Our recurring list of the twenty-five greatest Cardinals of the last twenty-five years will run daily leading up to Opening Day 2021. In case you missed it, here are the prior entries.
25. Todd Stottlemyre
24. David Freese
23. Andy Benes
22. Lance Lynn
21. Paul DeJong
20. Tommy Pham
19. Darryl Kile
18. Ryan Ludwick
Kolten Wong inspired this entire series.
When Wong signed with the Milwaukee Brewers in February, I wrote about the tale of Kolten Wong’s Cardinals career. I was inspired not because Kolten Wong was an all-time great St. Louis Cardinal, but rather because he was the kind of player who wasn’t good enough to, say, have his number retired, but was good enough to invite well-founded warm and fuzzy feelings about him.
As such, anything I would write about Kolten Wong would be redundant and repetitive to anyone who read that post. But in case you did miss it, you can follow this link. Or read below for a (full-length post long) excerpt. Either way is fine, really.
Kolten Wong has never won an MVP award, nor has he ever come particularly close–he received two tenth place votes in 2019. He has never been an All-Star. He has a shot at making the St. Louis Cardinals Hall of Fame–he did have more Wins Above Replacement in a Cardinals uniform than recent inductees Vince Coleman and John Tudor, after all–but he is merely in the lower reaches of the top one-hundred players in franchise history. His uniform number will certainly not be retired and is as likely as any other currently unused number to be recirculated by the Cardinals in 2021. But that doesn’t mean he isn’t meaningful and it doesn’t mean he wasn’t a lot of fun to watch and follow.
Kolten Wong was the first player drafted by the Cardinals following my college graduation, twenty-second overall out of the University of Hawai’i. The Cardinals had actually drafted Wong’s double-play partner and eventual MLB teammate Greg Garcia in the prior season’s draft. The Brewers could have selected Wong themselves at #12 but instead took Taylor Jungmann, a pitcher out of the University of Texas who had a decent rookie season with the Brewers in 2015 but went to Japan’s Yomiuri Giants in 2018. Fun fact: Wong was born on the same day as Shelby Miller, who was also drafted in the first round by the Cardinals (in 2009, out of high school) and who was also once a member of the Milwaukee Brewers organization (he pitched in the minor leagues in 2019).
Kolten Wong was a decently-regarded prospect–unlike the aforementioned Shelby Miller or Oscar Taveras, or later Dylan Carlson, major outlets never regarded him as a top-ten type of prospect, but he would occasionally inch towards the top 50 and usually find himself in the top 100. 2013 nearly presented Wong an opportunity to ascend to full-time Major Leaguer status, with the second base position open to start the season and with the Cardinals trying a minor-league third baseman to fill the spot, but Matt Carpenter’s emergence as arguably the sport’s best second baseman that year kept Wong in the minor leagues until mid-August.
Wong was given sporadic playing time, due to the struggles of David Freese throughout the season and Carpenter’s ability to shift back to third base, but Wong struggled mightily at the plate. In 62 plate appearances, he had just one extra-base hit (a double) and had a wRC+ of -2. For reference, Ty Wigginton, who struggled so mightily the team outright released him from a two-year contract less than half a year into it, at least managed a wRC+ of 18. Two pitchers, Adam Wainwright and Jake Westbrook, were better hitters. And yet, neither is the moment from 2013 for which Kolten Wong is most remembered.
That Kolten Wong became the first and, to this point, only player in history to be picked off base to end a World Series game, and as a pinch-runner, is an intriguing fun fact, though any misguided notions that he “cost the Cardinals the game”, or the World Series, should be disavowed immediately (well, they should have been disavowed 7 1/2 years ago, and to be fair mostly were). By Win Probability Added, this was only the 15th most significant play of Game 4. The Cardinals’ odds of winning the game stood at just 4%, and even if Carlos Beltran had hit a home run, the game would have been merely tied. Was it a mistake? Yes, and an inexcusable one, given that the only advantage a head start would have provided was to beat a force play at second base. But it should have been forgotten within hours, enough time for manager Mike Matheny to give Wong a lesson about situational awareness and focus on Game 5 the next day to determine the series lead. And instead, a vocal minority continued to hold this mistake against him.
