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Kolten Wong should start at second base

With a ground ball staff, the Cardinals need Wong’s glove on the infield more than Jedd Gyorko’s bat.

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St Louis Cardinals Photo Day Photo by Matthew Stockman/Getty Images

The St. Louis Cardinals have logjams everywhere. There is the bullpen, where almost everyone is out of options and Trevor Rosenthal may, at some point, even be a starter. They have three very good shortstops in Aledmys Diaz, Jhonny Peralta, and Greg Garcia (the latter of whom is sorely underappreciated). But Kolten Wong recently made the second base carousel the one to watch after the Cardinals’ manager suggested he should platoon with Jedd Gyorko. GM John Mozeliak said:

"[He] gives you the most sure hands defensively and range, but you also have to balance that with how things are going offensively. There are a few other players in this camp who have swung the bat very well, notably Gyorko and Greg Garcia."

Of course, if the Cardinals based the starting lineup on how spring training is going at the plate, Stephen Piscotty would start the season in AAA. Wong had a bad spring. His .192 average was not great, and his .564 OPS was even worse. It’s understandable that Wong believes determining the Opening day lineup by looking at spring training games is a bunch of hooey.

“I don't really care about spring training. Spring training is about getting ready for the season. If I can figure out how to get my swing where I can consistently know what I'm doing every single time, that's all I care about in spring training.”

The offense

The Cardinals forgot to ask themselves whether Gyorko would actually hit the ball that much better against lefties. The answer is, “Not really.”

The aforementioned platoon would put Wong in the game against righties and Gyorko against lefties. Take a look at Wong’s career splits, and you’ll understand why Matheny thinks that may work.

Wong platoon split

Split BB% K% ISO BABIP AVG OBP SLG wOBA wRC+
Split BB% K% ISO BABIP AVG OBP SLG wOBA wRC+
vs. L 3.0% 17.0% .080 .286 .247 .290 .327 .274 71
vs. R 7.4% 15.3% .134 .276 .248 .314 .383 .305 92
Data via FanGraphs

Admittedly, there’s a much smaller sample size against left-handed pitching, but Wong does more proportionately against righties. He has hit for much more power and walks at a significantly higher rate. Still, his career average against RHP and LHP is nearly identical. Plus, he’s projected to be a better hitter overall in 2017 — FanGraphs’ Depth Charts predict a .260/.325/.400 triple-slash and a 95 wRC+. That improvement would give him a boost against both righties and lefties.

On the face of it, Gyorko’s 118 wRC+ last season makes him much more of a threat at the plate. But that was a career year for him, and he might not repeat it. FanGraphs’ Depth Charts project Gyorko to have a .248/.309/.442 line and a 99 wRC+. That’s not much better than Wong’s projections.

Plus, we have to take into account regression. For his career, Gyorko has a 113 wRC+ against lefties and a 92 wRC+ against righties. However, we can’t assume Gyorko will continue to be that much better against lefties — in 2017, his split could become a bit more normal. Don’t get me wrong, Gyorko can hit southpaws. It’s just that he’ll probably be a little worse against left-handed pitching, and a little better against right-handed pitching.

Is the gap in hitting versus lefties worth a drop in defense? No, that’s probably dumb. When Mo and Matheny imply that Gyorko is so comparatively superior at the plate, it’s evident they’re basing it on a down season and a “meh” spring. They are not looking at how capable Wong has proven himself to be.

The Defense

The Cardinals need Wong on the infield. I know it and Mike Matheny knows it:

“None of us have shied away from the fact that this should be a top-tier defender at second base. And we're never going to back off that and neither should he.”

It seems the team has forgotten about four very important words:

GROUND. BALL. PITCHING. STAFF.

The Cardinals had the highest ground ball rate of any pitching staff last year, and except for Jaime Garcia’s departure, their rotation/bullpen has remained largely unchanged. Wong understands exactly how important that infield defense is, and he knows it’s what keeps him in the lineup:

“On defense, I'm one of the best second basemen in the league. I believe that and I know that. I know there are other guys on this team who haven't hit well. You need time. Everybody works that way.”

For his career, Wong has about as many innings at second base as Gyorko. They have a pretty similar Ultimate Zone Rating, and Wong is far greater when it comes to Defensive Runs Saved.

Wong vs. Gyorko — defense

Player Innings UZR DRS
Player Innings UZR DRS
Gyorko 3,010.2 3.3 -6
Wong 2,912.0 9.0 19
Data via FanGraphs

Gyorko is a utility infielder, and he is very good and has a lot of power. But Wong is a very good second baseman. Sometimes he does a great Brandon Phillips:

The Cardinals repeatedly said they see a way to build the team around Kolten at second base. Plays like that one are the reason why. He is really good and, while heavily biased, I think they should start him on Sunday against Lester and stick with him through April. They need Wong’s range because they are a ground ball pitching staff and Gyorko really isn’t all that much better against lefties.

The second base job should be Wong’s because he is the best defender St. Louis has at that position. But this decision would be a lot easier if he could just hit the ball:

. . .

Audrey Stark is a Contributor at Beyond the Box Score. You can follow her on Twitter @highstarksunday.