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Hot Take Theater: Trade Kolten Wong

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Constructing a statistical rationale for a questionable view of the Cardinals’ second baseman

Joe Puetz-USA TODAY Sports

Welcome to Hot Take Theater- a new recurring column I’m hoping to run once a month or so. The premise of this series is that I’ll take a piping hot take that I’ve heard Cardinals fans have and attempt to defend it using statistics. I’ll be finding whatever stats I can to support the chosen point, however controversial it is. The whole article is going to be written in favor of that point, with the exception of the conclusion section, where I’ll grade my own argument and state to what extent I believe it. I’m really curious to hear what feedback people have on this (i.e. is this worth doing as a recurring column) and also what views people would like to see here in the future, so please let me know. Today I present to you: Trade Kolten Wong.

Kolten Wong has been a controversial Cardinal for as long as he’s been in the major leagues. From the moment Koji Uehara picked him off of first base in the 2013 World Series, some portion of Cardinals Nation was just always going to view him as a failure, a hotheaded kid with no fundamentals who would never succeed. Just because some people have already written you off, though, doesn’t mean you can’t fail. It just means that those people aren’t the best judges. Every season of Wong’s career, there’s been a common battle- a group saying he’s too much of a head case to be a major leaguer, and a group saying that you can’t believe the narrative, you have to look at the stats and the projections. What if the stats say that he’s not enough of a baseball player to be a good major leaguer, though? What if the projections are missing something?

Let’s start with the offense. It always does with Kolten. That offense- it’s not great. For his career, he’s been below average as an offensive player. That’s not exactly surprising. What might surprise you more is that if you remove his baserunning contributions, he’s been quite a bit below average as a hitter. We’re talking a 90 wRC+ for his career, light-hitting catcher who’s friends with a good pitcher level (hi A.J. Ellis! Hi Mike Zunino! Carlos Ruiz, what are you doing here?!). We’re literally talking his career wRC+ here, not some small sample where he was dinged up or in a funk or something. A 90 wRC+ means Kolten is 10% worse than major league average at hitting. This counts all the terrible hitters in the majors, too. Among hitters with at least 500 PA last year, the average was more like 110, which would make Kolten 20% worse than solid regulars.

Hey now, you might be saying. What about WAR? Isn’t WAR a beloved and uncontroversial stat that captures the totality of a player’s skill? Oh MAN, you have got to get out to more VEB comment sections to read some iffy takes on WAR. I’m a believer, though, so let’s look at that. By the numbers, Kolten Wong has been worth 7.8 fWAR (8.2 bWAR) in 577 games. He’s topped out at 2.5 WAR in a totally acceptable 2015 season (96 wRC+, above average defense at second, and 600 PA). That’s something like a best case. It’s the only season where he has put together hitting, defense, and durability, though last year he came close with a BABIP-fueled 107 wRC+. This year, an unsustainably good defensive performance (17.7 UZR/150, better than anyone actually is as true talent) has kept him above replacement level. If you regress his defense to his career average (including this year’s metrics), he drops all the way to marginally below replacement level. That’s right, people are calling for a below-replacement-level hitter to get more at-bats while simultaneously fantasizing about trading Dexter Fowler for two milk cartons and a slightly-used Tamagotchi.

Let’s talk about platoon splits. This seems like a place where Wong apologists can hide, right? No one’s arguing Kolten Wong is a good hitter against lefties. Let’s just hide him against lefties and play his awesome glove when he has the platoon advantage to help out his middling offensive skills. If you could play him exclusively against righties, his career wRC+ would climb all the way to…. 95? Wait, what? He’s still a bad hitter even with the platoon advantage? Sadly, yes. The Cardinals have been extremely proactive about putting Wong in position to succeed with the platoon advantage. 78% of his career plate appearances have come against righties. His projections and the rest of this analysis assume that he’ll still get a majority of his at-bats against righties- I just wanted to get it out of the way that a major league team shouldn’t play a 73 wRC+ hitter (Kolten’s career average against lefties) no matter how good his glove is.

Okay, so we’re only going to play him against righties. He is slashing .179/.278/.333 against them this year, good for a 70 wRC+. That’s not going to get it done. No problem, you say. A player isn’t as good going forward as the stats he has put up. He’s as good as his projections! Get your reality out of my prospective future reality. Look at last year! He went .285/.376/.412, a 107 wRC+! Yeah, well, bad news, everyone. He surely did put that performance up, but he used a .331 BABIP to do it. A Kolten Wong running his career BABIP (incidentally, equivalent to his 2017 ZiPS projection) would have batted .246/.342/.372, good for something like a 96 OPS+ equivalent (I approximated a bit to translate, might be off by a point or two as I couldn’t find someone with this line and park adjustment). He was projected for…. 94 OPS+. In 2016, he was projected for a 92 OPS+ and put up an 86. In 2015, he was projected for 93 and put up 96, again with an above-career-average BABIP. 2014? Projected for 93, achieved 90, with below-average BABIP. Basically, Kolten Wong is a known commodity at this point. Projections think he’ll be kind of blah as a hitter, and he is consistently kind of blah as a hitter. And yet! Somehow, this year he was projected for a 103 OPS+. As we speak, he’s still projected to hit to a better-than-career-average 93 wRC+, with a higher-than-previous-career-high iso of .142. In fact, here are Kolten Wong’s projected WAR’s (using ZiPS) since 2014: 2.3, 2.4, 2.4, 2.4, 2.3. Maybe we should just accept that the projection system hasn’t really gotten him right. Maybe it’s just a black box that spits out 2.35 every year and rounds randomly. Either way, let’s be a little less lazy than just saying eh, he’ll probably be worth 2.4 WAR a year going forward, that is good enough for me.