David Freese was traded weeks after the conclusion of the Cardinals’ World Series loss, and it was largely to make room for Kolten Wong in the lineup. If somehow you are reading this and don’t realize how big of a deal David Freese is in St. Louis, he took sixty-seven plate appearances at Busch Stadium as a visiting player and he received a standing ovation before every single one. Even Albert Pujols, who got a raucous reception in his three games back in St. Louis in 2019, probably would’ve eventually settled into polite applause. The hometown postseason hero, even among those who critiqued his declining play in 2013, remained an absolute god, and now the guy who got picked off as a non-tying/winning run to end a World Series game was to replace him.
But Kolten Wong prospered in 2014. He hit 12 home runs and played solid defense and he finished in third in National League Rookie of the Year voting, behind Jacob deGrom and Billy Hamilton. And on October 12, he got the chance to flip the script on any notion of not being able to come through in a big postseason moment, with a walk-off home run against the San Francisco Giants in Game 2 of the NLCS. If you are a Brewers fan reading this and you haven’t immediately fallen in love with the guy whose first reaction to a postseason walk-off home run is to yell at A.J. Pierzynski, a player even Cardinals fans didn’t pretend to like when he was on the team, I’m really not sure what to tell you.
Kolten Wong had a penchant for dramatic home runs–he hit five walk-offs in his Cardinals career (a phenomenon that we most definitely noticed). And Kolten Wong wasn’t a power hitter–the 11 in his rookie season was his career-high. 16% of his career home runs in home games have been walk-offs. Was this a sign that Kolten Wong is supernaturally clutch? Maybe not, and there certainly isn’t enough proof of concept for me to definitively declare he is, but it sure made for a lot of fun.
Kolten Wong made a career of overcoming publicly-known and thoroughly examined adversity. Less than two months after his World Series pick-off, his mother died of cancer. Early in the 2014 season, after some struggles at the plate and manager Mike Matheny’s strident refusal to start him over veteran Mark Ellis (who was struggling rather mightily himself) and Daniel Descalso, he was demoted back to the AAA Memphis Redbirds. He was demoted twice more, in 2016 and 2017, despite a lack of obvious replacement lined up. Despite always being an above-average defensive second baseman, the Cardinals dabbled with Wong in the outfield in 2016, a move that never made any sense from any perspective.
And then, on July 14, 2018, things changed forever for Kolten Wong.
I try to avoid too much discussion of sports psychology because I know nothing about it. I have metrics at my disposal to evaluate player performance, but I don’t have any way to gauage player happiness, so since I can’t, I don’t. But I do know that following the Cardinals’ firing of Mike Matheny, the manager who frequently benched Kolten Wong to a point where the front office had no realistic choice but to demote him, Kolten Wong turned a corner. Through July 14, 2018’s game against the Cincinnati Reds (a game I attended and was every bit as miserable as the box score suggests, except that it also included three hours worth of in-game rain delays), Kolten Wong had a career wRC+ of 91 and was worth 2.46 FanGraphs WAR per 600 plate appearances. Since that day, Kolten Wong has a career wRC+ of 107 and was worth 4.33 FanGraphs WAR per 600 plate appearances. Wong, always a plus fielder, managed to overcome an occasional tendency towards blunders that sapped some of the benefits of his range and became a truly elite second baseman in the field. Since that day, Wong has been a more valuable player than Javier Baez, Jose Altuve, Ozzie Albies, or Gleyber Torres.
Baseball is, fundamentally, a sport of failure. Barry Bonds, Ty Cobb, Babe Ruth, and Ted Williams recorded outs during most of their plate appearances. Aside from a handful of pre and post-World War II era New York Yankees, almost no players have won the World Series most years. Mike Trout, the greatest baseball player of his generation, has never won a playoff game. No player is perfect, and the most truly gripping players as a fan are the ones who are acutely aware of this. Kolten Wong faced trying times and he did not let this destroy him. He didn’t hit the ground running in Major League Baseball, and he worked diligently to improve his game. He adjusted from attempting to become a slugger to becoming content to use his speed to his advantage as more of a slap-hitter.
The numbers tell us Kolten Wong is the eighth-greatest primarily second baseman in St. Louis Cardinals history, and within spitting distance of sixth place. The only definitively superior second basemen were Rogers Hornsby, Frankie Frisch, Red Schoendienst, Miller Huggins, and Tom Herr. But to assign a WAR total to Kolten Wong and declaring this his Cardinals legacy would be…not a “mistake”, but an omission. He was so much more. I’m a little bummed he won’t be a Cardinal anymore, but more than that, I’m bummed he didn’t make more money in free agency. He deserves it.
Have fun with Kolten Wong, Milwaukee. I know we sure did.