After a power-packed 2014 postseason, Kolten Wong entered 2015 as a candidate for a breakout season. In the first half, he looked like an All-Star. He slashed .280/.343/.434 and played stellar defense, but was left off the National League All-Star team.
Following the All-Star snub, Wong regressed. His line drive percentage dropped over 5%, and his ground ball percentage rose by 5%. He Pull% dropped from 44.9% to 34.5% from the first to second half. Combined with a BABIP of .278 (far below the 2016 League average of .300), his second half slash line was .238/.292/.322. Far from All-Star numbers.
Entering his age 24 season in 2016, Wong was projected by many to bounce back. He started slow (.239/.329/.306), his playing time eroded, and was demoted to AAA Memphis in July.
At first glance, he only improved marginally after being recalled. He batted .241, only two points better than in the first half. He got on base marginally less (.325 to .329). The improvement came in his slugging percentage, which jumped 125 points to .421. The increase in SLG correlates with an increase in LD%. Wong’s LD% jumped to 22.3%, which is near his LD% for the entire 2015 season.
There are a couple promising trends that have developed over Wong’s brief Major League career. First, his BB% has steadily increased, and his K% has steadily decreased. Second, his BABIP has never been above league average (.300 in 2016). Its often assumed that BABIP is random, but the fact is that higher LD%’s lead to higher BABIP. Nevertheless, Wong is probably due for some BABIP luck in 2017.
The first thing I look at when projecting a player is plate appearances. It can be unpredictable because injuries, regression, or surprisingly good play by teammates (see Jedd Gyorko). In Wong’s case, the Cardinals’ stated desire to give Wong the chance to sink or swim as the every day second-baseman means he’ll probably get more plate appearances than he did in 2016 (361). I slotted Wong for 480 plate appearances.
Next, I took approximately his career average rates of doubles per at bat, triples per at bat, and home runs per fly ball. The next stage of the projection was the most difficult. First, GB%, LD% and FB%. As I discussed above, LD% impacts BABIP more than any other stat. In my system, I project GB% and LD%, and anything left over falls into the line-drive category.
I projected Wong for 43.3 GB%, down from 46% in 2016. I projected his FB% to meet his career averages, 33.4%. While 2.7% increase in LD% may not seem like much, it is impactful because line-drives are almost always hits. Increased LD% and luck (which he is due for) contributed to my projection of a .305 BABIP. Assuming a slight K% regression (15%) and BB% regression (7.3%), we end up with:
What Could Go “Wong”
Contrary to popular opinion, BABIP is not completely random. As Mike Podherzer outline in his book Projecting X 2.0, LD%, Oppo%, and Hard% directly impact BABIP. Wong has the potential to progress in those areas. However, if his BABIP stays at 2016 levels, he ends up slashing only .242/.310/.373. Even though I believe he will see an BABIP increase, if he does not it is unlikely he finishes the season as the Cardinals second-baseman.
In short, we need to see less pull-side ground balls:
And more opposite field line drives:
This is my first projection, so to add a little validity to the numbers I’m throwing at you, I’m linking to the Fangraphs Steamer projections to compare with mine.
With a little progression and luck, Wong could project as an average offensive second baseman with above average defense and speed. His skills could add needed offensive diversity to a team that ranked last in the National League in stolen bases in 2016, and generally relied on the long ball to generate offense. He has been talked about as a possible Gold Glove second baseman, and the Cardinals, and the Cardinals will need him to be sharp in the field to rebound from the abysmal defensive 2016. While he won’t hit 40 homers like Brian Dozier, he has skills the Cardinals lack. Kolten Wong reaching his potential will be a key to the Cardinals improving in 2017.
Thanks as always for reading!