The Cardinals probably want to keep Kolten Wong, and that’s a good thing. But if they do want to trade him, the Kansas City Royals make a really good fit.
Some Cardinals fans have begun to dream of a trade for Lorenzo Cain.
New CBA structure could help the #STLCards trade options. Hence, the idea of Lorenzo Cain grows fonder. May have to type today.
— Dan Buffa (@buffa82) December 1, 2016
For some reason, I always end up thinking ahead to what it would cost to trade for such a player, well before the excitement of the idea of getting the player wears off for most. In going through the Cardinals roster, one player stands out to me. Kolten Wong’s strengths almost perfectly mirror those of the Kansas City Royals.
I am not saying they should trade him
This is not an article about why the Cardinals should trade Kolten Wong. Instead, think of this as an “if you have to trade him, the Royals would probably pay the most for Wong” article. In fact, I agree with fellow Cardsblog writer John Kern that Wong should do considerably better next year. Nevertheless, every player has a value, and when we are talking about Lorenzo Cain, a lot of chips are suddenly on the table.
Wong can be the second baseman of the present and the future for the Cardinals. He is a flawed player, but his fielding can make up for a lot. Over the past 3 seasons, DRS pegs Wong as having saved the Cardinals 19 runs at second base. While the outfield experiment didn’t go over too well, Wong has shown that he can be a valuable part of the Cardinals’ infield.
At the plate, Wong is a mixed bag. He doesn’t possess much power, and shows a relatively weak contact profile (lots of soft grounders). However, he makes a lot of contact (his contact rate is above the 70th percentile amongst Major League hitters), and he is a very good baserunner. He gets on base at about an average rate, but once he’s there, he creates extra runs.
Everything I just said applies to the Royals
Let’s start with the fielding. The Royals won the World Series in 2015 on the strength of their bullpen and defense. Despite their disappointing season, the Royals’ defense was still really strong. Both DRS and UZR had them ranked in the top 6 teams in defense this year. Wong might not even be an improvement defensively over their current second base options. In 2016, the Royals earned +7 DRS and +10.6 UZR from their second basemen. Regardless of whether or not he is slight improvement, Wong certainly has the glove to fit with this team.
Now for the hitting. One of the consequences of a high contact rate is that a player usually doesn’t strike out much. That was certainly the case for Kolten Wong. Wong ended up 48th among 268 players with at least 300 plate appearances in strikeout rate this season. He may not have done much when putting the ball in play, but at least he put it in play as often as he could. As a team, the Royals were 10th in the majors in strikeout rate. In this case, Wong would also lower the team rate, so he would be contributing to their valued cause.
In addition to not striking out much, the Kansas City Royals also do not like to walk much. They had the lowest walk rate in the majors (6.3 percent), by .8 percentage points. Considering that the teams ranked 2-14 were all within the 7.0 to 8.0 percent range, I would say that they led this category by a comfortable margin. Up until 2016, Wong fell right in line with that number. He had never walked more than 5.9 percent of the time, until that number spiked to 9.4 percent this year.
On the surface, it seems like Wong is deviating from the Royals’ strategy. However, National League players walk a lot more when they bat in the 8 spot, because the pitcher is behind them. Sure enough, when Wong did not bat 7th or 8th in the order, his walk rate fell to 7.5 percent. That is still much higher than what he usually does, but some evidence that he wouldn’t walk nine percent of the time in the AL. In other words, he is still looking like he might be a strangely great fit for the Royals.
There are many other nice fits here, as the Royals ranked 27th in the majors in home runs, their team OBP (.312) was right near Wong’ career OBP (.309), and Wong’s poor Isolated Slugging of .115 fits right in with the team’s awful .139 mark. But the biggest remaining similarity is baserunning. In total, Wong is actually a much better baserunner than most Royals are. However, the individual parts that make up Fangraphs’ Base Running Score (BsR) show some similarities.
The Royals ended the season 21st in the majors with a -5.7 BsR. Wong, on the other hand, was above average at +1.8. But after taking a deeper look, it’s clear that the only difference is raw speed. There are three parts to BsR: Ultimate Base Running (UBR), wGDP, and wSB. The last two measure the impact on ground ball double-plays and stolen bases, respectively. The only one where Wong and the Royals differ is WGDP.
The Royals were 4th in the majors with +6.7 wSB, while Wong was at a respectable +1.2. The Royals posted an ugly -6.6 UBR mark, while Wong also struggled to a -0.8 mark. However, on ground balls, Wong avoided double plays just enough to get his wGDP number to +1.4, while the Royals as a team were stuck at -5.8. Both the Royals and Wong steal bases well, but make mistakes on balls hit in play (measured by UBR). However, Wong is faster than most Royals, and that is why he did so much better in wGDP. As for the parts that actually require baserunning skills, the two are pretty much even.
Whether it’s his approach at the plate, his fielding, or his baserunning, Kolten Wong is almost a mirror image of who the Kansas City Royals try to be. He can be a good asset for the Cardinals over the next few years, or he can be someone they ship out in a trade now. If John Mozeliak and the Cardinals opt for the latter strategy, then the Royals make an ideal landing spot because they likely value a player with Wong’s skill set more than any other team.
Photo credit: Ron Chenoy – USA TODAY Sports