With the trade of David Freese to the Los Angeles Angels, the second base starting job appears to belong to Kolten Wong going into the 2014 season. Wait, for real?! But he hit just .153 and had an on-base percentage less than .200 last season! He struck out in nearly 20% of his plate appearances and had only one extra base hit! What are the Cardinals thinking? Trading away the hometown hero in order to free up space for a rookie that looked completely over-matched at the plate last season. Sheesh!
To be blunt, judging Wong’s hitting performance during his short stint with the Cardinals last season is unfair. Completely unfair. 59 at-bats with 25% of them occurring in the pinch-hitting role is not enough to get a grasp of Wong’s ability at the plate. To be frank, Wong didn’t even have enough time to get used to big league pitching in so few at-bats with a good amount of them coming from off the bench.
Thus, I will battle the small sample size argument many have against Wong with a small sample size rebuttal of my own. Hypocritical? Sure, but with 59 total major league at-bats to choose from, it is the best I can do at this time. Soon after his call-up, from August 18th through August 20th, Wong received three straight starts and performed quite well. To be honest, I don’t know why this performance didn’t merit more starts down the stretch. He had five hits in 14 at-bats (.357 batting average) with two runs scored and three stolen bases in as many attempts.
Wong has hit at every level in his minor league career. Last year for Triple-A Memphis, Wong had 412 at-bats and hit .303 with 21 doubles, eight triples, 10 home runs, and 45 RBIs. Had had a solid .369 on-base percentage and was 20/21 on stolen bases. Wong’s average minor league season since being drafted two and a half years ago? .301 batting average with 24 doubles, seven triples, 10 home runs, and 50 RBIs. That’s a sign of quality bat that I cannot wait to see get regular plate appearances at the big league level.
Defense and Base-Running:
With Wong in the starting lineup, the team is better both on defense and on the base paths. Despite not being called up until mid-August, Wong was fifth on the team in stolen bases with three. He averaged 20 stolen bases per season in the minors which would have been 10 more than the highest on the Cardinals this season.
Though Matt Carpenter performed admirably at second base this season, Wong is the better defender at the position. Unlike Carpenter, second is Wong’s natural defensive position. This past season, he was voted the best defensive second baseman in the Pacific Coast League (Triple-A)–an honor voted on by the managers. In the big leagues, his UZR/150 was 16.3 while Carpenter’s was -2.0. I know I made a case against small sample sizes earlier in this post, but I am a firm believer that a prospect’s glove carries over to the big leagues much more quickly than his bat, so this is a good sign.
Also, by Wong taking over at second base, it can move Carpenter back over to his natural position of third base. Carpenter’s UZR/150 at third base is 4.7, while Freese’s was a dismal -4.8. Thus, by having Wong at second and Carpenter back at third, 2014’s infield defense is already much better than last year’s–to a tune of 27.8 UZR/150. This will be especially important due to the decline in defense with Jhonny Peralta at short instead of Pete Kozma.
Finally, if you believe in projections (and I know a lot of people do not), Steamer of Fangraphs projects Wong to hit .269 with 26 doubles, five triples, eight home runs, 57 RBIs, and 16 stolen bases next season. This is a solid season for the rookie, and it shows the statisticians believe in his ability despite last season’s poor performance.
In conclusion, will Wong have a breakout performance at the plate like Carpenter did in 2013? Probably not, but the combination of having Wong at second and Carpenter at third will make the Cardinals much better at the plate, in the field, and on the base paths than they were this season.
I cannot wait to see more defensive plays like this gem from Game 3 of the World Series.
Until next time…
P.S. I just noticed that the great Bernie Miklasz published an article of his own on Wong just a couple hours before this one, but I want to assure you that I had this post in mind long before I saw that he wrote one.
Might be writing a @KoltenWong post today. I’ve read so many people doubting his abilities based on 60 sporadic AB’s…
— stlCupofJoe (@stlCupofJoe) November 26, 2013