Wong: ‘This isn’t luck. I’ve been puttng in the work every single day’
MILWAUKEE — Just before entering the visiting team clubhouse on Tuesday afternoon, Kolten Wong gives the door attendant a fist bump.
It’s three hours before the St. Louis Cardinals play the Milwaukee Brewers, and Wong is cool and calm. Laid back, like a true Hawaiian.
He heads to his locker where the No. 16 nameplate hangs. He takes a seat. His first order of business is to string his cleats. The Cardinals second baseman is meticulous in his pregame preparation.
As the Cardinals’ batting practice approaches, Wong is ready to step to the plate. He’s confident. In past years, he might not have been so positive to face live pitching. However, this is a new Wong.
Entering his fifth season in the big leagues, Wong had just a .248 career batting average. But the 26-yearold has enjoyed a breakout year. Wong increased his average to a season-high .315 last weekend, and he heads to a series at San Francisco hitting .305 with a .388 on-base percentage.
The Hilo native hit just .240 last season, so the turnaround has been drastic.
“Just understanding how people are finally pitching me. Understanding the game,” said Wong, sitting in the visiting team’s dugout at Miller Park. “It’s funny, man. I literally have no explanation of why I’m playing the way I am. All I know is it’s not a fluke. The thing is you put in so much work. For me, this is my fourth (full) year of big leagues already, and the past three years have basically been a learning experience. Every single year, it’s been something different.
“To finally see this full year and see how everything kind of came full circle to see everything coming together, it just goes to show that if you put in hard work, eventually things will work their way out.”
Wong came into Tuesday’s game riding a 10-game hitting streak – registering a .390 clip during that stretch — and collecting hits in 18 of 19 games. He followed that up by going 0-for-9 in a two-game set with the Brewers, but there’as no doubt he’s seeing the ball well.
“I’ve obviously matured a lot as a player,” said Wong, who is hitting .353 at Busch Stadium this season. “Last year definitely helped me with that. I’ve learned a lot about myself, I think, and that brings me to a point where I’m at right now. I’ve been telling people this the whole
year, this isn’t a fluke what I’m doing. This isn’t luck. I’ve been putting in the work every single day. I’ve been doing the things I’ve got to do every single day to get to this point.”
Wong’s teammates have certainly seen his rise at the plate over the last couple of months.
“I look at the whole year, he’s been consistent all year, really from opening day until now,” Cardinals infielder Greg Garcia said. “He’s putting the bat on the ball; he’s taking his walks. Now you’ve seen he’s hit a couple home runs, so he’s getting that back, too. He’s a complete player and a complete hitter.”
Rookie shortstop Paul DeJong has enjoyed watching Wong be productive at the plate.
“Kolten, he’s just taking good at-bats,” DeJong said. “I think he’s finally healthy and he’s in there every day and he’s feeling better. He’s just doing his thing. He gets on base. He hits the ball hard. And he’s a good baserunner. He’s just playing really well.”
To become a .300 hitter, Wong has been working diligently with hitting coach John Mabry. He also studies each pitcher he’s going to face and detects their tendencies and has also become very conscious of strike zone recognition.
“Really understanding that if I make the pitcher work and I don’t go up there super aggressive, eventually I’m going to get a pitch I know I’m going to hit,” Wong said. “That’s been my thing the whole year. I’m not really worried about getting to two strikes. I’m just worried about getting a pitch that I know I can drive and hit the ball hard.”
After hitting 12 home runs in 2014 and 11 the following season, Wong dipped down to five last season. This year, Wong has hit just four long balls, three of which have come in the last three weeks.
Wong realized that if he’s going to be a successful big league hitter, smashing home runs isn’t his forte. He has 24 doubles on the year, four shy of his career high for a season, and manager Mike Matheny has started slotting him into the Nos. 5 and 6 slots in the order.
“He obviously has the ability to hit the ball out of the ballpark,” Garcia said. “But I think he knows he’s more of an effective hitter by hitting line drives and maybe toning his swing down a little bit to try to not hit so many home runs and know the home runs are going to come by just barreling up the ball.”
This season hasn’t all positive for Wong. He ended up on the disabled list twice and missed 37 of 43 games from the end of May until mid-July. Wong suffered a left elbow injury and returned for six games before going down with a right triceps strain. He was hitting .278 when he suffered his first injury and went 9-for-20 when he came back briefly. To get injured again was difficult. “Especially the season I was having up until those injuries was really good,” Wong said. “I was getting to that .300 point before those injuries and the injuries came and I had to go through a month or so of being on and off the DL. After that, I knew what I was doing was working and it wasn’t a fluke, and just kept that mindset and knew that if I stayed positive things were going to continue to go on this route.”
Along with his strong season at the plate, Wong has a .978 fielding percentage and has committed nine errors.
Wong always banked on his defense as a major leaguer while trying to pick up his offensive numbers. Now, he feels as though he’s a well-rounded player, though he still would like to get a better read of the ball off the bat, to improve his range.
“I take my defense just as prideful or even more than my offense,” Wong said. “I came up known as a defensive guy and I’ve kind of pride myself on that. When I first got drafted, people really didn’t think I could play defense at all. That kind of left a chip on my shoulder. With offense, I always knew I could hit. It just kind of took a little bit to figure that out as well.”
Said DeJong: “I think it’s just a snowball effect – his defense helping his offense, offense helping his defense.”
Prior to the 2016 season, Wong signed a five-year contract extension through 2020 worth $25.5 million and he helieves his season thus far is validation.
“This is the player the Cardinals saw when they signed him to that extension,” Garcia said. “I’ve watched him play since he was in college, so we knew the kind of talent that he has. He’s a Gold Glove-caliber second baseman and can run the bases well, hits. He’s just a great teammate, great player.”
Last February, the University of Hawaii retired Wong’s No. 14 jersey. Wong couldn’t be at the retirement ceremony since he didn’t get to Hawaii last offseason, but he’s planning to get back home this offseason.
“There’s only three numbers ever retired at UH, never would have thought mine would be one,” Wong said. “But definitely an honor for me. A privilege being a born and raised (a) Hawaii kid. Always idolizing playing at Hawaii one day, and not ever thinking this would happen. It’s definitely an honor, super stoked about it. I can’t wait to go back and see my number hanging up. It’s going to be a really cool and touching experience for me.”
He’s well aware he’s become a trailblazer for Big Island baseball players, and he not only hopes to see minor leaguers such as his brother, Kean, and Kodi Medeiros in the majors soon, he wants to help all Hawaiian athletes achieve their goals.
“There are a lot of guys before me that kind of trailblazed the way for me, so I’m just kind of following in their path,” Wong said. “I’m trying to do what I can to help these kids in Hawaii, showing them this is definitely an option to go down this route and you can chase your dreams from here. It’s been amazing, man. The sport in Hawaii, everybody wants to come watch me play. It’s so cool to know that.
“I love going back to see the people and interact with the kids and let them know that I haven’t changed. I’m still the kid from Hawaii, born and raised. Still love being back there, and I’m not going to be anything different than who I am.”
Entering his fifth season, St. Louis’ Kolten Wong had just a .248 career batting average. But after a hot streak, the 26-year-old second baseman is hitting .305 with a .388 on-base percentage.