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What Kind of Player Should Kolten Wong Be?

I’ve done a couple of interviews the past few days during which the subject of Kolten Wong has come up. There is understandably a lot of excitement over his four home runs and 11 RBI in just seven games with Memphis. In addition, his dabbling in center field offers a potential new solution to an ongoing problem in St. Louis.

His required 10 days to remain in the minors are up on Friday. That coupled with his power production at Memphis has led to a lot of speculation that Wong will be recalled to St. Louis with Jeremy Hazelbaker being returned to Triple-A. (Update: This in fact occurred late Friday morning.)

Given the limited options the Cardinals have, I can understand why Wong could receive the call, but I wish he would be given more time in Triple-A.

Tommy Pham was the man expected to be in the center field mix for St. Louis this season but his career was again interrupted by injury – on Opening Day. Despite a career batting average of well over .300 with Memphis, Pham is hitting a disappointing .226 there this season. No other Triple-A outfielders have stepped forward with their performance, either.

As noted above, what is catching everyone’s attention about Wong’s outburst is his power production. He has as many long balls in his seven games with Memphis as all extra-base hits he amassed over two months with St. Louis this season. Wong has over twice as many RBI in his handful of Memphis outings than he did in 49 games with St. Louis (just five).

But, what kind of player is Wong expected to be?

In January at Winter Warm-Up, Wong proclaimed his desire to lead off. Yet, he has shown nothing this season to indicate he is more than a low-.300 on-base performer. When looking at Matt Carpenter consistently threatening .400, the difference is clear.

Wong seems miscast as a home run hitter, yet there is no denying he was the first Cardinal second baseman to have double-digit home runs in two consecutive seasons since Hall of Famer Frankie Frisch in the 1920s. Still, I was disturbed to learn that Wong and Randal Grichuk have a friendly wager on who can hit the most home runs each season.

On the other side of the coin, Wong’s stolen bases have dropped off from 20 in 2014 to 15 last year and he was on pace for just nine this season before his demotion. One positive, albeit in a small number of games, is that he has raised his walk rate from eight percent with St. Louis to 14% with Memphis.

Wong has been leading off for the Redbirds. Is that just to maximize his number of at-bats or is it a signal as to what kind of player the Cardinals want him to become?

Based on what I think Wong should be and what the Cardinals need, I would prefer to see Wong racking up doubles, triples and stolen bases in Triple-A and keep working on his defense (he hasn’t played center since his freshman year in college) rather than returning to St. Louis with the possible expectation of being a power hitter.

Yes, St. Louis has a need in center field. The Cards are last in the National League in batting average at the position at .204 and are 14th of 15 in CF OBP at .265. Here is the rub, though. The team’s collective performance at second base in 2016 is not much better. Their .232 average is 14th and .315 OBP is 12th – with most of that complied by Wong.

In his support, Wong has stepped up his offense when challenged in the past. He was sent down once before, at the end of April 2014. Upon his return in mid-May, Wong was so hot at the plate that he earned the NL May Rookie of the Month award despite playing with St. Louis for just 2 1/2 weeks.

Still, when all is considered, I would prefer Wong be given more time to settle in as a center fielder and encouraged to focus more on getting on base and stealing bases when there, rather than be given positive reinforcement for hitting home runs.

Otherwise, I fear when Wong is again facing major league pitching, his old habits at the plate may quickly return.

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Brian Walton

Brian Walton runs The Cardinal Nation and The Cardinal Nation Blog, covering the St. Louis Cardinals and minor league system.
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16 Responses to “What Kind of Player Should Kolten Wong Be?”

  1. crdswmn says:

    Here comes another topic on which I imagine we will disagree.

    I didn’t think Wong should have been sent down in the first place, but it didn’t hurt him, so whatever. I think having Wong play CF is dumb, but less dumb than playiing Piscotty there because Wong has more speed than Piscotty so will probably get to a few more balls.

    I would prefer Grichuk play CF, I think this offense can absorb his light hitting. He may come around eventually anyway, at least enough to make him worth playing for his defense. He isn’t going to hit better sitting on the bench. I don’t even like Grichuk that much, never have, but he plays CF better than anyone else except Pham, and if they are going to keep Pham in Memphis, then play Grichuk.

    I get that there are too many infielders, and until somebody gets hurt or there is a trade, somebody has to sit. I would still rather have Wong at 2B than Carpenter, and I would rather have Carpenter somewhere else (1B would be my preference). But there is Moss and Adams who are hitting temporarily (I promise not to get started on how the “hot hand” is predictive of nothing and is therefore, meaningless).

    So we are where we are, and we will continue this musical chairs nonsense for God knows how long.

