Kolten Wong broke Cardinals Twitter on Sunday when he said he’d rather be traded from the St. Louis Cardinals than platoon at second base, according to Ben Frederickson. While he later backed off those comments a bit, the damage was already done.
I’m no stranger to camp that doesn’t believe in Kolten Wong. I wrote yesterday that Wong should keep his mouth shut and instead let his play do the talking, especially during such an atrocious spring. I’ve also argued that platooning at both second and third base would be best for St. Louis.
Yet, I get the appeal to give Wong *another* fair shot to start every day this season. He has (fading) prospect pedigree and, theoretically, a higher ceiling than the team’s alternative options. Team management spoke all offseason about improving the team defense, and Kolten Wong looks like a key piece for that development. By Defensive Runs Saved and Ultimate Zone Rating, he’s the St. Louis Cardinals best infielder.
It’s simple, but defense at second base is just about making the most plays. Almost every single ball that gets by the second baseman is only a single, and almost every error or play-not-made leads to a runner on first. Kolten Wong’s ability to make the dramatic play doesn’t matter if he’s giving those away on easier opportunities.
To measure that, I looked to Inside Edge Fielding available through FanGraphs. Inside Edge works similarly to Statcast catch probability, in that it divides plays up by difficulty and assesses a fielders performance on each type of play. Below is a table which shows the play classifications, probability that play is made, and the distribution of play opportunities for second basemen:
Per Inside Edge, 83.5% of opportunities at second base are ‘routine.’ They are made almost all the time by almost everyone. Using a 1000 minimum innings played cutoff, the best fielding percentage on these balls since 2012, is 99.3%. The worst is 96.2%. That difference doesn’t seem like much. Remember, though, that these are the most common types of opportunities by far.
The fourth worst player at fielding these routine plays? Kolten Wong, at 96.8%. Over a full season of routine opportunities (about 468), he makes 453 plays and misses 15. That’s fifteen free bases on a ball that’s an out nearly 100% of the time.
Twelfth best at converting routine plays? Jedd Gyorko, at 98.7%. Over 468 opportunities, he would make 462 plays and miss only 6.
Another 3.7% of opportunities are ‘remote.’ Kolten Wong is the 15th best on these opportunities, at a conversion rate of 6.6%. With a sample size of 61 opportunities, that means he’s made only four such plays. In four years. Over a full season’s worth of opportunities (about 25), he makes one or two remote plays. We see him once or twice on the highlight reel making a jumping throw from behind second base, but that only saves a single or two.
Compare that to the number of routine plays he’s missed, on average, over a full season, and it’s obvious he’s costing the Cardinals outs. Gyorko’s conversion rate on the these plays is only 2.9%, so he’d only make one remote play (or less) per year. Factoring the routine plays back in, and Gyorko makes seven or eight more plays per season than Wong on routine and remote plays.
Only about 11% of plays fall with conversion likelihood between 10% and 90%. Per team per season, that amounts to approximately 60 opportunities at second base. Many of those plays are made. Wong makes, on average, approximately 35 of those plays. That is the exact same rate as the average MLB second baseman over the last three seasons.
Jedd Gyorko has made, on average, 39 of those plays. Why? Because he cleans up the ‘Likely’ bucket – his 89.5% conversion rate on those plays is the second best rate in the MLB since 2014. Kolten Wong, on the other hand, converts those plays at a 78.4% rate.
Metrics like DRS and UZR like Kolten Wong more than Jedd Gyorko. Yet, using Inside Edge Fielding on a rate basis, Gyorko makes more plays than Kolten Wong at second base. Over a full season of opportunities, he would make eleven more plays than Wong. The run value of the balls fielded or not fielded included by DRS and UZR varies, but an error or play-not-made at second base puts a runner on first base and is as damaging as a single. The chance of stopping an extra base hit while playing second base is next to zero.
I’m assuming the plays in each category are made equally, which by definition isn’t necessarily true. Maybe Gyorko has gotten easier routine and likely plays. However, operating under that assumption, it’s actually Gyorko who has the advantage defensively according to Inside Edge. He won’t make the highlight reel, but he more consistently makes the common plays.
As with almost all defensive evaluations, there are sample size concerns. Regardless, though, since the vast majority of plays are routine, I’m not sure defensive ability and athleticism really matters that much. Gyorko makes the routine and likely plays well enough – better than Kolten Wong, even though both have had about 1,000 opportunities across those two categories.
Offensively, including hitting and baserunning, it’s basically a wash between the two. Using FanGraphs Weighted Runs Created (wRC), Gyorko is worth 64 runs per 600 plate appearances. Wong is worth 63 runs per 600 plate appearances. Gyorko is the overall better hitter and Wong the better baserunner. Splitting by handedness, Gyorko is a better option against LHPs, while Wong has a slight edge against RHPs due to his baserunning (each own a 92 wRC+ against righties).
Defensively, I’ll admit that Wong has a higher ceiling. He’s both quicker and more athletic. If he can clean up his errors on routine plays, he’d be a better defender than Gyorko. I question how many plays or runs that would be worth, especially since Gyorko’s been one of the best second basemen on likely and routine plays, but maybe it will be enough to justify starting Kolten Wong full time. Until he improves in that area, though, Jedd Gyorko looks like the more reliable offensive and defensive option.
I want Kolten Wong to succeed, and I think he still has an All-Star level peak. But until his talent starts to show, he has to earn his playing time like anyone else.