Kolten Wong made major improvements. The results show both in his numbers for the Cardinals, and in how opposing pitchers attack him.
Right before the season, Kolten Wong sparked a minor controversy by saying that he didn’t want to play in a time share. Today, Wong’s play is keeping him in the lineup everyday.
Wong was never thought of as a patient hitter. He wasn’t necessarily undisciplined, but he was never better than league average in chase and swing rate. Last year, his walk rate spiked to 9.4 percent, but that was largely influenced by his spot in the batting order. Players who bat right in front of the pitcher usually see an increase in walk rate.
Projection systems pegged Wong for regression in the walk department. Even now, ZiPS and Steamer project him to have a walk rate around 8 percent the rest of the season. Today, his walk rate stands at 10.3 percent, which is better than the 65th percentile in the majors. The biggest reason for the improvement is a large decrease in chase rate.
Laying Off the Low Ones
After improving to league average last year with a 30.3 percent chase rate, Kolten Wong has continued to lay off the bad ones this year. In fact, he has cut down all the way to 26.4 percent. That mark puts him in the top third of the league, which Wong has never come close to. This kind of improvement is rare for players of any age, but Wong figured something out this offseason.
Through 2016, Wong chased pitches directly below the strike zone nearly 50 percent of the time. Wong wasn’t very good in the other areas. He only showed good discipline on inside pitches. But 50 percent is way too high. You put yourself in way too big a hole if a pitcher can throw balls and get a strike half the time.
This season, Wong made the necessary adjustment. Here is a look at Wong’s swing rate in each region prior to 2017 (left) and in 2017 (right). Graphs are from Brooks Baseball:
Wong made improvements nearly all the way around the edges of the strike zone, but the biggest one is directly below the zone. He is swinging at just over 30 percent of pitches in that region, much better than where he was before. We still are dealing with a relatively small sample size, so these numbers should not be used as perfect indicators. However, the improved chase rate, especially below the zone, is encouraging for the Cardinals and Wong.
Pitchers are Taking Note
I think the most interesting part of Wong’s season is that pitchers are respecting him a lot more. Last year, pitchers threw the first pitch for a strike 61.5 percent of the time against Wong. Pitchers went after him for two reasons: he hit in front of the pitcher and they didn’t respect him. Wong couldn’t do anything about the first point, but he certainly is responsible for making pitchers respect him.
61.5 percent is slightly above average, so it wasn’t like pitchers were disrespecting Wong. On the other hand, they also weren’t afraid of his high contact rates. This year, pitchers have gotten the first strike on the first pitch just 53.8 percent of the time. That mark is the lowest on the Cardinals and one of the lowest in the majors. In case you’re wondering, the second and third lowest marks belong to Dexter Fowler and Matt Carpenter, respectively.
In addition to just strike rates, pitchers are also making more difficult pitches to hit on the first pitch of the at-bat against Wong. I took heat maps of first pitches against Wong in 2016 and 2017 from Baseball Savant (below). Pitchers have been targeting the bottom of the zone instead of just getting it over.
The left map is for 2016 and the right for 2017. The left map shows pitchers who look like they don’t care where the ball goes. As long as it’s a strike, then the specific location didn’t matter. This year, pitchers are looking for that low and outside corner. Wong currently owns a .282/.375/.427 slash line, and pitchers don’t give him any softballs anymore, even if they did just that one season ago.
Can it continue?
The plate discipline can definitely continue. We don’t know if Wong will keep that up to the extent that he has, but his improvement in that area might be there to stay. I don’t know if he will keep up the high offensive output, but he won’t become a problem for the team. Even if his .327 batting average on balls in play drops, his on-base percentage is so high that I can’t see him becoming ineffective this year.
At worst, he’ll drop down to a .350 OBP guy with the improvement in chase rate. Many analysts are focusing on his defensive struggles so far this season, but it hasn’t all been bad. Wong is much better at the plate this season. His wOBA is 40 points higher than it was last season, and his wRC+ is 23 points better. Even if he comes back down a bit, Wong’s 2017 will represent a huge improvement versus his 2016.
Wong is now entrenched as the starter at second base. His hitting and plate discipline are good enough to keep him in the lineup even as his fielding suffers. If he can fix his fielding issues, then he will have finally made enough improvements to become the everyday second baseman the Cardinals always thought he could be.
Photo Credit: Steve Mitchell – USA TODAY Sports