JUPITER, Fla. -- The St. Louis Cardinals will give second baseman Kolten Wong, who agreed to a five-year deal with the team Wednesday morning, a lot of opportunities this spring to see if he can be the team’s leadoff hitter, perhaps as early as Thursday when they open their spring schedule against the Miami Marlins.
“Just see how it looks,” manager Mike Matheny said.
There are advantages to using Wong at the top of the lineup. He might be the fastest player in the everyday lineup. It allows the Cardinals to slide Matt Carpenter, who led the team with 28 home runs last year, into a run-producing spot in the lineup.
Wong is game, but there are reasons for the team to hesitate to use him at leadoff, as well. Wong, 25, saw an average of 3.72 pitches per plate appearance last season, which ranked 95th among 141 qualified hitters. Carpenter saw an average of 4.22 pitches. Only four major-league hitters -- Curtis Granderson, Mike Trout, Joey Votto and Carlos Santana -- were more selective than Carpenter.
Wong’s on-base percentage was .321 last season. Carpenter’s was .365.
Perhaps Wong can become a bit more selective like Carpenter? He vows that that’s the goal this spring.
“I’m definitely going to try to see more pitches and become a different hitter, still understanding that I can be aggressive in certain situations,” Wong said. “For the most part, I need to understand that being a leadoff hitter, you’re setting the table and seeing as many pitches as you can to get your team ready for that pitcher.”
It’s often difficult for players to radically change their approach by the time they reach the major leagues. Established leadoff hitters such as Jose Altuve and Dee Gordon have thrived by abandoning any effort to become more selective. The difference between those guys and Wong is that Altuve and Gordon won batting titles in the past two seasons. Wong is a career .250 hitter.
The Cardinals are OK with Wong trying to evolve, up to a point.
“If he’s taking pitches and he’s sitting 0-2 and he’s striking out, then that’s a bad game plan,” Matheny said. “He’s going to have to stay with his aggressiveness in the zone.”
It’s aggressiveness outside the zone that has hurt Wong at times. He swung at 35.7 percent of pitches outside the strike zone last season, which ranked in the bottom 40 in MLB. But Wong said he is getting more confident working into deep counts by refusing to give too much respect to opposing pitchers.
“When I first came up, facing guys like a [Clayton] Kershaw and a [Zack] Greinke, I was kind of like, ‘Oh my God, look who I’m facing!’ instead of realizing it was just another pitcher," Wong said. “My first year, I had to get that out of my system and realize that in order for me to play at this level, I’ve got to treat these guys like they’re just another pitcher.”