Yesterday, new VEB writer Brendan_D (welcome aboard, Brendan, and, uh, nothing personal!) asked in his debut post if the Cardinals should be worried about Kolten Wong’s terrible start to 2018. Based not on Wong’s very bad slash line (.167/.242/.167 through Thursday) but rather on his very very bad batted-ball profile (a dribbler-to-the-right-side percentage of approximately “every time,” and a liner rate of approximately “Mike Mayers relief appearance”), Brendan answered the question like this:
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.
Despite our best efforts to ensure complete uniformity of opinion at all times on all topics, here, sometimes we disagree! And I disagree. Here’s why:
Sometimes Kolten Wong just does this for a little while.
Nobody would deny that Wong has opened the season in a slump. And it’s not the imaginary kind of slump, where everything is normal but the ball just isn’t finding the grass and we curse the gods of BABIP. Like Brendan pointed out, Wong’s been hitting the ball about as badly as a guy who is actually making quite a lot of contact can hit it. His wOBA as of this writing (i.e. not including anything from last night’s game) is at just .231, but his xwOBA (which attempts to estimate what his wOBA “should” be based on batted-ball data) is actually even lower, at .207. Brendan pulled out the gory details yesterday:
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.
...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.
...Wong [also has] the 5th highest soft-contact percentage (40.0%) and the 13th lowest hard-contact percentage (16.0%) in the league.
A guy hitting the ball like that is unplayable. If the Cardinals were to conclude that Wong will keep hitting the ball this way, the best course of action would be to
simply release him trade him to Boston for useful stuff. And it’s possible, as with the cases of Allen Craig or (seemingly) Jason Heyward, that Wong has teetered over an invisible cliff and abruptly forgotten how to his for no clear reason. That does happen! We can’t rule it out.
But the fact is Kolten Wong has been almost exactly the same hitter for over his four years with St. Louis — his wRC+ by year has gone 90, 96, 86, 107, with BABIP explaining nearly all of the fluctuation. This will probably draw some flames in the comments, but Wong has actually been one of the most dependable players on the team the last few seasons, using “dependable” in the sense of knowing what you’re going to get. Now we’re looking at a tiny sliver of 2018 games and trying to forecast what they mean for the rest of the season. Do Wong’s 38 plate appearances so far this year signal that we should expect something worse than what he’s so consistently been thus far in his career? Or is this just a slump?
I don’t know for sure one way or the other, but a player’s history is always a good place to look for clues. Wong in the past has averaged out to a 91 wRC+ hitter, which is perfectly fine for second base. Wong in the past has had some nasty slumps, all of which are rolled into that number. Wong today opened the year with a nasty slump. So let’s compare this slump to those, and see if there’s any reason to believe it’s different from them.
Here’s a graph of Kolten Wong’s rolling 12-game GB%, FB%, and LD% over his career (2013 call-up omitted):
Yikes! All the way to the right is where he is right now. Sky-high grounder rate, can’t hit a liner to save his life. But just eyeballing the chart, you can see some times in the past when he’s had a similar distribution of launch angles for 12 games: a couple times early last year, one in May 2016, etc. The numbers weren’t this extreme in most of those grounder-heavy periods, but the overall shapes of the distributions are similar — and when we’re talking about 30-35 balls in play over a 12-game stretch, the difference between a 72% GB rate (Wong’s current 2018 figure) and 63% (his worst 12-game figure of 2017) is only three batted balls.
So I think we can set the launch angle data aside as a red flag — it is bad, for sure, but it is bad in a way that Kolten Wong has recovered from multiple times before. What about the fact that, launch angle aside, Wong’s one of the league leaders in soft contact, though? Here’s another chart:
Same story, right? He’s in a place he’s been before. You could argue that it’s worse — the current peak is in fact the highest one on the chart — but it’s higher than the 2016 peak by just a hair, and higher than the 2015 and 2017 peaks by an amount that probably represents only a couple of batted balls. Those slumps happened, and then Wong resumed hitting normally. This one is happening the same way as those, and the odds are good that the same thing is going to happen.
Kolten Wong has had an awful couple weeks. They stick out like a sore thumb because he doesn’t have a reservoir of 2018 stats to ease how ugly his slash line looks, too. So his season wRC+ sits at a pitcher-esque 28. But here are some facts, in closing:
- On April 15, 2017, Wong’s 12-game rolling wRC+ was 23. The rest of the season, his wRC+ was 114.
- On April 25, 2016, Wong’s 12-game rolling wRC+ was -3. The rest of the season, his wRC+ was 94.
- On April 15, 2015, Wong’s 12-game rolling wRC+ was 43. The rest of the season, his wRC+ was 96.
- On April 25, 2014, Wong’s 12-game rolling wRC+ was 11. The rest of the season, his wRC+ was 96.
Maybe this is the time it doesn’t get better. Or maybe it’ll get better but not as better. But the more I stare at this stuff, the more I am convinced there is just nothing here to see.