Tuesday, May 19, 2015

Kolten Wong Emerging As One of the League's Best Second Baseman

In 2011, the Cardinals drafted Kolten Wong with the 22nd overall pick in the first round out of the University of Hawaii. Two years later, Wong made his major league debut. He had hit .305 in over 1,200 minor league at bats, but was slow to adapt to the big leagues. In 2014, he won the second base job out of spring training; but had some growing pains along the way.

Last year's walk off home run in Game 2 of the NLCS against the Giants was a defining moment for Wong. Wong had an up and down rookie season in 2014. It included a demotion to the minors, a stint on the disabled list; and ended with a third place finish in the NL Rookie of the Year voting. Wong showed flashes of brilliance during his rookie season, playing outstanding defense at second base, stealing 20 bases, and hitting 12 home runs. Wong's 12 home runs in 2014 were the most for a Cardinals second baseman since Julian Javier hit 14 in 1967.

There was still some work to do on his game after his rookie season. Wong spent the offseason working on his hitting, hoping to improve his on base skills. Wong had been a .305 hitter in the minors. This season, Wong has adapted to big league pitching. He has raised his average to .304 and on base percentage to .355.

So far, Wong has been one of the best second baseman in the National League. Only Dee Gordon has had a better start to 2015. Wong ranks right behind him, and is pushing for a spot on the All Star team. Much has been made about the weak and aging talent pool at second, but Wong is emerging as one of the successors to the dominance that Chase Utley and Brandon Phillips enjoyed at this position for the past decade. Here's how Wong ranks with other top National League second baseman:

Player              Team   AB    R     H  2B  3B  HR  RBI  SB AVG OBP  SLG
K Wong            STL   138   19   42   6    1     5     18    3   .304  .355   .471
D Gordon         MIA   155   24   63  10   2     0     14   12  .406  .430   .497
H Kendrick       LAD  140   21   43  10   1     4     17    2   .307  .370   .479
N Walker          PIT    135   16   37  11   0     2     13   2    .274  .344   .400
B Phillips           CIN   129   17   40   1    0     2     17   5    .310   .355  .364
J Panik              SF     129   14    36  6    2     2     10   1     .279  .354   .403
D LaMahieu      COL  140   21   43   4   2     1     17    3    .322   .376   .417

Besides Gordon, Wong is arguably having the second best season for an NL second baseman. Howie Kendrick is pretty close. Brandon Phillips could sneak his way on the team since the game is in Cincinnati this year, but his numbers aren't quite as good as Wong's. Bruce Bochy will be the NL's manager, so he might be tempted to pick his own player, Joe Panik. DJ LaMahieu plays his home games at Coors Field, which inflates his numbers. The American League has the better crop of second baseman, without a doubt. Here's how Wong stacks up against the AL's best:

Player            Team    AB    R    H    2B  3B  HR  RBI  SB   AVG  OBP  SLG
J Altuve          HOU   158   22   50    9     0    5     24    14   .316   .374   .468
R Cano           SEA    150   18   38   12   0     1     11     1    .253   .294   .353
B Dozier         MIN    144   29   38   10   2     6     19     3    .264   .347   .486
I Kinsler         DET     154   25   49   10   2     0     20    5     .318   .389   .409
J Kipnis          CLE     153   25   51    9   2     4      17    5     .333   .399   .497
D Pedroia      BOS     145   15   40   5    0     5      15    1     .276    .363  .414
D Travis         TOR     133   24   36   10  0     7      26    2    .271    .336   .504

There are several AL second baseman having outstanding seasons; with Jason Kipnis, Jose Altuve, and Ian Kinsler leading the pack. One of them could get squeezed if Robinson Cano or Dustin Pedroia take the fan's vote. In his second full season, Wong has emerged as a top ten second baseman. His numbers rank among the majors best at the position.

Wong will only improve with age and experience. He seems like a player who wants to work on his game to get better. Soon, he might be the best second baseman in the majors. He has that good of an all around game. He has improved his weaknesses from last season, mainly the on base skills. Wong has uncharacteristically made five errors so far this year, but I would consider that to be an aberration. Kolten has shown great range at second base, and makes plays other second baseman can't make.

In his brief major league career, Wong has shown a flair for the dramatic. He has had many clutch hitters, including several walk off home runs. The most memorable was his one against the Giants in the NLCS last year, the only game the Cardinals won in that series. Wong's NLCS walk off home run was only the fourth postseason walk off homer in Cardinals history. The others were Ozzie Smith (1985 NLCS), Jim Edmonds (2004 NLCS), and David Freese (2011 World Series). He also had a walk off home run during an extra innings game vs. the Pirates a few weeks ago. His 8th inning home run against the Tigers put the Cardinal ahead for the win during Sunday night's nationally televised game.

Second base has been a revolving door for the Cardinals for most of the last couple of decades. They've signed veterans like Tony Womack and Mark Grudzielanek to fill in, used utility players like Luis Alicea, Aaron Miles, Daniel Descalso, and Jose Oquendo to play second. They've also converted players from other positions to play second, like Skip Schumaker and Matt Carpenter. Since the team traded away Tommy Herr in 1988, the longest to hold on to the position was Fernando Vina from 2000-03. With Wong, the Cardinals have their starting second baseman for years to come.


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