Disclaimer: I used to drive the "trade Kolten Wong" bus. I had a comfortable seat, mug of hot coffee, and plenty of vocal power to shout about why he wasn't worth the time for St. Louis Cardinals fans. Quietly, unbeknownst to myself as well as others, he was putting up productive seasons as a second baseman.
The thing about Wong has always revolved around expectations. For St. Louis Blues fans, think about the now departed Patrik Berglund. A guy who came up with the team, was saddled with predictions and possibilities, and tossed into the starting lineup as a core piece on a playoff-contending team. Fans wanted the world from Wong right away, but he couldn't even give them a country. Disappointment marked his every step.
The well was poisoned early in the 2013 World Series, where Kolten Wong was picked off first base for the end of a series-turning loss on Busch Stadium's grass. Think about the number of people who watched that game, allowing it to soak into their memories as hardened immovable steel. People at the stadium and around the stadium. The ones watching on television as a 22-year-old kid made a mistake at the worst time.
So, when he slugged 12 home runs, stole 20 bases, and finished third in the rookie of the year race the following season, those same people didn't care. When Wong collected 146 hits, 11 home runs, 28 doubles, and flashed some promising leather at second base in 2015, they still weren't impressed. "Well, if only he would have not gotten picked off against the Red Sox?" A line uttered more than a few times around me.
Over time, I started to believe it. The last two months of the 2015 season, Wong had a bad slump. He played 150 games, so perhaps a worn-down effect took hold. The 2016 season did him no favors, as he hit just .240 with lower power numbers and injuries. I was pleased when Jedd Gyorko showed up to push Wong for playing time, and smiled at the higher dosage of power and versatility that the former Padre displayed. I started to think Wong was expendable and this was after the Cardinals gave him a five year extension that would grow in money with each season.
2017 started to change things for me. Wong only played in 108 games, but the power returned and the average was stronger. Wong's slash line of .285/.376/.412 was the highest of his career, but the on-base percentage was the most impressive. Wong struggled with the need to hit for power and the will to simply reach base. Serious speed was being hampered by the need to swing for the fences. Wong ditched that last year by a considerable amount, and instead got on base. He drew 41 walks and only struck out 60 times, and still found the doubles and triples. However, the defense still wasn't what Wong promised early on in his career.
2018 flipped the table on my Wong perspective. If you are wondering why Wong has a 2.4 WAR according to Baseball Reference, think about how many runs his glove saves at second base. Through 644 innings, Wong has saved the Cardinals 16 runs according to Fangraphs Advanced Fielding sabermetrics. He is helping a defense that is laughable without him on the infield. When Gyorko and Paul DeJong find new ways to mishandle groundballs and Jose Martinez is dancing around first base, Wong is a pitcher's first knight. He can go up the middle or to his left, and he doesn't lose easy grounders these days. His work at second base couldn't more be assured and confident.
Finally, Wong is giving the Cardinals something well above average on a baseball field. It has never been the slugging, average, or the ability to get on base. Career wise, Wong's .698 OPS and 90 OPS+ wouldn't scare many, but his glove and arm at second base can scare up more outs than anyone on the field for the the Cardinals. If he isn't a front runner for the Gold Glove, toss the award out for credibility. It's Wong's to lose.
It would be nice if I could tell you Mike Matheny's firing led to Wong's recovery at the plate in 2018, but it simply doesn't hold up. Armed with an OPS of .613 at the end of June, Wong has slashed .333/.372/.500 since with seven doubles since. After missing time with an injury. Wong has returned and picked up right he left off at the plate.
What changed? It could be nothing. Sometimes, things just take time with certain players. Wong was asked to be more than a few things. Power hitting second baseman, great defender, and a pillar of the future generation of Cardinals, all at the raw age of 22. Time doesn't just heal all, but provides answers that one needs. It's also important to remember that for a relatively cheap price, Wong has produced nearly 10.0 WAR for under $9 million so far in his career. Once again, expectations can make fans blind to what a player can truly offer.
Here's the thing. Wong will never be a superstar, nor will he win the MVP award or play in a ton of All Star games-and that's okay. He doesn't have to be a .300 hitter who cranks 20 home runs to be valuable to the Cardinals. He just needs to provide stellar defense and keep the average around .250 with some occasional pop. If you want more, disappointment will find you. Wong being a perennial 2.0 WAR will do just fine, and it makes him a bargain if you correlate WAR with salary.
Nobody will write home about a .229 batting average with only three stolen bases, but Wong has found a way to take promising defense and turn it into a game-changing weapon. That doesn't make him untouchable in trade talks or put him in the company of divisional rival Javier Baez, but it should convince Cardinals fans that he is better than you think.
For years, Wong was a prisoner to expectations, constantly climbing up a mountain of "you can't please me" Cardinals fans. Finally, at the age of 27 with sufficient starting time, he's proving his worth. On a Cardinals team that needs all the defense it can find, Wong has become a unique asset. A player that is needed.
Hopefully that's good enough for Cardinal Nation.