Kolten Wong’s career has run the gamut, and 2018 added a new variation. Early in his career, he hit for promising power but offered little plate discipline. By 2016, he learned to take a walk from time to time, elevating his BB% from 5.4% early in his career to 9.4% in 2016. However, his power slipped despite a flyball percentage that was creeping higher. In 2017, he held on to his walk gains but shaved his flyballs by 2.3%. Despite a higher volume of groundballs, a little of his power returned in 2017, and he rode a .331 BABIP to a 107 wRC+. It was then- and still is- the highest of his career.
Throughout his career, he had been a very steady and positive baserunner. Defensively, he often dazzled, but it was undermined by occasional frustrating mistakes in the field. He also frequently fell out of favor with Mike Matheny for whatever reason, and the lack of consistent playing time always left the impression that he could do more if management would just let him do his thing. All of that set the stage for 2018.
Last season, Wong pushed even further towards a groundball-heavy profile. His GB/FB bottomed out at 1.36 in 2015 and 1.35 in 2016. In 2017, he lifted it to 1.51, and went further to 1.57 last season. He saw a little more of his power return, as he posted his highest ISO since 2014, but his BB% slipped from 10.0 in 2017 to 7.6 in 2018. The BABIP that had helped him to his best offensive season in 2017 betrayed him last season, falling from .331 to .275.
It’s worth noting that Wong’s second half under Mike Shildt was wildly different from his first half under Matheny. These two tables from Wong’s Fangraphs splits page tell quite the story:
It’s a smaller sample in the second half (140 plate appearances vs. 267 in the first half), but he was night and day as a hitter. Second half Wong walked more, saw his BABIP magically heal, turned 12% of his groundballs in to line drives, became less pull-happy, and made a lot less soft contact. He also struck out less. Sure enough, all of those positive changes led to a 43(!) point gap in his wRC+.
All the while, he put together his best defensive season to date, mostly void of the type of mistakes he’d exhibited in the past. In fact, it was the best defensive season of any second baseman in the National League (per the Fielding Bible). This play from Los Angeles in August illustrates the type of season Wong had in the field:
Through five full seasons, every part of Wong’s game has fluctuated wildly. We’ve seen his plate discipline, batted ball profile, power, and even defense change from year to year. He always ends up solidly average or even a little better, always fun to watch with a penchant for big moments, but there’s the tantalizing notion that a complete season from Wong would represent a star quality player.
Now it’s your turn. Which version of Wong do you think we’ll see this season?