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What Has Happened to Kolten Wong?

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St Louis Cardinals v Cincinnati Reds Photo by Joe Robbins/Getty Images

Last season Kolten Wong had the best year of his career at the plate as he posted a 108 wRC+ (tied career high) with 11 home runs and a respectable 8.6% walk rate. However, last season Wong also posted the lowest exit velocity (86.1 mph) of his career since Statcast began tracking in 2015. This created some uncertainty as to whether or not Wong could sustain these results. The beginning of this season has provided some answers, but it has done nothing to clear up the subject.

To begin with, Wong has improved his average exit velocity to 87.3, which is decent for a player of his type, and solid overall in relation to the rest of his career. This is also a 1.2 mph increase from last season. Additionally, the second baseman has increased his walk rate to 10.7% while slightly reducing his strikeout rate (15.1% in 2019, 14.8% in 2020) as well. However, despite all of these positive changes, Wong has seen his wRC+ fall to just 94. This would mark the sixth time in eight seasons that Wong has been a below league average hitter in terms of wRC+, which begs the question: Is Kolten Wong actually a good hitter?

In light of all the improvements that Wong has made this season after his strong 2019 season, it is difficult to say that he is not a good hitter. The main problem that he has experienced in 2020 has been a loss of power. The 29-year-old has never been a big power threat, but he was good for 20 home runs between the previous two seasons, as well as a .138 ISO. While this is not much, it has been enough for Wong to be a solid hitter. In 2020, however, Wong has seen his power disappear as he has yet to hit a home run, while he has also tallied just five extra base hits in 149 plate appearances.

As was previously shown, Wong has actually hit the ball harder on average than he did last season, so that cannot be the problem. Instead Wong has simply become more of a slap hitter at the plate which is sapping him of the limited power that he possesses. The Cardinals leadoff man has seen his ground ball rate rise from an already high 47% to 50.5% while his flyball rate has dropped to a measly 15.9%. To make things even worse in terms of his power, he is pulling the ball less and using the opposite field more. In fact he is doing these things at the exact same rate of 30.8%. Wong has never been a huge pull hitter, but he has taken another step towards using the whole field this year and that has damaged his power output.

These changes in Wong’s batted ball profile are what have hurt his production levels this year. He simply needs to pull the ball in the air a little more. Last season, 25 of his 39 extra base hits were hit to the right of dead center field, including 9 of his 11 home runs. Therefore, by neglecting to pull the ball, and especially pull the ball in the air, Wong is limiting his potential for extra base hits and that is causing him to post a career low ISO of .047.

Considering the other improvements that Wong has made this year, it seems likely that he has not actually become a worse hitter than he was last season. However, a little bit of power could go a long way towards adding value to Wong’s bat, especially given his solid OBP (.365). For a lineup that can struggle to score runs, any amount of power is welcome, and Wong could see an increase if he simply starts pulling the ball in the air more.