For the second year in a row, St. Louis Cardinals second baseman Kolten Wong has performed poorly in Spring Training but this is the first time his spring woes have followed him into the regular season. Perhaps it is too early in the season to worry about a player at the plate due to small-sample-size-based arguments. In many cases, I would agree. However, Wong’s issues don’t seem to be the type to be fixed with a “wait-and-see”-based approach.
During last year’s Spring Training, Wong slashed .192/.276/.288 while striking out 11 times, walking five times, and tallying three extra base hits through 58 plate appearances. He then quieted any concerns by rebounding in the month of April for the regular season by batting .258/.364/.444 with 10 strikeouts, 10 walks, and nine extra-base hits through 78 plate appearances. That success carried on throughout the majority of the 2017 season and Wong was one of the most consistent hitters of St. Louis’s lineup.
Wong finished his 2018 Spring Training in a similar fashion, batting .205/.327/.237 with 12 strikeouts, seven walks, and three extra-base hits through 52 plate appearances. This time though, those numbers seemed to have chased him into the regular season. Wong, through his first 33 plate appearances this year, has slashed .167/.242/.167 and has struck out five times, walked three times, and is still looking for his first extra-base hit.
And while those numbers alone may raise frustration and concern, the real issue lies with Wong’s batted-ball profile and the type of contact he is producing. Prior to the 2018 season, Wong averaged about 20% line-drives, 47% ground balls, and 32% fly balls. He also maintained, roughly, a 21% soft-contact rate, 51% medium-contact rate, and a 26% hard-contact rate.
For reference, in 2017, the league average rates were: 20.3% line-drives, 44.2% ground-balls, and 35.5% fly-balls. The average contact quality was 18.9% soft, 49.3% medium, and 31.8% hard.
Wong was essentially a league-average hitter using those measurements. However, in 2018, Wong is now one of the worst batters in the league when evaluating batted-ball outcomes. So far, Wong has hit for a 4.3% line-drive rate, 69.6% ground-ball rate, and a 26.1% fly-ball rate.
Amongst all MLB batters with at least 30 plate appearances in 2018 (244 batters), Wong has the 3rd LOWEST line-drive rate (4.3%). He trails only Russell Martin (0.0%) and the familiar face of Randal Grichuk (3.8%). Wong also has the 3rd HIGHEST ground-ball rate trailing the other familiar face of Stephen Piscotty (74.3%) and fellow NL Central infielder Jonathan Villar (73.3%).
To summarize, Wong is hitting almost exclusively ground-balls and is virtually never hitting line-drives which is not a recipe for success and it has resulted in 16 ground-balls compared to just one line-drive. Many players, like Rhys Hoskins of the Phillies, may be able to “get away” with this type of batted-ball profile if they are also hitting a large portion of balls for fly-balls with power, however, Wong does not fit that mold. Wong has 6 fly-balls and two of them did not make it out of the infield.
Maybe that doesn’t raise enough concerns. Maybe Wong is just taking a bit more time to warm up and needs more at-bats to get dialed-in. I wouldn’t mind that proposal if Wong also wasn’t the batter with the 5th highest soft-contact percentage (40.0%) and the 13th lowest hard-contact percentage (16.0%) in the league. Perhaps I am overreacting and perhaps Wong is still trying to find his rhythm and the timing of his swing. Or, perhaps there are deeper mechanical issues that need to be addressed.
Again, I realize that the sample size here is extremely small and Wong’s statistics through 11 games could be virtually meaningless but my concerns do not lie with what his results are, they lie with how he has gotten those results. Wong is making contact over 80% of the time that he swings but it is almost always weak and on the ground which will never lead to anything helpful or productive.
In today’s home-run and line-drive obsessed league, Kolten Wong’s inability to get the ball off the ground is going to cost the Cardinals in the short term (as we have already seen) and over the course of the entire season.