I’d like to now turn to the narrative that Kolten Wong doesn’t do well when he doesn’t get consistent playing time. If our only hope of salvaging a 95 wRC+ hitter with good defense is to hide him from lefties, it would be good to make sure that he isn’t the kind of hitter who does badly when he’s playing sporadically. The view that Wong is inside his own head and needs at-bats and affirmation every day to succeed is popular among old-school fans and doesn’t really have statistical backing. I can’t think of a better way to get sabermetrically inclined writers to oppose something than to combine those two factors. I wanted to get to the bottom of this, though- so I created a stat! First, I took Wong’s career game log. Then, I separated it into two groups- games he played after having played in a game the previous day, and games he played after not playing the previous day. I’m aware that these aren’t perfect- the first game of the season is always going to be a little weird, and it doesn’t handle games after days off well. Still, if he can get rusty sitting on the bench while the Cardinals play, presumably he can get rusty sitting on the bench while the Cardinals don’t play. Here are the results:

Playing Time and Production

Playing Time PA AVG OBP SLG wRC+
Playing Time PA AVG OBP SLG wRC+
Inconsistent PT 513 0.232 0.305 0.345 81
Consistent PT 1532 0.255 0.324 0.382 98

Look, I’m no sample size scientist, but that looks pretty bad to me. He’s worse across the board, and it’s not an insignificant sample either. The difference between a plays-every-day Kolten and one who’s in and out of the lineup would be multiple wins over a full season. How are the Cardinals supposed to play this guy if he’s only good while playing every day, but can’t face lefty pitchers?

I don’t know what Kolten Wong is worth in a trade. Not much, probably. Maybe there are some model-based teams out there, though, using the ZiPS system of just randomly picking 2.3 or 2.4 every season and not learning from mistakes. Maybe someone out there thinks that they can fix him, can unlock the power that is always around the corner but never arrives. Would you take Kelvin Herrera for Kolten Wong? Sure you would. Would you take Mets reliever Paul Sewald, who was almost definitely the best pitcher on his high school team but isn’t exactly a distinguished major leaguer? You might! One thing is certain, though- if the Cardinals hold on to him for the rest of the year, you can count on a rosy 2.3 win projection next year.

Conclusion

I don’t buy this one. The ‘Kolten Wong is bad ‘narrative is easy, but it relies on threads that are true of most baseball players. He’s had some bad hitting seasons, that’s true. When you’re projected to be below league average as a hitter, variance is going to deal you some bad seasons. He’s had some seasons where he can’t stay on the field, that’s also true. When you have a manager who fills out lineups with crayons, that’s more or less unavoidable. It’s not as though he has injury issues- he has being cut out of the lineup and sent to AAA to learn to play outfield issues. That’s not exactly his fault. Even with all that, though, he’s been worth around 8 wins in 2000 PA- that’s a totally acceptable rate.

Additionally, the ZiPS being lazy narrative, while fun to make, doesn’t really hold water. I do question some things about projections, and Dan Szymborski would be the first to tell you that a projection system isn’t supposed to actually get every player right. What it is, though, is an unbiased estimator (at least in theory). It’s just as likely that it’s underestimating Wong’s true talent level as it is that it’s overestimating it. You can quibble, if you want, about the speed with which new information gets folded into these projection systems. I can’t speak to the methodology there. I do think, though, that while they can miss specific things about hitters who have changed, there’s just not a lot of evidence that Wong has changed. A projection system’s strong point is that it has a huge database of past career results to build its estimates from, so that it can estimate a mean future for a player. It doesn’t mean it will be right, but unless you can pinpoint something a player is doing differently, it’s probably a good guess.

Last but not least, let’s talk about my stats around playing every day. First of all, 500 PA is not really enough to feel confident in the results. His K% and BB%, for example, were equal in the two samples. What we’re really looking at is a 30 point BABIP difference and a 15 point ISO difference, not exactly worth calling home about. It’s a reminder that while stats are cool, they can be misleading. If I told you someone had an 81 wRC+ season with good defense, you’d be disgusted. If I told you they had the same defense but went for a 98 wRC+, you’d be fine with it. It’s not very easy to tell, however, how different those players are. You’d have to look at much longer samples or more quickly stabilizing stats to figure that out.

In conclusion, I don’t think the Cardinals need to burn up the phones trying to trade Kolten Wong. Would I trade him for Kelvin Herrera? I mean, it’s tempting. He’s under contract for two more years after this, and he’s not a huge bargain in 2020 when he’s making $10.25 million. He’ll be pushing 30 by then, and second basemen don’t have a good track record of aging well. If you think the Cardinals will get 1.5 wins a year out of him (and in a crowded infield, that’s not crazy for a platoon bat), he has about $12 million of surplus value. I’d probably spend $12 million of future surplus value to get a solid bullpen piece if we are in a tight race when Paul DeJong returns. I wouldn’t trade Wong before then just due to infield depth concerns, but after that I think I’d make that deal. Paul Sewald? Get out of town.

As for how I feel personally? I hope they keep him. I know this outcome probably isn’t him anymore, but I fell in love with the defense, the potentially plus batting eye, and the occasional glimpses of power way back in 2014. In my mind’s eye, Kolten Wong is basically Ian Kinsler with better arm sleeves. I’m not talking this year’s Ian Kinsler, either- I’m talking about Rangers and Tigers Ian Kinsler, an all-star second baseman who does everything. Will we get there? Probably not! A lot of being a fan, though, is about dreaming, and I like to dream of best-case scenarios for Kolten Wong.