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Finding a Kolten Komp

There are annual questions about the future of the Cardinals 2B. Let’s find some historical comps to help guide the way to an answer.

MLB: Chicago Cubs at St. Louis Cardinals Jeff Curry-USA TODAY Sports

It’s not quite trade season yet, but it’s right around the corner. There are only 47 shopping days left for front offices to tighten up their rosters for the remainder of the season. ‘Tis the season, and so forth! In the coming weeks, there will be a lot more analysis about the assets available to John Mozeliak, Michael Girsch, et al. as the deadline approaches. For now, I want to focus specifically on one particular asset that comes up every year in rumors- one of Cardinals fandom’s most divisive players, Kolten Wong. Specifically, I want to dig into some historical comps and see if we can get a gauge for Kolten’s future. Which players, historically, are the most similar to Kolten Wong, and how did they perform as they aged?

Note: I realize how weird it is to do this right now, when Wong is playing just about as poorly as he ever has since coming up in 2013. Still, I think it’s informative to look at the whole picture of his career rather than just these first few months.

When I performed this exercise a few months ago for Jordan Hicks, it was limited from the start. The Face Melter only had 9.1 MLB innings when I wrote that article, so I had to rely on raw stuff instead of results. Thankfully, Kolten Wong provides us with a far more dense sample- 2,057 career plate appearances through Tuesday, approximately five seasons of MLB roster time, and we’re through a good chunk of his age 27 season. The well for comps is deep here and I won’t have to rely on the (awesome) minutiae of Statcast data.

The first thing I’ve done is collect career numbers for all players with 1,000 PA or more, through age 27, on Fangraphs. From there, I selected the second basemen tab. This won’t list their stats only while playing second base. Rather, it’s a list of players with lots (but not all) of playing time at second base, and their career numbers. Because of how much the game has changed, I didn’t want to go too far back. That being the case, I limited my list to 1970 to the present. This step nets me 201 second basemen.

There are some obvious markers we should research when looking for Wong comps, or any comp for that matter. We’ve already culled our list by position, age, and playing time. Wins Above Replacement (WAR, or in this case, fWAR- the Fangraphs version) is another great place to begin. We want players who have been similarly productive to Wong. Since plate discipline and power tell us so much about hitters, we’ll need measures for each of those aspects of Kolten’s game. In this case, I’m using BB/K ratio and isolated slugging percentage (ISO). It’s admittedly a bit redundant since power and plate discipline are already included, but I’m going to add wRC+ into the mix. Finally, because speed and defense are a big part of Kolten’s game, I’m including Baseball Prospectus’ Baserunning Runs (which I discussed quite a bit last week) and Fangraphs’ positionally-adjusted Defensive Runs Above Average (Def) metric.

If you know how to measure players using run values, Def is very easy to pick up. Def measures the numbers of runs above or below average a player is worth when combining their fielding runs and positional runs. Zero is league average and every ten runs (approximately) in each direction is a win above or below average.

You’ve probably noticed had it drilled into you via article after article over the last few years that the three true outcomes part of the game (K, BB, HR) has changed drastically over the last five to ten years. That being the case, I’ve placed the BB/K ratio and ISO for each player in our sample on a league-relative scale (BB/K+ and ISO+). And with that final change, that’s our tool kit for finding comps for Kolten Wong- fWAR, wRC+, BB/K+, ISO+, BRR, and DEF.

To determine the distance from Wong in these categories, each player’s performance in each category is given a percentile rank amongst our 201 second basemen sample. That’s an important discrepancy. Willie Randolph, just as an example, is a 99th percentile player by fWAR here. But that’s only amongst second basemen.

Here are the fifteen closest second basemen to Kolten Wong, listed in order of proximity:

The first thing that jumps out at me, even makes me chuckle, is that the Cardinals appear to have a type. 2007 Cardinal free agent signee (and 1997 draftee) Adam Kennedy comes in at #2, 2014 free agent signee Mark Ellis comes in at #4, and mid-2006 acquisition Ronnie Belliard is #14, along with six years of Kolten Wong himself. If you’re keeping track at home, the profile that matches all of those players is middling power and middling overall production for a second baseman, combined with above average defense and baserunning (except for Belliard, who had a terrible BRR).

There’s another consideration here, and it means we should probably take a few of these comps with a grain of salt. This table says it all:

Heights and Weights for Kolten Wong’s 15 Closest 2B Comps

Player Ht. Wt.
Player Ht. Wt.
Kolten Wong 5'9 185
DJ LeMahieu 6'4 215
Adam Kennedy 6'1 195
Brian Roberts 5'9 175
Mark Ellis 5'10 190
Tony Bernazard 5'9 160
Jerry Remy 5'9 165
Bump Wills 5'9 177
Damian Jackson 5'11 185
Jerry Hairston 5'10 195
Ron Oester 6'2 190
Orlando Hudson 6'0 190
Dustin Ackley 6'1 195
Rennie Stennett 5'11 175
Ronnie Belliard 5'9 211
Aaron Hill 5'11 200

LeMahieu, Oester, Hudson, Ackley, and Kennedy are all taller than Wong. Bigger players hit for more power. If that quintet had a power burst lurking in their future seasons, it doesn’t seem like something we can or should apply to Wong.

