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What If Kolten Wong’s Power Is Real?

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I mean, it’s not. But what if it is?

MLB: St. Louis Cardinals at Milwaukee Brewers Michael McLoone-USA TODAY Sports

Let’s get one thing clear, right at the start of this article. Kolten Wong’s newfound power isn’t real. It’s just not. You’re dreaming on it a little too much because it’s the start of the year. I’m dreaming on it a little too much, though, too. It’s the start of the year! Anything could happen. As you know, the normal thing I do here is find some kind of goofy stat or oddity and drill in on it to a more or less comical level of detail, looking for something I feel confident is interesting. There’s just one problem -- as I’m writing this, the Cardinals have played one game. It was a fun game, if not a successful one, but that’s not exactly enough for takeaways.

Miles Mikolas gave up some dingers, and didn’t strike many people out, but dingers happen sometimes and Mikolas never strikes anyone out. Various Pauls (both DeJong and Goldschmidt) struck out a lot. This is marginally closer to being interesting -- DeJong swung and missed a lot yesterday, and I thought for a while about whether that was worth an article. The thing is, it’s just not. DeJong has swing-and-miss in his game, and Josh Hader is a good pitcher. It’s not like DeJong was out there doing something markedly different from his previous level of performance. Goldschmidt swung a little less than normal, but again, he wasn’t doing anything he hasn’t done before. Maybe a hundred swings from now there will be something concerning, but we’re miles away from that for now. The bullpen was effective, the defense was fine -- there’s truly just not that much to cover from a statistical standpoint after a day of baseball.

Instead, you’re going to get some aimless, rambling discussion of whether Kolten Wong can keep hitting for power. Not power like this, obviously. Kolten Wong’s ISO, after Thursday’s games, doesn’t even really make sense. It’s 2.000, and what does that even mean? That’s not the kind of scale that ISO exists on, and that’s totally fine. Kolten Wong hit all of nine home runs last year, and he just hit two in a game. It’s okay to be both skeptical and happy. While I totally understand that this isn’t going to keep up, I thought I’d try a fun little exercise. What if we made Kolten Wong the best power hitter he can possibly be? We’re going to use actual Wong statistics from past years, not make anything up whole cloth. Subject to that constraint, though, let’s go nuts.

First things first: if you’re going to be a power hitter, you need to get the ball in the air. Line drives are fine, as if we’re trying to make Wong a power hitter we’re definitely going to need some doubles in there, so mostly the key is that ground balls are death. Let’s take Wong’s 2014 mix of batted balls -- 22.5% line drives, 33.7% fly balls, and a still-not-that-low 44.7% ground balls. This isn’t ideal or anything, but Giancarlo Stanton has a 42.1% career ground ball rate. It’s not out of the question for a power hitter, though probably out of the question for one with Wong’s strength.

Next, let’s work out the best rates for those balls leaving the park. Home run per fly ball rate is easy- Wong topped out at 11% in 2013. That was with a dead-ish ball, so let’s unscientifically add the difference in league-wide HR/FB between 2014 and 2018, 3.2%. That gets Wong to a 14.2% HR/FB rate. Now we’re getting somewhere. Next, we need to add in his line drive home run rate. That’s not quite as easily accessible, but we can still dig it up -- Wong topped out at 6.7% in 2015, a smidge higher than the league average rate that year.

Alright, we’ve got our home run rates, and we’ve got our batted ball distribution. Let’s quickly add in doubles. To save time here, I’m just going to look at doubles per ball in play -- we could probably squeeze a few more out by breaking down his double rate on each batted ball type, but that would make even more of a mockery of this process, and I’m fine with the semi-mockery level it’s at now. For this, we’re going to want Wong’s 2017, where he hit a double on 9.2% of his balls in play. Are we probably double-counting some balls here, as in the year where he hit for more homers he had some doubles turn into homers and vice versa in 2017? I mean, yes. Of course we’re double counting. This entire article is the sabermetric equivalent of folding a sheet of paper over and over again until it looks thicker. Still, though, we’ve got our rates. I’m just going to take his triple rate from the same year, as those are more obviously the same balls as doubles -- a solid 1%.

With all of the batted ball outcomes, we need to work out how often Wong is actually going to put the ball in play. As I’ve noted before, Wong is adept at non-contact management. He doesn’t strike out much and walks an admirable amount. What’s going to play best with our new power-hitting Kolten Kong? Give me 2015, when Wong paired a 14.4% strikeout rate with a 9.4% walk rate while getting hit another 2.5% of the time. Finally, how do you feel about 600 plate appearances? It’s not particularly likely, given that Wong is going to keep getting platooned, but just roll with it for now.

So, of the 600 plate appearances, 442 end with Wong making contact. We decided above that 33.7% of those, 149, are going to end up as fly balls, and we get 21 home runs just from fly balls. Another 99 end up as line drives, which produces a smidge under seven more home runs. Let’s round up -- it’s a celebration of the possible, after all. Finally, we add in our doubles and triples. Wong accrues 529 at-bats in our fantasy world, which works out to 48 doubles and five triples. Lastly, let’s throw in a league-average .300 BABIP to figure out how many singles he hit on balls in play -- 71 singles to throw into the mix. This is shaping up to be a pretty ridiculous season.

How ridiculous? Well, let’s start with the stats. Manic Pixie Dream Wong slashes an unfathomable .287/.372/.556, with 28 dingers and 48 doubles. That’s essentially Jose Ramirez’s 2018 (.270/.387/.552), or Nolan Arenado’s Coors-boosted stats before park adjustment. On the one hand, this is patently absurd. Did you see the nonsense I just did to make these numbers? I was cherry-picking like a Mrs. Fields farmhand in the leadup to the Fourth of July. None of them are completely impossible, though -- we are, after all, just working with the data. That hilarious, impossible Wong would have been something like a nine win player last year. That’s not happening this year, unfortunately. It really does drive home, however, why people have always been so excited about Wong. The component parts have been there. He really does spray the ball to all fields. He really does have tremendous plate discipline. He really does possess league-average power if you catch him on the right day, which is remarkable for someone of his stature. He really is one of the best defenders in baseball. He’s just not all of those things at the same time.

Is this Wong’s year? Is he going to ascend to a new plane and power the Cardinals? Most likely not. Most likely he walked into two dingers yesterday and will hit eight or so the rest of the year. Still, though. It’s March 29th. Only one game is in the books. It could happen. If that’s not a fun outcome of an Opening Day game, then I don’t know what is.