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Kolten Wong: the exemplar of consistency?

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Kolten Wong hasn’t been a consistent force for the Cardinals. Until now.

MLB: St. Louis Cardinals at Pittsburgh Pirates Charles LeClaire-USA TODAY Sports

In the 2011 MLB Draft, the Cardinals selected Kolten Wong as their second baseman of the future. It was an attempt to stabilize a position that had been in disarray since Fernando Vina’s departure at the end of the 2003 season. When the Hawaii product finally made his debut in 2013, he struggled. In a wRC+ system where 100 represents league average, Wong posted a value of -2 (Fangraphs). That forgettable year was ended with the first-year player picked off first to end Game 4 of the World Series against the Boston Red Sox.

Wong’s 2014 was better, but he was still unable to provide the stability the Cardinals so desperately needed. In 2015, he improved again. His performance was a glimmer of hope in what had been, up to that point, a mediocre career. Still, the Cardinals rewarded him with a 5 year contract extension worth over $25 million. He had reclaimed his position as the second baseman of the future.

Wong regressed in 2016, slashing just .240/.327/.355. Perhaps feeling the pressure of signing a large contract extension for the first time in his career, his power numbers slipped. He hit only 7 doubles and 5 home runs all year. His ISO dropped almost 20% from 2014. However, he improved on the defensive end, producing the highest UZR (Ultimate Zone Rating) of his career (Fangraphs). He had been a good player at times, giving some fans a reason to believe, yet his struggles caused others to withhold their support. Wong had performed well, but his failure to play consistently for long stretches revealed his inability to put all of the pieces together.

Despite his absence in the opening day lineup, Wong has quietly had an outstanding 2017 campaign. It appears, at least through the slightly limited sample size available (about half a season), that he has finally put all of the pieces together. With an average above .300 and an OBP close to .400, Wong has succeeded at his primary role—keeping the lineup moving. He has reached base in 18 of his last 19 games and scored 13 runs in the last 14 games as well (Fangraphs).

Interestingly, there isn’t necessarily one area we can point to and say “this is what led to his improvement.” His consistency this year is the result of progress made in many areas. You might say that Kolten has not only crossed his “t”s and dotted his “i”s, but that he has gone back to check for mistakes in punctuation and grammar as well.

A combination of small improvements in many categories has led to success for Wong. His current wRC+ is 116 (16% above average).

Kolten Wong 2016 vs. 2017 small improvements

Year K% BB% O-Swing% Hard% ISO
Year K% BB% O-Swing% Hard% ISO
2016 14.40% 9.40% 30.90% 25.90% 0.115
2017 14.10% 9.50% 27.70% 27% 0.134
Fangraphs

There has been a slight downtick in his K% and a faint increase in his BB%. Wong has swung at fewer balls outside the zone in 2017 as compared to 2016. And he is making hard contact more often as well. This caused a jump in his isolated power and an overall more productive year.

He is also taking what pitchers are giving him—not making the mistake of trying to do too much with any particular pitch.

Fangraphs

This graph illustrates how Kolten has started to hit the ball to the opposite field and pull the ball less frequently, especially during the recent winning streaks the Cardinals have had. Notice that at the beginning of this year, the red line (Oppo%) and the blue line (Pull%) were separated by almost 30 percentage points. In August, they have actually overlapped.

This doesn't indicate a drastic change in approach, but rather an almost negligible adjustment in mindset. If pitchers want to jam him, Kolten can pull the ball. If pitchers try to paint the outside corner, he can go to the opposite field.

For a player drafted to stabilize a volatile position, Wong was anything but steady during the first few years of his career. On a team looking to improve defensively and become more athletic, his quick hands and ability to make difficult plays appear simple have slowly emerged over the course of this season. More impressive still, has been Wong’s consistency in 2017. Although injuries have, on occasion, kept him out of the lineup, he has provided consistent production and reclaimed his position as the Cardinals’ second baseman for years to come.