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Kolten Wong’s steady march to the present

By reaching base more often and striking out less, Kolten Wong has left the shaky offseason behind him.

Chicago Cubs v St Louis Cardinals Photo by Dilip Vishwanat/Getty Images

Kolten Wong left in the middle of last night’s game with tightness in his right forearm (per Rob Rains) after returning from a detour in Peoria just last week. Derrick Goold reported late in the evening that the team is unsure of his availability and that he will undergo testing.

That’s a shame because upon exiting Wong had a slash line this season of .301/.393/.444, good for a wRC+ of 116 in 179 total plate appearances. If his season were to end today, he’d easily be looking at career highs across the board, minus the plate appearances, of course. And if he were able to maintain these numbers for the rest of the season, he’d be the only Cardinal second baseman to hit above league average this side of Matt Carpenter in quite some time.

The season is not ending today though. The season still has a long way to go. Because of the daily nature of baseball, narratives come and go seemingly faster than other sports. Remember barely a month ago when Matt Harvey served a three-game suspension for..[googles it], ah yes, violation of team rules? That was one of the biggest stories in sports at the time and less than 40 days later I can barely remember it.

Well, once upon a time, there was the issue of Kolten Wong being platooned at second base. Wong wasn’t happy about it and let it be known. It seemed like at the time that it could be a big deal. And even before that there were some unsubstantiated rumblings involving Brian Dozier. You’re forgiven if you’ve discarded all of this fuss in the dustbin because the Cardinals likely have as well. That’s a product of Jhonny Peralta being ineffective to the point that he was given his unconditional release on Tuesday, and Wong, per the stats above, playing better than ever.

To help his stock, Wong has improved on the deficiencies in his game that often made him a frustrating player in the first place. For a quick, defensive-minded player without a ton of power (he’s a second baseman, after all), who desired openly of batting leadoff, he wasn’t getting on base that much. In 2014 he drew a walk less than five percent of the time. In 2015 less than six percent. Wong’s combined on-base percentage during these two seasons was .309. And his walk-to-strikeout ratio for players with at least 1,000 plate appearances at second base between 2014-2015 ranked 12th out of 14.

Come last season, Wong was able to pull his walk rate up to 9.4 percent while lowering his strikeout rate for the fourth consecutive year. This season, same thing. He’s currently drawing a walk 10.6 percent of the time while striking out in an even 14.0 percent of his plate appearances. Both numbers are favorable when compared to the overall league average (8.6 BB% / 21.5 K%) and when compared to all second basemen (7.8 BB% / 18.1 K%). His current walk-to-strikeout ratio for players with at least 150 plate appearances at second base (27 total) ranks behind only Dustin Pedroia and Yangervis Solarte. And for all players with at least 150 plate appearances (245 total), Wong’s on-base percentage ranks 20th overall.

Wong’s walk-to-strikeout stats looked even better when I first noticed them on Sunday morning after Wong had completed a more than 25 plate appearance stretch without striking out (he has now gone down on strikes in five of his last 14 plate appearances), but take a look at his steady improvement in this area since reaching rookie status in 2014:

That’s hardly dramatic from year to year, but it’s the type of every-year improvement you hope to see in a player in his age-23 to 26 seasons. Per FanGraphs, Wong is swinging at only about 27 percent of pitches off the plate, a sizable decrease from his career mark of around 32.3 percent, and he’s making more contact on those pitches when he does chase them. He’s also seeing a bit more pitches in the zone this season for what that’s worth. The rest of his plate discipline profile in 2017 remains relatively close to his norm.

If it took Wong learning to lay off just a few more pitches to reach this level that would be a welcome development. He’s probably never going to hit like an All-Star (reminder again that he’s a second baseman), but he’s certainly hitting well enough to be the Cardinals everyday second baseman and not have to pay the threat of a platoon too much mind.

And speaking of playing every day, hopefully the second go-around of this injury isn’t a big deal as the Cardinals and their below average hitting could use his bat. On that front, by the time he took his first swings last night the score was already 6-0 in favor of the Brewers. Wong probably doesn’t need to be buried in the eighth spot but we can save that for when he returns from injury.