photo: Howie Kendrick and Kolten Wong (Joe Puetz/Imagn)
Now 29 years of age, St. Louis Cardinals second baseman Kolten Wong is finally taking advantage of who he is as a player – and he and his team are benefiting from his maturing process.
Following the 2019 season, the native of Hawaii won his first Gold Glove Award. It is an honor which he had publicly targeted – and earned with strong defensive play all season long – providing a cornerstone of the division-winning Cardinals. Stat-wise, he was first in Defensive Runs Saved and Zone Rating at his position.
Wong also was very good offensively in 2019. In fact, his .285 batting average and .361 on-base percentage led qualifying Cardinals. He ranked in the top 10 in the National League in steals, stolen base percentage, infield hits, lowest grounded into double play percentage and was first in the Senior Circuit with 10 bunt hits.
Motivation – bad and good
It is clear that Wong seeks and leverages friendly competition as a motivator. In early 2015, Wong confidently told Randal Grichuk that he could hit more home runs that season than his slugging outfield teammate. Doubling down on the gambit, their personal long-ball challenge continued for 2016.
After a long and bumpy road that included a demotion to Triple-A, a temporary shift to center field and inconsistent playing time due to limited confidence shown in him by former manager Mike Matheny, Wong finally broke out as an on-base and stolen base threat under new skipper Mike Shildt in 2019.
Still confident, Wong has issued very different challenge for 2020, encouraging his teammate Harrison Bader to join him in a quest for 30 steals each.
To me, his results in 2019 and focus for 2020 are clear indicators that Wong finally understands he can best succeed by accentuating his strengths.
The aftermath of the home run challenge
For a while, at least on the surface, perhaps the Grichuk home run challenge was working. After all, Wong was coming off launching 12 long balls in 2014 and followed that up with 11 the next year. In doing so, he became the first Cardinal second baseman to hit double-digit home runs in consecutive seasons since Hall of Famer Frankie Frisch in the 1920s.
However, in 2016, year two of their personal competition, both Wong and Grichuk struggled offensively, and by June, they were consecutively sent down to Triple-A Memphis. In a twist that is still as bizarre today as then, Wong was deposited in center field, a position he had not manned since his freshman year in college.
What drew the most attention, however, was Wong’s four home runs and 11 RBI in just seven games while leading off for Memphis. I was among those unsure that this Triple-A power burst was a good thing.
On June 17, 2016, I posted an article entitled, “What Kind of Player Should Kolten Wong Be?” In it, I wrote this:
“Based on what I think Wong should be and what the Cardinals need, I would prefer to see him racking up doubles, triples and stolen bases in Triple-A… rather than returning to St. Louis with the expectation of being a power hitter.”
A change in approach
By the 2016-2017 off-season, as he remained in St. Louis all winter to work out, Wong had begun to realize his mistakes made.
During Winter Warm-Up in January 2017, he would not state his goals for the coming season – other than to try to get on base and to NOT try to hit home runs. Wong admitted the latter had gotten him “in trouble” before. He was “punched in the mouth” by having been sent down to Memphis, but did not feel sorry for himself; he felt he came back better.
After three seasons of uninspiring OBPs below .330 earlier in his career, Wong went on to seemingly turn a corner in 2017, with a career-best .376 on-base percentage. He fell off to .332 in 2018, however.
Wong’s stolen bases had dropped from 20 in 2014 to 15 in 2015 before flattening out, with totals of just seven, eight and six, respectively, from the 2016 through 2018 campaigns. All except for the final half-season were under Matheny, who de-emphasized the stolen base.
A 2019 breakout
Under Shildt in 2019, Wong’s OBP surged back up to a strong .361. A related benefit to reaching base more often was additional potential opportunities to steal granted by his encouraging manager.
Wong broke out with his personal best 24 bags swiped – more than his prior three seasons combined. He accomplished that in 28 attempts for another career high – an 85.7 percent success rate.
In the second half of August, Wong was promoted from his customary place in the bottom reaches of the order into the number two spot, and performed well. In 28 games there, he slashed .309/.359/.479/.838, with that OPS his best of any place he spent in the order in 2019.
In the hottest months of the summer, Wong was hottest at the plate – leading the entire National League with a .366 batting average in July-August.
Unfortunately for him, he was sidelined by a hamstring injury in mid-September. Without benefit of a rehab assignment, Wong returned for the post-season. His playoff numbers were not eye-catching (.206/.289/.294/.584), though he did lead the Cardinals with his two steals (in two attempts).
The Cardinals have an option on Wong’s services for 2021 at a reasonable $12.5 million (or a $1 MM buyout), a deal the club will almost certainly take.
However, already here in 2020, Wong has expressed openness to an extension that could enable him to become a career Cardinal, or at least remain for many years into the future.
With the front office and ownership having been bitten by recent early contract commitments made, it is not clear whether they feel the same way right now, but Wong has definitely cemented his value to the team.
While most of the 2020 Cardinals batting order remains unclear, Wong’s new home in the number two spot at least has to be written in darker pencil than most.
It seems he has grown into it.
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