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The Improvement of Kolten Wong

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MLB: St. Louis Cardinals at Colorado Rockies Isaiah J. Downing-USA TODAY Sports

Kolten Wong contributed a solid 2.8 WAR to the Cardinals last season, with most of his contributions were on the defensive side. He posted just a .720 OPS last season and a 99 wRC+, which is largely due to the fact that second base is one of the lightest hitting positions in the MLB. He found his stroke at the plate, recording a much more respectable .784 OPS with a solid 108 wRC+. This has led to a 3.7 WAR, tied with Gleyber Torres of the Yankees for the sixth most in the league among second basemen. This is primarily due to his consistent Gold Glove caliber defense, as well as improvements at the plate and on the base paths.

The sources of Wong’s improvement at the plate are varied. At a base level, a massive rise in BABIP, from .275 last season to .321 this year, is the main cause. However, there are underlying reasons for this rise. Wong has seen his hard contact rate spike from 28.1 percent to 34 percent. He has actually experienced a small increase in soft contact percentage, so all of this rise has been at the cost of medium contact. The second baseman has also begun to hit the ball in the air with more frequency. His flyball rate has gone up 4.4 percent from last season, up to 35.6 percent. This is combined with a slight increase in his line drive percentage, meaning that all of this has come at the expense of ground balls. This is supported by Baseball Savant which has recorded a substantial increase in Wong’s launch angle from last year (6.8 to 10.6). Therefore, it makes sense that his BABIP would rise. Luck can always be a factor, but if a hitter can hit the ball consistently harder, and then elevate such hits, it follows that his BABIP would rise.

Also, for the balls that Wong does hit on the ground, his speed is likely to help him steal a few extra hits. His sprint speed has been measured by Baseball Savant to be 27.7 feet per second. This places him in the 69% percentile, solidly above average when compared to the rest of the league. This has certainly helped him leg out 16 infield hits, as well as 11 bunt hits. The bunt hits are helped by good bunting fundamentals, but the speed has clearly played a part in him stealing 27 hits this season. If these hits are subtracted from Wong’s season, then he is batting just .242, which is a significant decrease from his actual .285 batting average. Clearly small ball and speed are an integral part of Wong’s game which has helped him provide value to the team.

This speed-based contribution can also be seen on the basepaths. A year after stealing just six bases, Wong swiped 24 this season, placing him tied for 11th in the MLB among all qualified players. Advanced metrics also support the idea that he has improved his baserunning tremendously since last season. According to fangraphs, his BsR, an all-encompassing baserunning metric has improved from 0.3 last season to 7.1 this season. This places him sixth in the league behind only Jonathan Villar, Christian Yelich, Mallex Smith, Ronald Acuna Jr., and Mike Trout. His baserunning prowess is certainly due to his speed and intelligence on the basepaths, but credit must also be given to Mike Shildt and the rest of the Cardinals coaching staff as they have sparked a baserunning revival in St. Louis after the end of the Mike Matheny era. A new emphasis on stealing bases when given the opportunity and aggressively taking extra bases when the defense is moving slowly has allowed the Cardinals to regain an edge that they have lacked in recent years. Kolten Wong has been a big part of this and the impact that this has on the Cardinals offense as a whole cannot be understated.

The most curious change that Wong has made can be seen in his plate discipline metrics. The 28-year-old has simply become more aggressive at the plate. He has not become more selectively aggressive as his O-Swing% has risen from 24.9 percent to 31.4 percent in just one season. However, his Z-Swing% has also risen from 62.3 percent in 2018 to 69.6 percent this year. This has brought his overall swing rate to 47.4 percent, much higher than the 41.6 percent he posted last season. It is peculiar that he has improved so drastically at the plate despite swinging at so many pitches outside the strike zone. Even more peculiar is the fact that his BB/K ratio has improved slightly, from 0.52 to 0.57. However, this makes sense because as he has become more aggressive, pitchers have started throwing more pitches out of the zone. Only 41.8 percent of the pitches thrown to Wong have crossed the plate, a significant decrease from 44.6 percent last year and 47.7 percent the year before.

This change in hitting style could be due to a change in Wong’s mindset at the plate. It appears that he is attempting to be more proactive, as opposed to being passive, at the plate. Despite this new emphasis on aggressiveness, Wong has managed to make more contact, with most of it coming from pitches inside the zone. His Z-Contact% has risen more than 3% (88.8% to 92.1%) to a rate higher than anything Mike Trout has ever posted in his career. This demonstrates that Wong clearly has the ability to be an effective contact hitter who is capable of augmenting his offensive value with around 10 home runs and 20+ stolen bases each season. If he is able to do that, paired with his stellar defense and then he could be a player who consistently adds four WAR to the team every year due to his