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Kolten Wong’s Upside

Kolten Wong was not drafted as a player with huge upside, but he has it... if everything goes right.

Cincinnati Reds v St Louis Cardinals Photo by Dilip Vishwanat/Getty Images

On Saturday, free agency will officially begin, and while that’s an important date, the most significant free agent options will not be resolved until at least a month later in all likelihood. While we experience the rather dull part of the offseason, except in the sense that it feels like anything is on the table (even though it isn’t), I would like to do some optimistic prognostication on a player who is already a solid lock to be on the 2019 team: Kolten Wong.

Wong has had a bit of an interesting career. He was drafted in the 1st round of the 2011 draft, but not really treated like a first rounder by the fanbase. There was no Nolan Gorman excitement over the pick. Wong was a safe, solid pick. He was expected to be a quick riser and he was expected to be a very good bet to be average, but he lacked upside. And... things have almost gone as exactly as expected. He made his major league debut just over two years after he was drafted. He has also been at least a 2 WAR/600 PAs every year of his career with his lower WAR totals primarily due to playing significantly less than 600 plate appearances.

I said things almost went as expected. I think Wong has a rather significant amount of upside. For one thing, calling Wong an average player is doing him a bit of a disservice. Over his career Wong has been worth 10.2 fWAR and 10.9 bWAR over 2,287 plate appearances. That’s 2.7 fWAR per 600 plate appearances and 2.9 bWAR per 600 plate appearances. Unfortunately, the 600 plate appearances thing is kind of important. Wong has played 5 seasons in the league and has averaged just a shade over 2 WAR per year because of injuries and sitting due to offensive underperformance. Technically, he has been an average player, but he’s been an average player in a more interesting way. Wouldn’t you rather have a player like Wong than a player who has 600+ plate appearances every year and accrues the same value as Wong does in less time? There’s always the possibility he’ll remain healthy.

Wong’s career is interesting, because he ends up in the same place, but has gotten to his destination in different ways. To begin his career, Wong was a free swinger who didn’t quite have the contact skills to be an above average hitter as a free swinger. For instance, for his first two seasons of his career, he had an unintentional walk rate of 5% and a BABIP of .287. He didn’t strike out much, so he still managed to have a wRC+ of 94.

Then in 2016, he had his worst season to date, but in the process, paved the way to become a potentially better hitter in the future. He cut his K rate to a career low and his BB rate ballooned to 9.4%, with only two of them being intentional walks. He also had what are still career lows in ISO (.115) and BABIP (.268). He also had a career low in PAs, with just 361 plate appearances, but not due to injury. He was sent down for 11 days in June, but otherwise was on the active roster the entire year.

In 2017, he kept those changes, walking at a slightly misleading 10% pace (because 11 IBBs, but 7.5 BB% was still way better than his first two years), maintaining his K rate, and hitting his career ISO. Oh yeah and he also had a .331 BABIP, which helped. Due to the randomness of UZR, he had his only below average season (and it’s more accurate to call it average with -1.1 UZR/150), which made him look like he didn’t have as good of a season as he did, and he still finished with 2.1 WAR in 108 games.

I guess since I finally brought up defense, I should talk about that now. How can you write a post about Wong’s upside and not mention defense after all? From his rookie season until last year, Wong was the same defender he’s always been. He was a guy who would make a great play and follow it up by booting a ball Adam Dunn could make. Overall, he still was an above average defender, but it sure felt like he could be more than that.

A funny thing happened while Wong was struggling offensively this year. His defense became insane. I’m not going to post the UZR numbers, because that would make me a hypocrite based off previous posts. One year of defensive data is too small a sample. But let’s put it in not small sample terms. Before 2018, Wong was a 3.2 UZR/150 defender. One year later, he’s a +6.1 UZR/150 defender. Without even needing to rely on small sample, we can already say Wong is at least a +6.1 UZR/150 defender now, which already improves his upside.

Buuuuut I think there’s a good chance he’s better than that. Much like how simply watching Harrison Bader play for one game (unless you’re Keith Olbermann apparently) can tell you he’s an elite defender, if you watched Wong in 2018 and compared him to his career, he actually looked like a much improved defender and his starting point is a +3 2B. He not only wasn’t committing as many stupid errors as before: his range seemed better too. Wong made highlight plays before 2018, but I don’t think he was making could have been the literal top play on SportsCenter’s top 10 level plays.

Now, that I’ve properly set up Wong’s past, let’s imagine for a second that his bat and defense come together for 150 games for 2019 and look at his upside. First, the absolute easiest upside element of Wong’s game is his K rate: 14.6% K rate. In his last three seasons, Wong has had a 14.4, 14.6, and 14.7 K rates and his career level is 15.3% so it doesn’t take any stretch of the imagination to know where his K rate ends with an upside season and it takes no optimism at all.

For his walk rate, he has had UIBBs of 6.9, 7.5 and 8.9% the last three seasons. Realistically, I’d be surprised if he managed better than a 7.5% BB rate so let’s do that. ISO is easy: he’s had two seasons of .139, but let’s say a couple extra homers go over the wall and he reaches .150 next year. His preseason ZiPS was .145 even though he has never actually reached that so this actually isn’t a stretch. Lastly, let’s give him a .320 BABIP, just because he had a .331 BABIP in only 411 plate appearances. Speaking of plate appearances, we’re giving him 600. As for defense, I’m going to make him a +10 defender.

Over 600 plate appearances, he got 154 hits, 48 walks, and got hit by a pitch 17 times. I entered his rate of getting HBP since 2015 since he doesn’t appear to have been as ok with getting hit in his rookie year. I gave him 16 homers, which I factored using his career FB% and it’s actually slightly below his career high HR/FB%. I entered his career rate of doubles and triples, which came out to 25 doubles and 4 triples.

In all, he ended up as a .291/.360/.444 hitter, which came out to a 120 wRC+ hitter overall. His career high in average is .285 and that came with a .331 BABIP, so that average seems like a real stretch. His .444 slugging percentage is well above his career high as well, but most of that is because of his average. I used his career rates on 2B and 3Bs and gave him an optimistic HR/FB so I don’t think the .152 ISO is too unbelievable to imagine. Again though, this post is if he manages to combine power, walks, and BABIP so dream with me here.

Alright so he’s a 120 wRC+ hitter. Wildly optimistic sure. Now he’s a +10 UZR/150 defender at 2B. Less optimistic, though probably a bit hopeful And for his career, he has been a +14.4 BsR as a baserunner, so add over a third of a win from baserunning too. With everything going his way and a completely healthy season, Wong would be a.... 5.2 WAR player. Holy crap. Look at it this way. If Wong had his 2018 for 600 PAs, he would be a 4.1 WAR player. Now picture that with everything on offense clicking. Not as hard to imagine is it?