    • Brian Walton says:

      I chose to focus on what I think is best for Wong within the broader context of what the Cardinals are doing, rather than debate the bigger questions raised in the latter.

      Sure, I would rather see a productive Wong at second and Grichuk in center. But there is less than 60 percent of the season remaining, so I understand why they are looking for other answers. I just worry that a struggling power hitter in Wong will simply replicate the hitting performance of the struggling power hitter Grichuk – with likely poorer defense, as you noted.

      • crdswmn says:

        Well, is Wong being sent the message that he needs to be a power hitter? If he is, then therein lies the problem. If he isn’t, then he needs to be sent the correct message. Grichuk is not struggling because he tries to hit for power, he is a power hitter, he is struggling because he has poor plate discipline and contact ability. That’s not Wong’s problem, Wong’s problem may be in his cranium, and that can be fixed.

        Not every player on the team needs to hit for power, despite what power obsessed fans think. I hope Matheny and Mabry are not trying to turn Wong into a power hitter, that would be bad. He heeds to be what he is.

  2. Nutlaw says:

    I’m all for the move. The Cardinals need to be more than five games over .500 and shouldn’t be trailing the Cubs by nearly ten games ever. They should have their best players on the roster and it didn’t take very long for everyone to figure Hazelbaker out, so this seems to put them in the best position to win games right now.

    I’m not at all worried about Wong playing in the outfield. Compared to the skills required to hit a ball or play the infield, what is there to really know in the outfield, honestly? You get told where to stand. Other than that, you just have to be able to run quickly and catch a baseball. There isn’t that much to it. Non-1B infielders always manage to figure it out.

    The flexibility of having Piscotty, Holliday, Moss, Peralta, Carpenter, Garcia, Gyorko, and Wong ready to man multiple positions is great protection against injury and gives Matheny the flexibility to shape lineups and substitute mid-game effectively.

    Plus, if Wong starts struggling again, just demote him again.

    • JumboShrimp says:

      Thanks Nutlaw!

    • crdswmn says:

      Billy Beane: You don’t know how to play 1st base. Scott…

      Scott Hatteberg: That’s right.

      Billy Beane: It’s not that hard, Scott. Tell him Wash.

      Ron Washington: It’s incredibly hard.

      Billy Beane: Hey, anything worth doing is. And we’re gonna teach you.

    • Brian Walton says:

      Nutlaw, you badly oversimplify the challenges of playing center field in the major leagues. Jim Edmonds has been a commentator on some FS Midwest games this season and has done a nice job explaining how he was totally engaged on defense, following pitch calls with adjustments by type of pitch, making reads, taking routes, deciding where to throw and other aspects of playing the position right. There is no way Wong has gained even a small percentage of that kind of experience in three games.

  3. JumboShrimp says:

    Most interesting topics have no clear it answer and this is one.

    I understand Brian’s sense that wong should spend more time at AAA. This has some merit.

    I advise excising vocabulary like career stats at AAA. Such thoughts may lead us astray. Right now, pham has nothing useful to contribute. I do not know why. I do not need to know why. Until he figures out how to wield his bat effectively again, he can be forgotten. There are small n illusions. There are also larger n illusions, less appreciated.

    Mo and Mike need to focus on right now. We compete pitch to pitch, day to day. We have to ride hot bats. It makes sense from a short run perspective to stick wong out in center. He could help on batting average. We are paying him ML dollars, so he needs to figure out how to earn his salary. It can be bunts or homers, it does not matter. Do something!

    Grichuk can start against southpaws, a more limited role. If he can’t contribute helpfully, try Bader instead.

    Mo needs to channel George Steinbrenner and compete.

    • JumboShrimp says:

      George was crazy and hilarious. But bless his departed soul, he was focused on winning.

    • Brian Walton says:

      More Jumbo mumbo-jumbo.

      Pham has a large body of work at Triple-A, 827 career plate appearances. That is more than enough to establish an understanding of his performance against that level of pitching. Even with his 128 PAs this season included, Pham is a career .303 hitter at Triple-A. His current 2016 mark of .236 at the level stands as a major contrast.

      I have no idea why that is lost on you, nor do I care.

      P.S. Pham has three homers in his last two games.

      • JumboShrimp says:

        If Oham is such a good hitter at AAA, why has his batting average dippeed this year? Maybe he has vision problems again? Or maybe he is post peak and on a downhill slide? We don’t know. At upper levels, it’s all about current results and pham shave been off.

        Nutlaw, mo and I agree that the cards should ride hot bats. Cold bats can go to memphis to regroup like pham is trying to do. We hope Tommy gets things turned around.

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