The Cardinals have struggled to find a consistent middle infield for most of the 21st century.
The days of Tom Herr and Ozzie Smith patrolling both sides of second base are long gone. The Cardinals have had a total of 19 players get the bulk of the starts at second and shortstop since 2000.
Though he’s gotten the bulk of second base starts since 2015, Kolten Wong locked in with the glove following the managerial change and a commitment to playing time last season, making a push for a Gold Glove with 19 DRS.
The 2017 season saw the emergence of Paul DeJong, of whom we’ve sung the praises at VEB over the past two weeks, finishing second in the National League Rookie of the Year voting and signing a six-year extension shortly after.
That move, coupled with Wong’s existing contract that stretches through 2021, signified a big change: The Cardinals would have a solidified middle infield for the next several years.
DeJong’s bat was excellent in his debut and suffered a bit after a hand injury last season, but he was still 2 percent better than the average hitter, with 102 wRC+. The question was if his 14 DRS was a fluke or if the glove was legit.
The opposite was in question for Wong. The 5-foot-9-inch lefty’s defensive prowess is now unmatched by anyone else in the system, but he only had one above-average season at the plate before the start of 2019.
This year, both DeJong and Wong are making a strong case that the Cardinals have one of the best middle infields in the game.
That’s a strong statement, I know. José Altuve and Carlos Correa are quite a one-two punch. Didi Gregorius and Gleyber Torres are an impressive pair. Fernando Tatís Jr. and Luis Urías are the next generation.
But, at this point in the young season, the Cardinals lead all major league teams in fWAR from the middle infield, with 2.9.
DeJong and Wong have accrued 1.7 and 1.2 fWAR respectively through 24 games, making them the most valuable players at each of their positions to this point in the season.
Wong has four home runs to this point, which is one-third of his career high. He’s played just under 15 percent of the season. He currently carries 141 wRC+ and is drawing 1.14 walks for every strikeout. His walk rate of 16.7 percent is in the top three percent of the league. In the category of perfect timing, Ben Clemens posted a piece on Wong’s plate discipline over at FanGraphs this morning.
DeJong is a gap power machine, with 11 doubles through 108 PA. Half of his hits have gone for extra bases. He’s boasting an OBP of .398, which is leaps and bounds above even the .325 he posted in his excellent breakout campaign. Part of that is a strikeout rate of 17.6 percent. DeJong struck out more than a quarter of the time the last two seasons. He’s lowered his K-rate without sacrificing walks or power, which was probably the only knock on DeJong’s offensive approach.
While exciting, production anywhere from 41 to 69 percent better than average doesn’t seem sustainable for the two. While both initially carried extremely high BABIPs, Wong’s has actually dropped below his career average to .288. DeJong, on the other hand, sits at .387. I’m not quite yet ready to say DeJong is as good of a hitter as 2012 Mike Trout.
But the fact that they’ve come out of the gate swinging as hot of bats as they have gives hope. Moreover, their expected stats point to the fact that we may be seeing a legitimate breakout from them both.
Wong’s .387 wOBA puts him inside the top 50 in the league, per Baseball Savant. Even though he’s outperforming his xwOBA, it’s still .346. That’s better than 2018 Cody Bellinger.
DeJong’s wOBA is a whopping .432. He’s also outperforming expectations, but his xwOBA of .404 would make him a legitimate MVP candidate, sandwiched between the ‘18 versions of Max Muncy and Alex Bregman.
On top of it, they both carry plus gloves at their positions.
DeJong currently has 3 DRS in 2019. Wong has 4. Looking at the defensive component of fWAR (Def), DeJong is sixth among shortstops with 2.7 and Wong is second among second basemen with 1.8. The Giants are the only team with higher middle infield Def.
The Cardinals haven’t had a middle infield tandem go more than three consecutive seasons together since Smith and Herr helped bring Whiteyball to the spotlight. These new-age birds might have what those small ball icons didn’t: consistent offensive output with some serious power baked in.