The Mariners’ new second baseman is largely a known quantity, going into his tenth year in the majors and his age thirty-two season. He’s a veteran infielder looking to support younger players on his new team. A native Hawaiian playing for a West Coast franchise for the first time. A hitter with dramatic splits, little significant power, and a familiar “D the Z” approach. A two-time Gold Glove with a history of athleticism. The question, then, is not “Who will Kolten Wong be?” but rather “Will Kolten Wong be enough?”.
It’s an unfair question, asked by virtue of the context of his acquisition rather than due to his skill. In that sense, Wong is the very definition of “enough,” with a career wRC+ of exactly 100. No, it’s the bigger picture that begs the question, at the end of an offseason when the Mariners’ greatest need matched perfectly with the spectacular infield Free Agent class, and yet they picked up none of them… during a crucial moment in their window of contention. It’s memory that begs the question, after two decades of too many second base starters with names like “Figgins” and “Ackley” and “Long,” few of which seemed to stick. And it’s the determinedness and potential of Wong’s platoon partner, Dylan Moore, who Kate wrote last month could be a sleeper candidate to walk away with the lone second base job. We’ll only know in retrospect if Wong is enough- enough of a force in the lineup and the infield to get us to late summer in the pennant race, to keep his platoon spot, to make us remember this offseason without a howl and a slumping of shoulders. In the meantime, a few indications of why my money’s on “yes”.
2022 Kolten Wong wasn’t a surprise when it came to batting or mentality. He’s been a low-power, low-strikeout, high-walk player throughout his career, with a noticeable but not meaningful improvement in power after a swing adjustment before the 2021 season. The writers at our sibling Brewers site commented positively on Wong’s offensive 2022, crediting him as “one of the main contributors on offense last season,” with a “career-high 118 OPS+ [... and] especially excelling against right-handers.” He’s a classically-built platoon hitter with gaping splits; just look at ‘em:
No, the mystery of Kolten Wong’s 2022 came in his defense. Wong has been an elite infielder throughout his career, but in the past two seasons, Wong began to make more frequent fielding errors, and not all of them on challenging plays. “What happened?” you might ask, “doesn’t the guy have two Gold Gloves?” (He does).
And you wouldn’t be alone in asking:
Making great plays is great. But there's tremendous value in just not messing up the more normal ones, too.— Mike Petriello (@mike_petriello) September 16, 2022
OK, Wong. Going from an elite defender to this kind of struggle is .. unusual? Here's what's happening:
Wong and the Mariners seem to agree on the answer. Wong chalks it up to two factors, health and footwork:
More Wong: "I just wasn't healthy and able to do the moves I do natural. I wasn't natural last year. I was in some bad positions defensively with my legs, and that led to me not being the defensive guy that I am. That definitely took some sleep away from me."— Todd Rosiak (@Todd_Rosiak) November 8, 2022
First, health: you may have noticed that Wong has never played a full MLB season, missing at least two weeks of every season with injury or down in the minors. Certainly lower body and core injuries can impact a player’s speed, gait, flexibility, stance, and various other factors contributing to their ability to gather a speedy flying or rolling object and then launch it successfully toward a peer, and Wong attributes some of his struggles in 2022 to persistent injury. More of the fault, however, he lays at the foot of his own feet, or rather, his footwork.
Footwork is one (or perhaps two) of the “6 F’s of fielding” at play in infield defense, and a specialty of one Perry Hill, infield coach extraordinaire. The Mariners have indicated that they noticed something in Wong’s fielding mechanics that they think they can resolve, and if anyone can do it, it’s Perry Hill. Wong said at the Mariners Spring Training Media Luncheon that he’s been “begging Perry Hill to come down to Arizona already,” and compared Hill to St. Louis’s defensive coach José Oquendo, who he credits with helping him win his Gold Glove awards.
During said luncheon, Wong also asserted that the shift contributed to his footwork errors: “I feel like I was put in some situations last year where it wasn’t comfortable,” he said, “[... I] got some weird hops, so I’m excited now with no shifts.”
“I like to use my feet [...] I like to be able to understand what foot is important to catch the baseball in.” On several occasions last year, the shift prevented him from being able to “work around [the ball]” in the way he prefers. Could the banning of the shift beginning this season spell a return to defensive form for Wong? It’s at least plausible: Wong’s increased fielding challenges in 2022 coincided with an increase in shifting by the Brewers, who went from a 17.5% shift percent in 2021 to 26.8% in 2022.
I put together a reel of six of Wong’s fielding errors from last year– not to beleaguer him (sorry, Kolten), but so we can use our powers of observation to identify how the shift and Wong’s footwork might contribute to the errors.
I’ve watched them several times and asked the other LL staff for their observations. A couple of our thoughts are listed below, but I’d be very interested to read about what you notice in the comments.
- The first example and fifth examples both have Wong mistiming his steps as he approaches the ball from a 100ish-degree angle. In the first case, his upper body reaches out and forward for the ball while his feet are crossed, and in the latter case, both his body position and his footwork interfere with his ability to field the ball. Each of these clips makes evident the need for footwork to support the rest of a play.
- The second, third, and fifth examples additionally violate another F of fielding, the funnel. In all three cases, his focus and/or facing are poor, and he’s not funneling the ball smoothly into the center of his body to allow for an accurate throw.
In contrast, let’s take a look at some of Wong’s good defensive plays last year. Mostly this is just for fun, though it’s somewhat instructive to note how accurately he can get a throw off when he times his steps or sets his foot position up well.
If these clips ring a bell, it might be because there is another Gold Glove infielder who had a crap defensive year in 2022, and his name is John Paul Crawford. Wong and Crawford are similarly stellar defenders, a comparison Wong made in his statements at the media luncheon; he and J.P. are “the same guy on both sides” of the infield. “I’m not going to hit every day, but I’m going to go first to third,” he said, “I’m going to steal that important bag, make that important defensive play, and I think J.P.’s the same way.” Both players, too, need last year to be an outlier. With similar offensive profiles – on-base guys with good plate discipline and no power – Crawford and Wong rely on their defensive prowess to set them apart. I am optimistic that both players can return to earlier form: both have Gold Glove abilities that haven’t gone anywhere, both have an openness (nay, an eagerness!) to receive coaching and input, and both now have Perry Hill. Crawford calls Hill “the guy who saved my career,” saying that “back in 2019 when I first got traded over here I was kind of all over the place and, you know, he got my feet back under me, and he just made baseball simple again”. With one of his problems being quite literally not getting his feet under him, Kolten Wong may benefit from the same kind of magic.
Wong’s comments about his now-teammate Crawford allude to similarities beyond fielding skills. Both players talk up the grind mentality and frankly have similar vibes. And they’re really good vibes. Listening to Wong speak at the media luncheon made me feel more excited to have him on the Mariners, but more than that they made me more excited about the Mariners. He’s got a way of funneling optimism toward the whole team that I recognize from J.P.’s leadership, and he could be another player who pumps up the team, provided that he integrates well. Imagine: Suarez to Crawford to Wong, vibes to vibes to vibes.
I ask again, then, are vibes enough? Is a second J.P. in the infield enough? Will Kolten Wong be enough for the Mariners?
For my money, if Wong’s got an approach to the game that complements and amplifies Crawford’s, if he’s got athleticism in the field, proves himself a step up offensively from our 2022 second baseman, and provides additional veteran energy to support our young stars, it just might be enough to make a difference. It’s unlikely to be Wong that makes the difference, that bears a world champion team on his back, but behind that one guy are 25 and then 27 more who have to be enough to help him get there.