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Wong is Alright

Artwork by Brian Swope

If you’re like me, you’ve probably said to somebody at some point that the St. Louis Cardinals should trade Kolten Wong. You’re probably over the hype that came with his 2011 first round selection in the draft. It was all hype you might say. I used to say those same things.

Do me a favor, throw out everything you think you know about Kolten Wong. Just for the next few minutes. I know, I know, he got picked off to end a World Series game. He’s been injured and hasn’t lived up to his potential. I get all that. Just trust me here though.

A lot of what we know about Kolten is true, but there’s always more to the story. Following that 2013 World Series loss, Wong lost more than just a game. He lost his mother to cancer that offseason.

Wong talked about that loss in a sit down with the Players Tribune in May 2018. In a heartfelt recounting of the events, Wong shed tears as he told of how much his mother’s passing rocked him to the core.

Losing your mother would be bad enough. Try losing her early to cancer while your career is at its most critical point. Couple that with the pressure of playing for a manager who has been documented as being unable to connect with younger players. Wong was between a rock and a hard place.

Anyone who has watched Wong’s career closely has noticed the disconnect between Wong and former manager Mike Matheny. While Kolten showed flashes of his potential, any time he struggled meant a quick trip right back to the bench. He was never allowed to “play through” his struggles like Matheny allowed some of his other players to do. It was almost like Matheny never forgave him for his WS gaffe.

The loss of his mother to cancer coupled with being unfairly kept in the manager’s doghouse didn’t help. Wong talks about the downward spiral he was in during that sit down. It wasn’t a good place to be and he felt alone.

Things got worse as injuries piled up. Last year it all came to a head and exploded, literally. There was the volcano that erupted and threatened Wong’s entire family. The destruction was widespread and at times Kolten appeared to be carrying the weight of an entire island on his shoulders.

It’s for all of those reasons why, even in a numbers driven game like baseball, numbers don’t always tell the whole story.

The numbers do tell us something interesting about Wong though. He may be a lot better than we think he is. And 2019 might be the year he shows us.

Another thing about Wong is that over the course of his career, any time he has been given consistent playing time and a vote of confidence, he has played very well. A look at last year shows the example perfectly.

Wong’s first half was bad. It was another year under a manager that didn’t show a lot of faith in him. Then something changed. Wong got a new manager, and a renewed commitment and confidence in him. It lit a fire in him and he began to relax and have fun again, exactly what his mom told him to do on her deathbed.

What Kolten did in the second half was amazing. His second half slash line was .317/.384/.439. Wong became an offensive force with a 126 wRC+ in the second half. He didn’t hit for power, but he put a bat on the ball and made things happen.

New manager Mike Shildt put his confidence in his second baseman, and Wong rewarded that confidence.

Had a late season injury not cost Wong some playing time, he likely would have won his first Gold Glove award as well. In fact, he probably should have won it anyway.

Wong is finally overcoming the struggles he has fought so long to defeat.

In Wong’s own words, dealing with everything doesn’t get better, but it does get easier. Wong’s flashy defense and improving offense are certainly making it look easier for him. A lot has gone wrong for Kolten in his young career, but Wong is alright. Look for him to have a big year in 2019.

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