad. So why is it that fans and the media narrative so often focuses on the bad?

I’ve said this before, but it bears repeating: Mike Matheny has been gaslighting Kolten Wong for four years. The benching, the demotions to AAA because of the benching, the nonsensical move to the outfield... But even more than that, it’s been Matheny’s repeated justifications for these moves by making comments about Wong’s mental make-up, or the the vague allusions to his need to “take a step forward” in some aspect of his game.

FSMW State TV loves to play along with this narrative too. The broadcasters treated Wong’s game last night - going 2 for 3 after a game where he committed an error and got thrown out on the bases - like it was Rick Ankiel rising from the dead.

The one shift we seem to be seeing this season (at least so far) is that Matheny has stuck with Wong. His comments last night about it being a “huge day” for Wong are a good sign for Wong continuing in the lineup. But honestly, it leaves a bad taste in my mouth. It feels like little more than the manager pivoting to now proclaim that Wong has fixed whatever mystical character flaw only he saw in the first place.

Don’t get caught up in the “bad optics.” Kolten Wong is good.