As someone who writes for a St. Louis sports blog, and listens to a lot of St. Louis sports radio, I hear the same person targeted time and time again. That person is the Cardinals’ 26-year-old second baseman, Kolten Wong. Hearing someone complain about Wong is pretty much a daily occurrence, as evidenced by the fact that I heard it happen Monday, when the Cardinals have an off day after the final game of a weekend sweep in which Wong went 2/4 with a pair of doubles, a run scored, and a RBI. For whatever reason, even in a year where the entire team is struggling and there is more than enough blame to go around, Kolten is a constant recipient of criticism from the Cardinals’ fan base. I believe it’s time to stop.
I want to preface the rest of this article by saying that, yes, I am a Kolten Wong fan. Some might even call me a Kolten Wong apologist. But I am also willing to call out anyone on the Cardinals who is not pulling his weight, and I am more than willing to call out Wong himself, as I did when he made comments hinting that he wanted to be traded earlier this season.
But the time for criticizing Wong has passed. While his comments may still loom large in the minds of some fans, Wong has said nothing controversial since the end of Spring Training. Moreover, though many players on this team are not pulling their weight, Wong is not among them. He is slashing .293/.393/.434 this season, ranking fourth on the team in BA and OBP, and fifth in Slugging Percentage. When you remove outliers like Magneuris Sierra, whose minimal plate appearances offer an unfair sample size, Tyler Lyons, who has walked in one plate appearance, and Adam Wainwright, who leads (yes leads) the team in slugging percentage, Wong ranks second in average, third in OBP, and fourth in slugging. Only Pham, who is the Cardinals’ hottest and perhaps most surprising player, leads Wong in all three categories. Wong is also third on the team in doubles, fourth in walks, and third in OPS (if, again, you remove Lyons’ perfect marks).
No, Wong has not shown the home run power he has in the past, but his shortened swing has resulted in fewer K’s this season. Wong’s strikeout percentage has decreased this year, as it has in every season of his major league career. Coupled with that, his walk percentage has increased, as it has every year of his career as well. Wong may have luck on his side, with a Batting Average on Balls in Play at .339, well above the league average mark of .300; however, if he has luck this year, he’s making up for last year, when his BABIP was a decidedly unfortunate .268.
Wong is also batting more intelligently than in years past. He is swinging at pitches outside the zone four percent less often than he did last year, and six percent less often than his career mark. And when he does swing at bad pitches, he’s making a lot more contact, almost four percent above his career average and six above last year. Wong is also one of our most intelligent and skilled base runners. Coming into the season, Wong led the team over the last three years with 10.4 base running runs.
But some fans will say that Wong’s defensive blunders are unforgiveable. To some extent this is true. Wong is well known for occasionally botching a fairly routine play, as he did in an error Friday night. But to that argument one could ask: what player on the Cardinals is not prone to botching a routine play now and again? The entire team has struggled defensively this season, and yet Wong’s mistakes seem to be singled out. This may be due in part to the fact that Wong is capable of much better, whereas a Matt Carpenter may not be. In my mind, that is all the more reason to forgive Wong’s errors.
Kolten Wong is perhaps the only player on the Cardinals capable of making the truly extraordinary defensive play with any regularity. According to FanGraphs, Wong makes the “unlikely” defensive play 31.7% of the time, and the “remote” play 6.1% of the time in his career. He makes routine plays at a clip of 96.5%, which may be a tick low, but remember that no one makes these plays all the time. Admittedly, Wong is down in all of these categories this year, but, again, so is the entire team. To single out Wong for the team’s defensive failures this season is roughly equivalent to singling out one ninth of the Titanic for not keeping the rest of the ship afloat.
This article is not meant to argue that Kolten Wong must be a centerpiece of this team going forward. I do believe that Kolten Wong is a good to very good second baseman, and I am certain that he could be a valuable piece of a championship contender, but he is not a cornerstone. And perhaps that is part of the problem. St. Louis has a history of fractious relationships with its top prospects and high draft picks, as evidenced by the departures of Colby Rasmus and Shelby Miller, both of whom were at one point the top prospect for the organization. Wong, as a first round pick, may be suffering the same fate. The team is so often successful with deep draft picks that for a first round, franchise type pick to underwhelm at the major league level can be especially disappointing. Perhaps this is the issue with Wong, too.
More likely, the issue with Wong has a lot to do with the few inches of space below his nose and above the tip of his chin. As indicated by the article linked above, Wong has had a history of comments that have irritated St. Louis fans, and the team that has been managed by Tony La Russa and Mike Matheny has never had a lot of patience with loudmouths. For Wong to make such comments, and then continue to struggle, proved especially irksome for Cardinal Nation. And yet, Wong has not struggled this season, and moreover, since the comments mentioned above, he has not stepped one toe out of line, but the frustration persists. Certainly it will take more than two months to erase such a reputation, but Cardinals’ fans would do well to work on it.
The point is not to forgive Kolten Wong’s defensive errors, or to tolerate his sometimes hotheaded comments. This is not a plea to treat Kolten Wong any better than any other player on this team. But it is a plea that Cardinals’ fans ought to begin to give Kolten Wong the treatment his play deserves. The level of frustration with Kolten Wong does not square at all with the fantastic season he’s having at the plate, and Cardinals’ fans, who are so inexplicably patient with some players (see: Randal Grichuk) ought to consider Wong’s numbers and give him a second chance.