What happened to these players moving forward? Since Kolten is under contract for three more seasons after this one (two seasons plus a club option in year three), let’s zero in specifically on the age 28, 29, and 30 seasons for these 15 players. Here‘s the group in total.

Wong Comp Production by Age

Category 27 and Under 28 to 30
Category 27 and Under 28 to 30
WAR/600 2.16 2.06
Def/600 6.1 3.2
ISO+ 81 80
BB/K+ 121 145
BRR/600 2.7 1.2
wRC+ 91.6 94.6

These results aren’t necessarily surprising. Most players improve their plate discipline as they age, particularly into their age 28 to 30 seasons. Defense and baserunning runs decline, another natural byproduct of age. wRC+ increases because of walks, as ISO+ is almost exactly the same. Essentially, a boost in walks wash out any other age-related decline, keeping overall production steady. That’s the big picture. Whatever Kolten Wong is right now, if he’s like the average version of his 15 comps, he’ll maintain that level of production. He just might do it in different ways.

I brought up the height and weight concern earlier, but the little guys actually saw the biggest boost in ISO+. Ackley, Oester, and Kennedy (the big guys) were three of the six biggest decliners in ISO+. On the flip side, the big guys (especially Kennedy and Oester, and LeMahieu to a lesser degree) saw the biggest gains in defense, per DEF/600 PAs. For our 15 comps, maturity seems to help the little guys hit for more power and the bigger guys position themselves more effectively afield (and take wiser gambles on the bases) as they age.

Thus far, we haven‘t looked too much at individual levels and we need to contend with the potential for attrition. Ackley was out of MLB after his age 28 season and hasn’t been back. Damian Jackson spent his age 28 to 30 seasons as an ineffective role player. Rennie Stennett spent his age 28 to 30 seasons progressing from platoon player to role player to completely out of the game. Bump Wills played at age 28 and 29 and was cromulent (1.7 fWAR after turning 28), and then moved on to Japan. He gets an incomplete, much like DJ LeMahieu. In LeMahieu’s case, he’s still crafting the story of what he will be for the rest of age 29 and all of age 30.

The biggest gainers in production (WAR/600) in their age 28 to 30 seasons, by far, were Mark Ellis, Brian Roberts, and Adam Kennedy. They just happen to rank 2nd, 4th, and 5th in under-28 BRR. That’s a possible positive- better baserunners in this group have aged better. And two of those three are little guys like Kolten.

If we subtract out the two outliers (Wills and LeMahieu), that gives us three players out of 13 who busted. It’s about a 1-in-4 shot that guys like Wong will bust. Remy, Bernazard, and Oester weren‘t good or even average (sub 2 fWARs) but they were respectable enough that they saw regular playing time. On the other hand, 6 of the 13 were 2+ fWAR/year players from 28 to 30- a coin flip for at least average production or better, with Roberts and Ellis legitimately serving as above average performers. It’s encouraging that those two fall at #3 and #4 in proximity to Wong.

Ellis and Roberts notwithstanding (and let’s put aside how weird it is for a Cardinals site to use Ellis in a positive way), color me skeptical of any kind of breakout for Wong. All three of the biggest breakouts (Ellis, Roberts, Kennedy) had displayed some signs of a potential breakout prior to age 28, either through progressive improvement, back to back steady seasons just prior to age 28, or 3+ fWAR seasons. Kolten doesn’t check any of those boxes. Worse still, the season right before he turns 28 is shaping up to be one of his very worst.

On the other hand, I think there’s decent evidence here that players like Kolten have a good chance of maintaining their value. His defensive skill and baserunning give him a higher floor than a lot of players, meaning his production can absorb the shock of his frequent slumps at the plate without dipping into Stennett and Damian Jackson territory (and boy howdy, is he ever testing that theory so far this season). If production per dollar spent is your thing, he’s due $29.25M over the next three years (if the team picks up the club option for 2021). At the current rate of approximately $8.5M per win, Kolten needs to be in the neighborhood of 3-3.5 wins over three seasons to be worth the money. It‘s a low enough bar that I‘d be very surprised if he isn‘t worth at least that much (3-3.5 wins) from 2018 to 2020.

The most divisive player on the team becomes more divisive. If you’re one of the three people on earth still waiting for a breakout, you’re probably going to be disappointed. If you can live with what he’s been so far- a good defender and baserunner, a maddening hitter prone to hideous slumps (much like the one he‘s in right now- the worst of his career), and a few thrilling moments mixed in with a lot of frustrating ones, all adding up to something between just a bit below average to just a bit above average varying from season to season... if you can deal with all of that, then you’re probably going to keep seeing it from Kolten Wong. If you can’t deal with that stuff, take heart in the fact that he probably isn’t going to totally suck, or he‘ll be gone.