Cardinal fans stood and gave him a 30 second standing ovation when he stepped up to the plate on 8 April. He almost cried. He deserved the cheers! Although this season he plays for the Brewers, his entire career was with the Cardinals.
His path was less traveled.
My interest in Kolten Wong started when I learned he grew up in Hawaii. At Kamehameha High School, he played football and baseball. He was co-winner of the Hawaii Baseball Player of the Year.
What motivated him? His hope drove him to play better.
“It was like, ‘I hope I can be like that guy, I’m going to kind of mimic what he does, and we’ll see what happens.” — Kolten Wong.
After graduation from High School, the Twins drafted him in the 16th round. Instead, he chose play baseball at the University of Hawaii.
As he matured, what motivated him changed.
“Look at that guy, he’s got nothing more than I do, but he’s doing it. That’s kind of been the thing that keeps me going every single day and that’s constantly driving me to be the best that I can be.” — Kolten Wong
His success in college was stellar. He was an All-American. He became a top-100 prospect by Baseball America, Baseball Prospectus, and MLB.com. In 2011, the Cardinals drafted him in the first round.
An embarrassing play drove him to greatness.
In August 2013, two years after he was drafted, he was called up to the Majors and played in 32 games. The Cardinals made it to the World Series with him on the roster.
An embarrassing play happened. In the bottom of the ninth inning of Game 4 of the World Series, Wong entered the game as a pinch runner on first base. The Cardinals were behind by two runs. With two outs, the Cardinals’ winning chances were down to 4%. The upside was Carlos Beltron at the plate. As is the nature of baseball, the unexpected happened. Kolten Wong was picked off at first base for the final out of the game.
“Wong then dangled a little too far toward second, slipped as he tried to get back and Boston closer Koji Uehara picked him off.” --- Will Sammon and Katie Woo.
In my view some fans overreacted primarily because the winning chances were low and secondarily because Wong was rushed to the Majors. Despite the embarrassing play, in that season’s World Series, Kolten Wong contributed positively to the Cardinals chances as reflected by Baseball Reference’s cWPA of +1.0.
The embarrassing play had two upsides:
- The worst event of his career was over; he would celebrate many successes. He would play in four additional postseasons and find success.
- The tragic play drove him to redeem himself with great achievements.
His latest motivation toward greatness.
The Cardinals declined his 2021 option, making him a free agent. That impressed Kolten Wong for two reasons:
- After college, his entire career (about 10 years) was with the Cardinals. This season he is a Brewer.
- In many ways he was at the top of his game. In 2020 he won awards for his defense at second base.
The upside was that the drive to redeem himself was faded, and now he had a fresh motivation to play his best.
“It’s definitely something that’s going to be in the back of my head every single time I go back and give me that little extra motivation to play a little harder and do a little more, but at the end of the day, I know how to compete with the best of them. I know how to play this game with the best of them. And I’m excited just to go out there and show them what they lost.” — Kolten Wong
He is a successful batter.
Let’s look at how this season’s batting compares to my demarcation lines for an All-Star batter.
- .313 BABIP. It’s very close to my demarcation of .325.
- .343 OBP. It exceeded my demarcation of .340.
- .339 wOBA. It’s a hair width below my demarcation of .345.
- 36.3% Hard Hits. It’s within talking distance of my demarcation of 40%.
- .022 Homers per PA. It was more than half of my demarcation of .038.
Although he exceed only 1 demarcation, he came close to exceeding three additional demarcations. This season, his hitting is nearly at the All-Star level.
In his career, Kolten Wong had five awesome walk-off homers. Perhaps the best was in Game 2 of the 2014 NLCS series against the Giants. His walk-off homer tied the series at one game each.
He has an eagle eye at the plate.
Let’s look at his strikeouts per plate appearance (SO per PA) to get a perspective. He consistently led his team by rarely striking out. His percentages follow:
- 15.2% in 2021 games through 13 June, ranked 1st for Brewers with at least 10 PAs.
- 14.5% in 2020 ranked 2nd for the Cardinals.
- 15.3% in 2019 ranked 2nd for the Cardinals.
- 14.9% in 2018 ranked 3rd for the Cardinals.
His defense at second base is among the best in the Majors.
In each of the last two seasons, he won a Gold Glove for second base defense. In the last three seasons he won the Fielding Bible Award for best defense at second base. The Fielding Bible shows his Defensive Runs Saved (DRS) at second base were as follows:
- 13 DRS in 2018.
- 17 DRS in 2019.
- 5 DRS in 2020.
- 5 DRS in 2021 (games through 13 June). This season, he ranks third in the Majors.
His eagle eyes made him an above-average batter. His defensive awards at second base showed he is a great player.
As he matured, what drove him changed from his hope that he could play well, to his knowing he can play well, to his desire to redeem himself, to showing the Cardinal what they lost. Nevertheless, he knows the importance of having fun and very emotionally enjoys his moments of greatness.